Can we realistically expect innovation to happen faster?

It’s a little dated now, but Ross Douthat’s September 27 article “The Cult Deficit” addresses an issue I’ve thought about quite a bit these past few weeks.

Mostly, I liked what he channeled from Peter Thiel, whose new book Zero to One argues that the West has, for the past 40 years, been stuck in a period of economic, technological and cultural malaise. Escaping this plight, he says, is a matter of expanding our intellectual horizons to entertain the thought that (as Douthat summarizes) “there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace.”

My first reaction is that the West hasn’t been stuck in economic/technological/cultural malaise for the past half-century, but rather that we’ve been pretty well engaged in the opposite—a quickly evolving technological and cultural landscape that pushes every ascertainable limit.

I had a brief debate with a Facebook friend about this issue recently. He alleged that we no longer innovate like we did in the first half of the twentieth century—that we’re too content to fiddle around the edges of this or that, hoping to achieve some tiny tweak that marginally boosts our efficiency without doing too much damage to the status quo.

As an example, he recalled how Henry Ford’s Model T allegedly revolutionized transportation. There’s far more difference between a horse and buggy and the Model T, he wrote, than a Model T and a Toyota Prius.

I responded and said he was wrong. Dead wrong. To get specific, I’m not sure the Model T was hardly really much different than a horse and buggy—especially from the perspective of the traveler whose prime concern was saving time and traveling in comfort. The Model T was bouncy, dirty, primitive. A buggy without the horse, in a way. Slower than a horse, actually. A Prius, meanwhile, is a spaceship compared to a horse. It’s quiet, clean, comfortable. It can take you halfway across the country on one tank of gas, and for a tiny fraction of the real cost of a horse and buggy to do the same.

But even if Ford’s Model T was a primitive, dirty, buggy-without-a-horse, Ford did launch a trend in transportation innovation that changed the world within just decades. I think we only see this in retrospect, though, just like I also think the rest of the world will acknowledge only in retrospect those innovators in electric cars as revolutionizing human transportation (some acknowledge them now, of course, but those working on such a goal five or ten years ago are already all but forgotten by us today–their contemporaries). Did Ford’s contemporaries have any idea how big his influence would be?

Innovation is almost always slow. It’s biggest achievers are often known only in retrospect. We too easily forget how different life was just ten years ago—how far today’s innovators are pushing us, despite the illusion, like Peter Thiel’s, that this year’s smartphone is no different than last years, or that people are still dying from cancer, or that cars still run on dirty fossil fuels.

This year’s smartphone might be no different than last year’s, but it’s certainly different than that of just five years ago. People still die from cancer, but we’re also more likely to survive cancer now than we were just ten years ago. And most cars might still run on fossil fuels, but I suspect things will look quite different in another ten years (see graph below).

I do, however, sympathize with Douthat’s concern (this time channeling Mark Lilla) that alternatives to managerial capitalism and social liberalism “are no longer much embraced.” Mainstream punditry is all too content to fiddle around the edges of our social and political systems, afraid to disrupt even a faltering status quo.

But on the other hand, perhaps our insistence on preserving systems of “managerial capitalism and social liberalism” is more scientific than we give ourselves credit for. Economics is a science, after all. Economic laws are discoverable and, by definition, incontrovertible. If managerial capitalism works because it allows economic laws to function to our collective advantage, why should we want or expect things to change? Is it not conceivable that we’ve perfected at least the foundations of our economic and social systems such that any further change can only push us backwards?

We have along way to go, of course, but I don’t think what progress we’ve made isn’t worth defending.

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