Innovation and lists

ShockoftheOld.jpg Ah lists. We all know that the end of the year brings a flood of top 10, 50, 100 lists. And although many of them are vapid forays into what one person thinks matters right now as opposed to being a sign of what will endure, the advantage of the lists is that one can scan, decide whether to look further, and discard based on someone else taking the time to generate his or her view of the best or most important. As Frank might point out some of the searching and ranking can lead to worthy items being missed. Nonetheless, Wired’s list of the top ten scientific breakthroughs is fun and unintentionally highlights a point regarding innovation (more on that later in the post). Here’s the list with some free associations though I recommend going to the site for the details on the true what or why for these.

10. Transistors Get Way Smaller (A dream ever since Steve Martin noted the glory of getting small)

9. Scientists Clone Rhesus Monkey to Produce Stem Cells (Send in the clones!)

8. Planet Discovered That Could Harbor Life (pick your scifi series, now you know it could be real)

7. Engineers Create Transparent Material as Strong as Steel (Star Trek IV for you trekkers playing along)

6. Soft Tissue from T. Rex Leg Bone Analyzed (Yes! Jurassic Park will happen.)

5. Laboratory Mice Cured of Rett Syndrome (If this one works for humans, it is just cool)

4. Enzymes Convert Any Blood Type to O (vampires and others tired of donor problems have less to worry about)

3. Mummified Dinosaur Excavated and Scanned (Jurassic’s sequels move forward but with better dinosaur effects)

2. Chimpanzees Make Spears for Hunting (When Animals Attack! Takes on a new meaning)

1. Researchers Turn Skin Cells to Stem Cells (Sounds great but apparently taunting happy funball in this case may lead to tumors (a problem that limited replicants’ life span and helped cause the death of Dr. Tyrell in Blade Runner), but even the tumor issue may be under control according to the article)

In all honesty, the accomplishments are great. They give a sense of progress and the impression that people can conquer almost anything. Still, one author, David Edgerton, argues in his book, Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, that thinking about the technology that is still in use as opposed to the only the innovations and inventors leads to a better understanding of how technology affects people’s lives around the world. Such an approach instructs that older technology has lasting impact, that operation and maintenance play key roles in a technology’s viability, and that national success is not keyed to innovation and invention. He further argues that one should think of things and how they control given that often one does not own the things one uses.

I can’t say that I agree wholeheartedly with Edgerton’s view. In some ways his notion of things reminds me of Mike Madison’s work on the subject. In addition, my recent work on how much one can control or own technologically mediated creations has themes related to Madison’s and Edgerton’s work. Edgerton, however, wants to tie technology to history and highlight social injustices that appear when technology comes into play. His conclusions challenge some some basic ideas about innovation, investment, and change.


He offers that technology can in fact thwart change, that technology transfer and not innovation explains growth in Japan and China, and that “there is no positive correlation between levels of research spending and levels of economic growth. Most discussion of science policy by serious people is predicated on the belief that there is such a positive correlation, that if countries spend more on innovation, they get back everything they spend and more in return. In fact, if anything, there is a negative correlation, at least for fast-growing countries” (source: Interview with Edgerton in Strategy+Business) Whether or not one agrees with him, his ideas force one to reconsider some assumptions about the way technology, innovation, and invention operate in society. For readers interested in intellectual property, Edgerton’s view impacts the incentive explanation for innovation as it looks to whether the stories about investment are accurate. Although some will offer reasons his view is inaccurate, the book forces one to consider what innovation is and whether small improvements to say the automobile are the type of mind blowing paradigm changes usually thought of when one speaks of technology and innovation.

cross-posted at Madisonian

You may also like...