I initially read this article passed on by someone I know, on Stock Market watch.com to realize this was extracted from Business Insider and finally from Project Syndicate. But I am not willing to discuss in here the copyright question of web publication and how fast web article can easily be spread. At least not this time. The question of innovation will be more today’s subject as a subject of reflection ignited by the article published at the address below.
I am no expert in linking financial questions with innovations and how both interacted in the past and now – at least not as thoroughly as the experts/authors I got inspiration from. My approach will be more on a sociological and somewhat historical aspects that this article was just briefly overviewing. And as usual, in a rather disorganized manner.
I personally don’t think our current society lacks innovative spirit or some form of drive to discover new things as people were over a century ago with electricity, cinema, telephone and so on. As a matter of fact, the last 50 years have explored the various applications these major discoveries could bring to humans such as car engines, washing machines, televisions, automatic doors, elevators and at a later stage computers which is by no means any less important to the evolution of our society. As one of the comments stated - if anything, our society does not lack innovation but perhaps ‘inventions’ in a broader sense.
The major reason for this is probably the level of inflation that we currently encounter that prevents inventors to dedicate an entire career to the development of inventions beneficial to mankind - the level of comfort and the consumerist society we live in makes that the bear minimum to live is now much higher and therefore more costly than it used to be 150 years ago. Consequently, creative mindsets able to invent have to set this aside as a ‘hobby’ to make sure they can ensure their own survival. Besides, as industry grew, appealing R&D departments have also emerged inviting these creative minds to join them. This obviously creates then a totally different approach to being inventive: owned and financed by private companies, the final goals are consequently tied to financial ROI, business growth and profit expansion.
When looking into R&D funding in the USA for the last 50 years, as the US remain the most generous donators worldwide (http://www.aaas.org/spp/rd/presentations/prindia108.pdf) it is interesting to see that indeed, industrial and private fundings have increased drastically while the government’s help barely keeps up with inflation. We can actually observe a little bump around the 60’s during the race to the moon - a ‘big step for mankind’ to quote Armstrong. Big step indeed - I cannot help but think that this financial boost was essentially driven by pride to send someone to the moon before the USSR which somewhat tarnishes such a generous push from the American government in place back then. Having said that, comparing it to contemporary innovations, I must admit that landing a man on the moon was surely more innovative and a far greater achievement than launching yet another iphone with no other purpose than getting people to buy yet this newer device they don’t need*.
Visiting the Air and Space Museum in DC recently, I actually wondered if the US nowadays without the magical boost of industrial and private funding would be able to reiterate the experience of sending a man on the moon these days. Probably not (or maybe only one-way).
So overall, the envision of 2001, Space Odyssey and other Star Trek movies might be a tad too optimistic in their timelines (between 2001 - of course - and around 2150) to see humanity getting anywhere close enough to an innovation that woud take us to some other alien planet. As a matter of fact, not even from a technologic prospective, but from an ethical point of view: would it be truly fair to put humans in a space ship and have them to procreate to ensure to reach the goal of a mission that could take several generations? Wait, I am being side tracked. I guess I should save this question for another post.
* note to the reader - the author owns an iphone so knows pretty well what she is referring to and does not condemn iphone owners.