The conversation was spurred by the Jade Rabbit. While that might sound like a bauble from a Dashiell Hammett story, the Jade Rabbit is a Chinese space probe that made the first soft landing of a manmade object on the lunar surface in almost four decades. The Chinese government hailed it as a great accomplishment, and it was a national achievement, for sure. But was the Jade Rabbit innovation? To me, it felt more like, been there, done that.
Some heralded innovations seem like nothing of the sort. For the holidays, I got my son an iPhone 5S. It’s a great phone. But take the “5S” off the logo and what have you got? Or take Jeff, another friend, who writes about new Microsoft technologies and gadgets. He’s been noodling around with the new Surface for weeks. He loves it. I tell him I’ve had an iPad for a couple of years. The Surface? Really?
Innovation was Neil and Buzz making their soft landing on the Moon, my grandfather’s Ford, and the eight-track tape player my parents got me when I was a kid.
Are we facing a glut of copycat inventions and a dearth of original innovation today? Is every new development just a souped-up version of something tried and true? Is every new book, every new song simply a re-imagined version of something that already exists?
In the 19th and 20th centuries, innovation came from tinkerers—look at James Watt’s steam engine and the Wright Brothers’ flyers. In those days, ambitious inventors could change the world. Perhaps that’s a reason the maker movement is making a comeback today and taking a page from the past. Information technology is also enabling today’s makers and tinkerers; and the burgeoning 3-D printing craze may shepherd new thinking and open the minds of those able to reconceive the mousetrap.
The notion of innovation pessimism has elicited many theories and a lot of research, especially among economists who often view technological innovation as a means to an end. Some are convinced that the world’s economic turmoil exists because of a technological famine.
The theories are encapsulated in an interesting essay in the January 2013 issue of The Economist (online at http://econ.st/1cbY8dg). The article points to different perspectives, some optimistic and others deeply pessimistic. One noted pessimist is Robert Gordon, a Northwestern University economist who believes “that there were only a few truly fundamental innovations—the ability to use power on a large scale, to keep houses comfortable regardless of outside temperature, to get from any A to any B, to talk to anyone you need to—and that they have mostly been made. There will be more innovation—but it will not change the way the world works in the way electricity, internal-combustion engines, plumbing, petrochemicals and the telephone have.”
If Gordon is right and innovators continue falling “down, down, down” into the rabbit hole, then at least we should keep in mind the lesson of Alice’s adventures: It’s not about finding the rabbit, but about the things that we’ll learn along the way.