The innovation tree, overshadowed in the innovation forest

Cross-Posted at Less Wrong.

Many have pronounced that the era of innovation dead, peace be to its soul. From Tyler Cowen’s decree that we’ve picked all the low hanging fruit of innovation, through Robert Gordon’s idea that further innovation growth is threatened by “six headwinds”, to Gary Karparov’s and Peter Thiel’s theory that risk aversion has stifled innovation, there is no lack of predictions about the end of discovery.

I don’t propose to address the issue with something as practical and useful as actual data. Instead, staying true to my philosophical environment, I propose a thought experiment that hopefully may shed some light. The core idea is that we might be underestimating the impact of innovation because we have so much of it.

Imagine that technological innovation had for some reason stopped around the 1945 – with one exception: the CD and CD player/burner. Fast forwards a few decades, and visualise society. We can imagine a society completely dominated by the CD. We’d have all the usual uses for the CD – music, songs and similar – of course, but also much more.

Without mass television, the CD and radio would become the premier sources of entertainment for everyone. Newspapers would experiment with bundling CDs with their subscriptions, giving high-quality live sound recordings from major events. The walkman culture and all the transformations it brought would instead have been based around the portable CD player. Bosses at large companies would probably get into the habit of recording motivational messages and sending them to all employees. Syndicated columnists would record themselves on CDs to distribute to the fast-paced workers who didn’t have time to be at a radio at a certain time, or who were snobish about high quality audio. Underground movements would stay in contact with smuggled CDs (as would various youth cultures) and families would stay in touch with mailed CD messages. Various corporations would experiments with ways of sending data via CD, maybe by connecting them up to some sort of typing machine. CD-geek movements would learn to interpret the data just by listening, without needing a translation machine. Coded messages would be sent on CDs, and vast amounts of government secrets and mundane data would be stored on it. Many other ideas would no doubt spring up to use this ubiquitous technology – CD contracts, anyone?

Any social transformations of society would be enabled by the CD, or certainly blamed on it (“the anti-Barzil war riots of the 1960s were all the fault of permissive parents and those silver disks!”). Jobs would be lost and new ones created and columnists would enthuse or warn about the technology at length. In 2000, it would be unanimously voted the single most transformative technology of the 20th century. And then when the first proper computers began to be developed in 2001, they would be based initially on CD technology…

Such a transformative impact for what in our world is a rather mundane and obsolete technology! What’s different about our world that relegates the CD to such a low status? Well, we have more innovations. We have colour television, walkmans, VCRs, computers, ipods, mobile phones and many other technologies that overlap with the CD and can take over many of its roles. As a result we judge the CD to be a medium technology not because it isn’t so innovative, but because we have so many other innovations. Thus the more innovations we have, the less transformative each one is.

To really drive this point home, we could go back to our hypothetical CD-only world and remove older innovations like the radio and the telephone. Then the CD would take on more roles and be seen as more more innovative and more transformative than before. But again, we haven’t improved the CD in any way to get this change of perspective: we’ve just chopped down the other innovation trees to allow us to see how innovative the CD truly is. And the CD was chosen almost at random to illustrate the point; a similar picture would emerge if any other technology had been chosen as the “only big innovation since 1945”. They are all very innovative, but they get lost in so many other innovations.

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