Change in Focus of Innovation as a Function of Time and Culture

August 2, 2012 at 3:08 am 2 comments

I don’t usually buy into claims that “This generation is so different than us!  And they’re lacking in this respect…” because the older generation often describes the generations coming along later as different and lesser.  But I’m spending the summer in Oxford, and am seeing cultural differences and historical influences in a different way than I do living at home.  So, I’m a bit more willing to buy into this argument than I might have a few weeks ago.

There are clearly changes in focus of innovation over time, and between cultures.  I’m not convinced that they’re about moving along Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  Some of them are in response to external forces.  The “Greatest Generation” really did amazing things, in response to a real danger at their doorstep.  The early days of computing dealt with much more fundamental and important issues than how to express your “Likes” and posting on Pinterest a picture of your latest meal to the world — but those fundamental issues had to be addressed.  Now there are some answers to the fundamental issues (even if they’re not great answers), so the focus shifts elsewhere.

Maybe the real problem of our current inward-focus in technological innovation is a lack of a big problem, a concern that many share and see that technology can address.  Or maybe the WSJ author quoted below isn’t looking in the right places.  MOOCs do represent a technological focus on the big problem of education at massive scale. Facebook and Twitter aren’t the only new things in technology.

Ideas of progress are shaped by human needs, and broad shifts in those needs have necessarily influenced the course of innovation. The technologies we invent have tended to move up through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, from tools that aid us in safeguarding our bodies to tools that help us to feel peppier, prettier and more special—from tools of survival to tools of the self.

Once our ancestors felt reasonably secure, their ambitions grew and they began to invent technologies of social organization. They created farms and cathedrals and weapons. These were followed, more recently, by technologies of prosperity like the steam engine, the assembly line, and complex systems of communication, power and finance. As our wealth increased, we began to crave technologies of leisure, and soon we had radio, television and myriad mass-produced consumer goods.

Now, finally, our attention has turned inward. Think of Prozac and Viagra and Adderall. Think of cosmetic surgery and of antiaging creams infused with stem cells. Think of Facebook and Twitter and Pinterest. Think of all the other tools we use to indulge our vanity and pursue our desire for self-expression and self-promotion. These are the inventions that we prize today and that our entrepreneurs are motivated to deliver.

via Why Modern Innovation Traffics in Trifles – WSJ.com.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Max Hailperin  |  August 2, 2012 at 8:59 am

    It looks as though my previous comment might have disappeared. I’ll repeat it here along with a second comment I was going to add.

    I recommend Thomas J. Misa’s book, “From Leonardo to the Internet: Technology and Culture from the Renaissance to the Internet.”

    Misa provides a lot of support for the idea that technology’s focus changes. But the periods he study show that there is no simple, linear mapping from the changing foci to Maslow’s hierarchy. For example, he shows that technology in Leonardo’s time was largely focused on courtly entertainments.

    I would also caution of the difficulty of perceiving an era’s focus while it is still the present. (I’m not convinced Misa got it right for his own, slightly earlier, present.) We risk paying attention to those technologies that are jumping up and down saying “look at me, look at me.” That includes Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and yes, MOOCs too. Meanwhile other technologies are content to quietly transform our world from behind the scenes. I can buy a clamshell of mixed baby organic greens any day of the year in my small town in Minnesota. As Amanda Hesser has written, there’s a lot of technology (including information technology) behind those organic greens.

    Reply
  • 2. Mark Miller  |  August 2, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    The author is wrong with respect to the notion that “all problems have been solved.” It might come down to “problems for a certain class of people have been solved.” Problems that stem from the human condition are still with us. That is very clear to me. The popular perception is that, “Yes, but this is just a matter of distribution,” another version of what William Gibson said, “The future is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I think that explains a lot of it, but as Alan Kay, and previously Lewis Mumford have pointed out, just distributing *technology* does not address the issue. The quality of content is lacking.

    Looking at some histories of computing, it seems our society has vacillated between thinking about meanings of artificial mechanisms, and their implications, and desperately applying technology to pressing problems where it’s recognized it can solve it. We seem to do one or the other. We have problems doing both at the same time, and perhaps this gets back to the problem that we really don’t know *how* to distribute the future yet. What we’re witnessing now is the realization of digital media, but we’re making it the “new old thing,” as Kay has pointed out numerous times. Yes, we’re using it for self-affirmation, but people have been doing that in some form for as long as there have been humans. It just become a lot more democratized in the 20th century (even before computers came along).

    Reply

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