Friday, October 7, 2011

The Stagnation of Innovation?

Another great column this morning by David Brooks who wonders whether innovation is stagnating. iPads and the internet are amazing, sure. But where are the flying cars and Martian colonies and cures for cancer (like the pancreatic cancer that killed Steve Jobs) that we were promised?

It's not just a matter of technology, he says, but evolution in the culture. Steve Jobs combined elements of 1960s hippiness, 1970s Silicon Valley nerdiness and corporate America.

The roots of great innovation are never just in the technology itself. They are always in the wider historical context. They require new ways of seeing. As Einstein put it, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

As Brooks says, this stagnation is becoming an increasingly common theme in discussion. Tyler Cowen writes about it in The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will(Eventually) Feel Better.

One additional point Brooks and others make is science fiction has become moribund. It has become about dystopias, not new gee-whiz visions.

Maybe fiction and imagination are very important to creating the cultural resources for progress, or at least as an index of the state of the culture at a point in time. Something like Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake doesn't inspire much hope.

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