There is a common impression that we are living through a period of dramatic innovations. Communication has shrunk the world; mobiles are the Swiss knives of our time; medicine is uncovering the genetic layer of the diseases… But as noted tech writer Nicholas Carr observes not everyone is impressed.
The current accomplishments may pale a bit when compared to the periods in history, which witnessed innovation spurts. Carr lists the new products that materialised in the 10 years between 1876 and 1886: internal combustion engine, light bulb, electric transformer, steam turbine, electric railroad, automobile, telephone, movie camera, phonograph, linotype, roll film, dictaphone, cash register, vaccines, reinforced concrete, flush toilets. Between 1890 and 1950 the world dramatically leapt from horse carriages and steam liners to automobiles and aeroplanes.
In a recent blog post, Carr takes note of the various theories – from limited corporate R &D to crappy education — which try to explain the slackening innovation and offers his own take.
Innovations, he says, respond to human needs; the Stone Age man struggled with survival and hence, fire was invented. Over the long course of history, as humans progressed from fighting for survival to progressively seeking prosperity and entertainment, innovations kept pace. Technology always threw up products to match the corresponding human need – steam engine to accelerate commerce, TV for prosperous couch potatoes.
Humans have now, according to Carr, moved from seeking leisurely pleasure to the development of their individual self or identity. The current crop of innovations – from Facebook to Prozac – are geared to meet these needs. Innovations have climbed a value chain; they now transform not the physical dimension of the world, but the invisible self. They have not slowed, ‘but are smaller in scale, less far-reaching and herald less visible breakthroughs’. Innovators would rather work on the next social network than build a mass transport system, says Carr.