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An Era Hostile to Innovation

Posted in Technology

140 characters instead of flying cars. Peter Thiel quipped this back in 2011, succinctly and pointedly describing the state of technological progress in the 21st century. It’s damning our modern tendencies to seek incremental improvements over grandiose new ideas, innovations which live up to the massive changes brought on by technology in the past 140 years. And while it’s still true that people today enjoy a quality of life better than anyone had in the past, the pace of improvement has seemingly decelerated, with no clear sign of when the next piece of bold technology — be it autonomous cars, virtual reality, or AI-everything — will bring on a major global shift in human behavior.

What changed?

One major difference is in government spending, particularly in rich western countries. Whereas the Cold War and the World Wars brought new scientific achievements out of the necessity of defeating equally-resourced rivals, both the steady decrease of wars in general as well as the asymmetry between warring nations1 have not spurred the same urgency. Moreover, the shifting demographics of rich countries towards aging populations have permanently tilted budgets towards social programs, to the detriment of other areas like infrastructure and space exploration.

What about the private sector? After all, companies were the ones who ran with the entire Internet thing, and Henry Ford single-handedly shaped modern transportation. Blue Origin picks up where the NASA left off, and the Hyperloop could usher in a new method of efficient, impossibly fast transportation.

Sadly, bold ideas — and execution of said ideas — are few and far in between. It’s not a coincidence that most wild-eyed projects, focused on solving hard scientific problems, are bankrolled by rich individuals. The modern invention of a corporation, as an entity whose existence is to maximize shareholder value, has crippled the ability for companies to pursue long-term projects with extensive capital startup costs. Bigger companies are inevitably hamstrung by their existing products and practices even as they try to push towards the next innovation. The combination of leveraging operational efficiencies and shareholder pressure is enough to keep new ideas from going too far afield. Even Alphabet, with its multi-tiered stock structure designed to give its founders total control, made moves to force its famous moonshot projects to be eventually commercial and profitable2.

Startups are, for the most part, not suited for this kind of epic pursuit to change the world. Despite the grandiose pitches of companies awaiting seed funding, the vast majority don’t have the expertise and more importantly, the working capital to make a meaningful difference. The few exceptions are those startups which are truly massive enough to have global reach and effects, but are still privately controlled and can operate with a freedom envied by public companies.

The decacorn list is a decent place to start, though many are still minor iterations of existing technology, just scaled to bigger markets. In fact, the list has whittled down to a handful of usual, oft-cited suspects: Uber, AirBnb, Pinterest, and once in a while, Dropbox. For all the advantages that tech (and specifically, software-focused) startups enjoy in gross profit margins, it turns out that changing human behavior on a global scale is still really hard.

The triple problem against major innovation consists of anti-government spending, short-term public company profits, and insufficient startup scale. Combined with the need for capital for major technological and scientific breakthroughs, and we’re stuck in an era where productivity has slowed down and improvements remain iterative. Then again, technological revolutions are famously hard to forecast; predictions from the past are wildly incorrect because they tend to extrapolate from what was known, and useful innovations grow exponentially. Optimistically, lowering the costs and increasing the accessibility of current tech.3 may drive the next wave of big changes.

  1. Remember that the US spends more on the military than pretty much the rest of the world combined.

  2. And in doing so, they may have alienated some of their leaders.

  3. See: genetics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing, etc.