Living in the Age of Meta-Innovation

There is a heated debate about whether or not we are really experiencing accelerating innovation and accelerating returns on technological progress. In my opinion, the nay side of the debate was best articulated by Robert Gordon, who compares modern growth and innovation to the massive improvements that modernization brought to the western world over the course of the 20th century. The mechanization of agricultural brought untold bounties of food, sanitation put toilets in every home, life expectancy increased greatly, and people went from the speed of horse to the speed of sound in the span of just the first half of that century.

And what do we have to show for one and a half decades of the 21st century? The internet went from a novelty to the center of modern commerce, entertainment, social interaction, and thought. Similarly, the smartphone went from non-existent, to an expensive luxury, to almost completely ubiquitous in the space of only a few years. Still, Gordon argues that although these recent innovations seem miraculous to us, they really pale in comparison to the innovations of the 20th century.

Gordon sums up his argument with a question of whether you would trade your toilet for a cell phone? Personally, if I had to keep just one I would probably choose the cell phone (as would the African farmer who has made this choice in real life). Nonetheless, if, for the sake of argument, we accept Gordon’s view that innovation is actually slowing over time there are several reasons why this might actually be true.

Firstly there is the low-hanging fruit argument. Basically, as we innovated in the spaces of medicine, agriculture, and transportation, we were able to achieve large gains in the early years because it took relatively little effort to realize those gains. The first inventions are the most powerful because they solve the biggest problems with the simplest technology.

In the case of transportation, the amount of energy that it takes to go from horse speed to the speed of a train, and then to the speed of a jet liner is more or less a linear relationship within two different paradigms, that of ground and air travel. However, once you get beyond the speed of a jet-liner (~90% of the speed of sound) the incremental cost to increase your speed becomes to high. It starts to take more and more fuel to realize less and less gains. You have entered the era of diminishing returns for technological innovation.

There is actually no argument that single technological paradigms are ruled by this dynamic, where initial gains are much more profitable but are eventually followed by an era where exponential increases in investment are necessary to realize smaller and smaller gains. I have actually used the example of 3D gaming to explain this law of diminishing returns in a previous post. Suffice it to say that the fact that exponential gains in single isolated technologies cannot go on forever could be an explanation for why we might actually be seeing a slow down in innovation into the 21st century. 

Another intriguing explanation of Gordon’s hypothetical innovation slow down could be that the majority of innovations of the 21st century were actually meta-innovations. Perhaps inventions like the internet and smartphones are not most important in their direct ability to change human lives, but rather in they are most important for their ability to empower innovation itself.

In the 20th century, we saw a great advancement in concrete metrics of human progress. Innovation delivered more food, more cars, more speed, more health etc… but the way that these innovations were realized remained much the same. Schools (especially Universities) actually looked about the same in 1900 as they did in 2000. Similarly, academic research was performed and published in much the same way over the entire 20th century. This is absolutely not the case in the 21st century.

Although the changes started in the mid to late 1990’s, one can actually almost draw a line through the year 2000 as the start of the internet era of scientific research. In the world of laboratory research, we often wax poetic about how much time researchers used to spend in the libraries doing the research.

A typical conversation might go something like this: So you used to have to actually physically go to a library to research your topic of interest? You would have to browse through entire journals with no Ctrl+F? Even then you would be looking at work that was months to years old…. wow, that sounds awful.

Compare this instead to the world I scientifically grew up in. I use Google Scholar to get daily updates on the most recent work in my given field. I also benefit from other forms of instant communication for scientific gain, like email. And as maligned as powerpoint often is, it is still an incredibly revolutionary tool for communicating my most recent research to colleagues on a more frequent basis than peer-reviewed publication allows. The speed of scientific research in the 21st century is not comparable to what existed before the year 2000.

As important as it has been for academic research though, the internet has been just as revolutionary for every other aspect of life too. The internet is the archetype of meta-innovation. 

This very blog being a perfect example. When I have a crazy idea which I feel compelled to write about in 2014, people around the world could be reading about it and discussing it minutes later. To be honest, I am not really sure how this would have happened in the 20th century, but I guess I would have had to send a letter to some sort of magazine or something (or more likely I probably just would not have written at all). The barriers that used to slow the movement of ideas have been dissolved by the internet so completely I don’t even know remember how the world worked before it.

This tendency towards increasingly transformative meta-innovation does not seem to be decreasing either. Technologies like the massive-open online course, 3D-printing, cryptocurrencies, and machine learning all stand to be as meta-revolutionary as the internet. To return to my favorite example of late, the proliferation of forms of crytocurrency might seem to the cynic to be driven mostly by people trying to profit on hype, but I see something much deeper at work. Cryptocurrencies have created an entirely new space for ideas about currencies, value, exchange, and trust. Cryptocurrencies allow us to ask fundamental questions about what is value, and how an ideal market should operate.

Cryptocurrencies (just like the internet and general-purpose computers) are a meta-innovation.  

The ultimate meta-innovation will come in the form of a computer which can program itself. It has been said that an artificial intelligence which innovates to improve itself will be the final invention of human kind. In the world of IBM Watson, I am no longer convinced that the self improving computer is only a far-off dream of science fiction.

In 2014, we a living in an age when the importance of new technologies does not lie only in its change our lives, but in its ability to change change itself. So if Robert Gordon is right (although I’m still not convinced he is) and we really are seeing a slow down in the rate of innovation in the 21st century, then maybe it is not only because all of the easy inventions have been invented. Perhaps we are simply living in the middle-ages of innovation, a time where we are investing our innovation capacity in the future of the future. Perhaps we are living in the age of meta-innovation. 


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