Slowing Rate of Change and Tech Innovation

"We flatter ourselves by imagining that we live in an age of endless invention and innovation," says Paul Kedrosky. A classic approach is applying Moore's Law to…everything, and then leaping to claims about unprecedented change in society more generally. I'm reading a number of commentators call bullshit. They are arguing that the number of new important innovations has been steadily declining and that the pace of change is slowing.

Here's Philip Longman in U.S. News & World Report:

There is a distinction to be made between inventions that are merely sophisticated–such as, say, personal digital assistants–and those that fundamentally alter the human condition. The invention of the light bulb created more useful hours in each day for virtually every human being. The electric motor directly raised the productivity in every sphere of life, from speeding up assembly lines to creating so many labor-saving devices in the home that millions of housewives were able to join the paid work force. The internal combustion engine allowed for mass, high-speed transportation of both people and freight while also opening up vast regions of cheap land to suburban development. The materials revolution that brought us petroleum refining, synthetic chemicals, and pharmaceuticals involved learning to rearrange molecules in ways that made raw materials fundamentally more valuable. Without the genetically improved seeds that brought us the "Green Revolution" of the late 1960s and '70s, there would be mass starvation.

Can we make any parallel claim about the single greatest technology of our own time? It remains possible that networked computers and other new information technologies will one day create similar, societywide bursts in productivity, health, and wealth. Yet to date, the marginal gains computers have brought to communications are modest even compared with the improvements made by the telegraph. The first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866 reduced the time required to send a message from New York to London from about a week to a few minutes. Notes economist Alan Blinder: "No modern IT innovation has, or I dare say will, come close to such a gain!"

Here's Scott Sumner with a personal observation in a post about economic growth rates:

My grandmother died at age 79 on the very week they landed on the moon. I believe that when she was young she lived in a small town or farm in Wisconsin. There was probably no indoor plumbing, car, home appliances, TV, radio, electric lights, telephone, etc. Her life saw more change than any other generation in world history, before or since. I’m already almost 55, and by comparison have seen only trivial changes during my life. That’s not to say I haven’t seen significant changes, but relative to my grandma, my life has been fairly static. Even when I was a small boy we had a car, indoor plumbing, appliances, telephone, TV, modern medicine, and occasional trips in airplanes.

Michael Lind makes similar points in his Time magazine piece called "The Boring Age."

Here's Peter Thiel:

The question about what sorts of innovations we are likely to see in the next 10 or 20 years depends a great deal on what people do. The pessimistic view is that we are living in a society that depends on innovation and science and technology, but that is actually not focusing on these things nearly enough and that as a result, we are headed towards an extended period of stagnation and very slow growth throughout all the nations of the developed world.

The more optimistic view is that we somehow figure out a way to restart the innovative engine that's probably gotten stalled. And my version of this would be that we go back to where the '50's and '60's ended and look back at the great technologies people were pursuing at the time; space, robots, artificial intelligence, the next generation of biotechnology and sort of look at where people thought the future of the world was going to be in 1968 and we try to take off from where things got detoured at that time.

Here's a different 10 min video of Peter Thiel in which he talks about the lack of innovation in the context of financial markets. There is an attitude that "someone else is doing it" but in fact no one is doing it. "There is a lot less going on than people think," he says.

So: Why is this happening?

Tyler Cowen once said, "If we had to build today's energy infrastructure working under the current regulatory and NIMBY burden, it probably could not be done." Can we extract from this a larger claim that a bloated government and burdensome regulatory environment are significantly dampening innovation? An ever-powerful bureaucratic class strangling creativity? Or is it that the government is not doing enough in funding basic research toward big innovation (as it did with Darpa and space program of the past)? Are there cultural norms around conformity that are causing too many to be too deferential to the status quo? Are too many smart young people going to school? (In the past boy-geniuses had more unconventional educations which helped lead to extreme innovation, perhaps.) What are other reasons?

One counter-argument to all of the above is that there is indeed accelerating change and new innovation, it's just that we don't yet see it. As David Dalrymple said to me in a tweet, "The exponential trend only applies directly to enabling technologies, not to technologically-enabled milestones like flight."

(thanks to Michael Vassar for helping brainstorm some of these ideas.)

34 Responses to Slowing Rate of Change and Tech Innovation

  1. Ross Hill says:

    The change is accelerating and also becoming subtler – it seems like many of those statements expect the new stuff to look like the old stuff. I doubt that’s the case!

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    What are examples of the change accelerating? Where has it manifest?

  3. Ross Hudgens says:

    I was reading a piece by Paul Graham today on how we will look back at web design and software and realize how horrible we had it. I think we see rapidly accelerating change, but it’s not as visible in the everyday, where we have reached a plateau of innovation.

    With the internet and computers, things are largely fresh, so to look at experience that way, innovation is rapid and still has a long tail to encapsulate.

  4. Ross Hudgens says:

    Also, something to posit as a comparison is the “lightbulb” idea may seem like a huge invention, and it was, but the difference between now and then is we now have a constant influx of thousands of minor inventions, which have improved our lives even past what a car or lightbulb has.

  5. Ilana says:

    As we push this planet’s limits with a combination of high rate of consumption per person and high population, barring a move to a new rock in the universe, we might expect that the coming innovations will have to be reverse innovations – finding new efficiencies in old technologies and simplifying systems.

  6. Eric says:

    We stopped competing heavily with Russia over that time. When we started winning the Cold War, there was less reason to push for more innovation. We haven’t had a great geopolitical competitor until now really with China. The past 20 years the U.S. has reigned supreme and we sat on our laurels? A little grandiose perhaps but you get my point.

    Where does this fall in line with your thought? I know you tend on the optimistic side of things with your praise of our cultural sauce of innovation.

  7. I have a feeling that the next big leap will occur in the form of a bio-tech revolution. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s frame from The Black Swan comes to mind here. In short, history is punctuated by splintering leaps with some marginal vibrations in between. We may just be looking for innovation in the wrong places.

  8. Ben Casnocha says:

    I agree re: lacking a sputnik.

    I think we have a cultural sauce around entrepreneurship and the U.S. does lead the world in terms of innovation. This is a global slowdown of innovation.

  9. Mthson says:

    Are we seeing an unprecedented amount of wealth/technology devoted to recreation?

    The internet is enormously useful for intellectuals and for most industries, but by volume of hours and volume of data, it’s mostly used for recreational and convenience purposes (Facebook, Youtube, porn, music distribution, WoW, instant messaging, video-chat, Google Maps, etc.).

  10. Mthson says:

    If we measure progress by how much it increases the productivity of the sliver of humankind who are geniuses/hyperintellectuals (like Peter Thiel, Thomas Jefferson, and present company, of course) the current age seems to fare well.

    Motivated intellectuals today can basically drop out of school in their mid teens or before and start teaching themselves what’s important for them to know.

    It’s easier today to be a hyperintellectual than ever before, so we might expect their proportion of society to be increasing, but the segments who are reproducing rapidly are the opposite of hyperintellectuals, and it’s been that way for some time.

  11. Scott Young says:

    Perhaps I can only speak from my experience (then again, most of your citations for the supposed lack of modern change are anecdotal) but I find the argument that change is slowing to be weak.

    Obviously, advances are not going to be applied in all areas equally. Change will slow in some fields as it accelerates in others.

    I just can’t imagine that things such as Google, cellphones or the internet don’t count, particularly when they have transformed how we communicate in under two decades.

  12. Krishna says:

    What those authors overlook is the “high base effect” of our times. They have referred to periods before oil refining, telegraph and the like and certainly the low base effect made them look dramatic. I am not sure they can use the same metric to measure the upshot of modern innovation like ATM machines, internet and cell phones. Today sitting here in Mumbai, India I can analyze the financials of a Google, Microsoft or IBM from their SEC filings and make an informed opinion whether their stock is overpriced or underpriced and accordingly structure a deal to swap stock or cash or make it all stock or all cash. Tell me, does it compare badly with a telegraph or oil refining…? Naaahhhh….!!!

  13. Ben Casnocha says:

    The internet is big but it's really the only thing that leaps to mind. Even
    the internet doesn't seem as big a change as internal combustion engine,
    electric motor, etc.

    You say it slows in some fields as it accelerates in others — I would ask
    where has it accelerated, and net net is it slowing or accelerating….

  14. Chris Yeh says:

    The Internet is bigger than any of these other inventions, but its effects are subtler (and colored by the massive popularity of porn, Facebook, etc.).

    When I was growing up, I had two choices for getting “news”. I could read the newspaper each morning (which I did) and I could watch either network or local news on VHF (channels 2-13, for those who remember when TVs had dials).

    If I wanted to get a book, I had to convince my mom to drive me to the bookstore or the library.

    When I wanted to communicate with someone, I could use the rotary dial telephone or write a physical letter. Calling someone long distance was an unheard-of luxury.

    The only people I knew outside of my home town were our relatives.

    Now consider the world today.

    I can always access the latest news. I don’t even need to go to a computer, since my phone provides a conduit to the world.

    I can access pretty much any publication in the world for free online. My television has 1,000 channels, and the entire world’s collection of video is available online.

    When I want a book, I can order it and instantly start reading it on a handheld computer. And more books than in the Library of Alexandria are available for free.

    I can talk with anyone in the world at practically zero cost. For example, I have a certain friend who is spending some time in Chile–in my youth, I would have to rely on receiving physical letters via airmail to stay in touch!

    I have instant access to the thoughts and life events of hundreds or even thousands of people, and vice versa. I know people from places all over the world.

    In terms of access to information, interconnectivity, and the ability to publish to a global audience, I would argue that the Internet is every bit as transformative as the electric lightbulb or internal combustion engine.

  15. The following article makes some interesting points regarding current trends in innovation:

    link to broadstuff.com

    The piece suggests risk aversion, short termism, and IPR/patent blockages in OECD countries as major factors disrupting innovation.

  16. In my 10 years as an organic chemist I’ve seen tremendous advances in productivity, but not necessarily in the number of fundamental breakthroughs. The biggest gain in efficiency came with online database searching and access to archived literature going back to the 1800s. People used to spend entire days in the library hunting things down through the old paper Chemical Abstracts. Now, it’s nearly instantaneous. Ideas spread extremely quickly. Best practices get standardized – internationally – so the inherent advantage of a place like MIT or Harvard is less than it was. The “me-toos” follow more quickly than ever.
    One way the increased productivity has manifested itself is in “chunking” of accomplishments. It used to be a big deal to synthesize one natural product. Now, people go after several members of a product class all at once. Syntheses continue to become more streamlined. The last really BIG thing to hit the field was organocatalysis, back in 2001 or so. Since then there’s been a metric ton of papers, but mostly incremental advances. If you say it’s a mature field, however, some people will go after you.

  17. DaveJ says:

    Another example of people trying to turn anecdotes into data. A smattering of narrow statistics tells us nothing. To have a coherent discussion of this, there needs to be a discussion of how we *measure* the pace of technological progress. Unless we agree on that then there is no real discussion. One can disagree with the way Kurzweil and others do it, but one ought to also propose another option in that case.

  18. Ben Casnocha says:

    The simplest way to measure the pace of technological progress is to simply
    look around at how you live your life and see how technology has changed it
    over time. That's the value of those anecdotes.

    It's hardly perfect or scientific, but nor is it without value.

  19. DaveJ says:

    Better to say “assess” rather than “measure.” The anecdotes are potentially interesting and valuable, but within the context of making a claim such as “the pace has slowed” they are too subjective to have any real argumentative weight. The comments above illustrate that subjectivity and the absence of a common metric.

  20. Kevin Cassidy says:

    Two points regarding the internet versus internal combustion and the argument of “rate of innovation”: arguably, nothing EVER has had the affect that the combustion engine has. To say that we haven’t had a technological breakthrough of that magnitude since isn’t really fair. The second point is that the speed of uptake was much faster with the internet. Via wikipedia, the engine was patented in 1878 – when would you say it was in general use – 1940? (maybe worthy of it’s own post). Anyway, the internet went from “Did you hear what the DoD came up with?” to “What’s the weather going to be today, I’d like to know in 4.3 seconds while walking to my car” in under 25 years.

    However, I will grant that I’ve often thought that people born 1900-1910 have had the greatest life-change of any generation in history.

  21. Mar says:

    Isn’t the HLC change? It’s just hard to build it in your backyard.

    To refine the statemanet “The practical amount of change is slowing down.”

    Or is there even a rate?

    Before your grandmother had all her modern conviences, how long did people live in plain wooden shacks? Nearly forever. Couldn’t we say that we simply had one burst of change, a big spike, and now we’re returning to our no or very little chage way of life?

  22. rhett says:

    Venter creates synthetic life
    3-D printers
    robots fighting wars, cleaning houses
    genetic treatment of disease
    GMO food
    artifical intellects handling customer interaction
    computers doing original science and mathematics
    Yannus and microlending
    commercially useful nanotech
    space tourism

    Sure there is too much bureaucratic inertia but there is also so much change that it is harder to notice, esp. in 1st world.

  23. Nicholas MacDonald says:

    There seems to be a kind of punctuated equilibrium here. Compare the changes seen in 1980-1995 with the changes seen in 1995-2010, and progress in the latter of the two fifteen-year periods is much, much more apparent. However, many of the technologies that became ubiquitous in the latter period are refinements of ones which were developed- in a lab, in a garage, or in limited commercial deployment- during the earlier period.

    Now, look at everything going on “in the lab” today… and you might have some idea of what the next twenty years promise.

    “Innovation” is only one part of the game. Universal application is an even bigger part. The Internet existed in 1990- but how much more useful is it in 2010? Cell phones existed in 1990- how much more useful are they in 2010?

    William Gibson put it best- “The future is here. It just isn’t widely distributed yet.”

  24. Before there were personal computers I had hoped that by now I would be writing, at least occasionally, in my capacity as the latest Magister Ludi from a Cloud Nine tensegrity sphere, instructing my fellow players in the finer points of the Glass Bead Game.

    Having discovered in the interim between a teenage initiation to ergotoid mysteries and the Flatland world of the present that “science, data, and reason” can not be defended from the law and concrete domes aren’t airborne (yet), I recall that the Bee Gees said it very well about Thomas Edison before they discoed out and got really big.

    Edison’s inventions changed the world more than the innovations of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and all the geniuses of Silicon Valley.

    If you want to transcend the ego’s constraints and fire up the old synapses, I say join the loonies at Burning Man, get naked, and smoke some toad venom.

    That’s what the real innovators are doing.;-)

  25. James says:

    Ben, I’m sorry but this is laughable. A global slowdown of innovation?

    Pick an industry. Medicine? Would you rather be a Billionaire in 1970 (or even 1990) with cancer/AIDS/myriad other “death sentences” or a middle class citizen today? You don’t call that innovation?

    Personal computers only brought “incremental” shifts in the way we do business for a few years, and then we figured out how to use them. Our entire economy has shifted as a result. What once took 10 people now takes 0 people because it’s automated.

    The internet isn’t an innovation? Seriously? What aspect of your life hasn’t it fundamentally altered? Research? Shopping? Communication? Medical Diagnoses?

    I could go on and on.

    We’ll someday look back at this very moment and realize that the shifts caused by the development of ubiquitous computers and the internet served as the foundation for the unthinkable. It will be more dramatic than the widespread introduction of electricity.

    By the way, I can’t help but laugh at the descriptions of the lack of indoor plumbing or other such “luxuries” in the 1900’s. That’s innovation? They had plumbing, for sewage, cold, and HOT water, 3000 FUCKING YEARS AGO!

  26. Recharddo says:

    Everything will change from past to present, the development of science, technology, internet, transportation to homes, luxury villas ….. It is the economic development involves the development of the transport industry as high-speed train …. etc.. When the country is developing human life is also increased and many social problems begin to appear. That is the inevitable consequence of this problem.

  27. I have to agree. At best this conversation is Malthusian, at worst, it smacks of “good ole days” thinking.

    One other thought: is innovation best driven from the top down, or the bottom up? I think the answer a person gives to this (trick) question explains a lot about their thinking.

    Dan

  28. Robert Gilmore says:

    It seems to me that the main point here is that innovation has slowed in a relative way over the past 30 years or so as opposed to that innovation that occurred during the period from roughly 1800 to 1980. I believe that this is true and that lack of advancements in basic science, especially in the realm of Physics has been the root cause. Physicists at CERN just celebrated the sighting of a particle that resembles the long sought Higgs Boson in their new (only recently put into service) Large Hadron Super Collider. This is exciting news because, if what was seen is a Higgs Boson, it helps to confirm the validity of theStandard Model of Particle Physics. However, the Standard Model of Particle Physics came out a refocus on particles in Physics research after the field theories of Faraday, Maxwell and Einstein could not be generalized to a point where all of what eventually came to be known as the the basic forces in nature (Weak Nuclear, Strong Nuclear, Elecromagnetic and Gravitational) could be explained by a Grand Unified Field Theory. Fields, waves and particles are all different ways of viewing the natural world, fields work better for describing nature on large scales (Forces of Gravity and Electromagnetism) and waves and particles work better for describing nature on small scales (Weak and Strong Nuclear forces). Essentially, the problem comes down to one of logical analysis. Do we work with inductive reasoning to reconcile all the disparate views of nature eventually after gathering a Standard Model here and a String Theory (which at this point is mathematical gymnastics more than proved science) there, or do we do what Einstein wanted to do and find an all inclusive, provable theory that explains everything. My view is that the reason that innovation seems to be slowing is that this logical dilemma has not been resolved satisfactorily. Because of this lack of resolution, there is doubt among those who invest money in new technologies about the ability of science to take us to new levels of understanding about the natural world that will allow a reasonable level of certainty regarding the efficacy of any particular proposed technology based on that understanding. As a consequence, most innovation represents new applications or minor improvements of old technology based on established science that is over 30 years old at this point. This problem will not be solved until we get some game changing, provable Physics done. Such new developments in Physics will undoubtedly have spin off effects in basic Chemistry and Biology and technological reward will be reaped from advances in those sciences as well. I wish us all luck.

    • Jay says:

      I have to disagree with Mr. Gilmore here. Most tech investors that I’ve met (and I’ve been intimately involved with 4-8 tech startups, for various definitions of “intimately”) don’t care at all about string theory or the standard model. What does trouble them is when the expensive, shiny new stuff turns out to have worse performance characteristics than the ordinary off-the-shelf stuff, and I’ve seen that happen with five tech startups. That’s what has gotten me laid off, time and again.

  29. Jay says:

    I spent ~20 years in research, and I basically agree with the above article. I would add that the cause of the slowdown probably isn’t cultural. If it was, some culture on earth would probably be getting it right. My best guess is that we’re past the point of diminishing returns for engineering itself. In other words, most of our productive systems are already pretty efficient, and it’s taking more and more engineering effort to achieve smaller and smaller increases in productivity.

  30. william casey wesley says:

    Consider; If your an inventor working for a corporation you sign nondisclosure agreements that basically give the corporation exclusive rights to ALL your ideas, which you are not allowed to market on your own. Most corporations only produce a few items in one or two general areas. If you invent something outside your employers area of interest you are not allowed to market it. This means most of your ideas get mothballed, say a probable 90%. Most corporations lose money if inventions they have not anticipated reach market, they have a vested interest in slowing down the pace of change. If you get a pay check to invent what you are told to invent when you are told to invent it by “market annalists” and you can’t market any of your own innovations then why innovate? If from the time you enter school you are treated like a servant how do you you think like a leader? If the products that are invented are invented because they are of utility to the financial status of the 1% how will real benefit to the 99% be a top concern? If established corporate policy has removed the opportunity for profit as motive , the opportunity for leadership as motive and the opportunity to do social good as motive what is left? An uninspired employee. Now you have your answer. How is this fixed? Stop enslaving creative people by baring them from obtaining and selling patents on their own ideas, stop brutalizing creative people by forcing them to do the educational institutions bidding, and stop hustling inventors to concentrate on the course advantageous to the 1% irre4spective of the 99%. Freedom from protectionist fear fosters innovation, fear of freedoms risks fosters stagnation, The leaders have become cowards and that has caused innovation in any real sense to decline, a new crop of brave leaders might yet turn it around.

  31. Emma Grace says:

    We have entered the era of rapid change and innovation, today nothing stays in the market even for a while and something new with greater innovation stands before us almost every day. Businesses are growing rapidly due to the innovative cloud based time clocks, and similar is the case with every other walk of life.

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