Innovation Starvation

Stephenson-Neal-bgNeal Stephenson is an American writer mainly known for his works of speculative fiction. In Oct 2011, he wrote an article, “Innovation Starvation“, very much in line to Tyler Cohen’s “The Great Stagnation”, Peter Thiel’s “The End of the Future” and Robert Gordon’s “Is US economic growth over?”, putting forward the idea that we might have entered a period of technological stagnation. The idea is controversial, and difficult to put to test due to the intrinsic difficulty of measuring innovation and the long periods of time required to do it properly. Some paragraphs in the article are a vivid description of some despairing present-day situations you could have witnessed working in corporations or academia:

A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions. What if that person in the corner hadn’t been able to do a Google search?

His conclusion is clear:

In a world where decision-makers are so close to being omniscient, it’s easy to see risk as a quaint artefact of a primitive and dangerous past (…) Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age

However, Neal is not an outright pessimistic. He calls for a return to inspiration in contemporary science fiction. Good Science Fiction supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. And a good Science Fiction universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Neal is the main provocateur behind Hieroglyph, a project from Arizona State University’s Center for Science pioneering new methods of collaboration between the storytellers who dream our future and the scientists and engineers who can build it:

Researchers and engineers have found themselves concentrating on more and more narrowly focused topics as science and technology have become more complex. A large technology company or lab might employ hundreds or thousands of persons, each of whom can address only a thin slice of the overall problem. Communication among them can become a mare’s nest of email threads and Powerpoints. The fondness that many such people have for SF reflects, in part, the usefulness of an over-arching narrative that supplies them and their colleagues with a shared vision. Coordinating their efforts through a command-and-control management system is a little like trying to run a modern economy out of a Politburo. Letting them work toward an agreed-on goal is something more like a free and largely self-coordinated market of ideas.


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