Innovation Pickiness

Neal Stephenson has written an essay called Innovation Starvation, about how we don’t seem to be able to get big stuff (like going to the moon) done anymore.

It was interesting, but from my perspective, it seemed off target, for a couple of reasons.

1. Is the premise true?

OK, so we’re not going to the moon, or Mars. But does that mean we’re not doing big things? To me, the web, Google, Facebook, Twitter, smartphones and such…those are all Big Things. They are all recent high-tech developments that have significantly changed the world we live in. But because they emerged from the wilderness of an unplanned economy instead of some Big Pre-Planned Project, they don’t count as Big Things? I don’t buy that.

2. Does competitive knowledge really reduce innovation?

Stephenson offers this scenario:

Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: 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.

I have indeed witnessed something like that. What I haven’t witnessed is the existence of patents or competitors stopping very many people from moving forward on an idea. Patents can be worked around. Competitors don’t matter if you have access to a market that you think you can exploit first, by leveraging existing relationships with customers or vendors that you already work with. Case in point: the 100 gazillion Groupon clones out there.

So I would disagree that information from the Internet is stifling innovation. On the other hand, I would argue that the success of the Internet is causing certain kinds of innovation to be preferred over others. Innovators these days love the idea of companies like Google and Facebook and Twitter because if a company like that hits it big, they can create gargantuan results with very little capital. Just hire a handful of programmers and: Kaplowie!  Riches galore.

Yes, I’ve sat around tables and thrown around ideas. And every time I’ve thrown around a business idea that involved human beings interacting with other human beings, instead of computers interacting with computers, I’ve been politely ignored. Because there’s no Kaplowie!  when humans are involved. That takes hard work, and who wants to get rich doing hard work, when you could get rich with all this low-hanging Kaplowie!  fruit that still seems to be hanging around to be plucked?

So I don’t think that we’re being starved of innovation so much as we’re experiencing a temporary kind of pickiness. But when things (like innovation investment) cluster in one place, it creates holes in another. Somewhere out there in the business world, there’s a Billy Beane waiting to exploit the gaps in the business ecosystem that are being created by current investment preferences.

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  • Ken Arneson

    I linked to the Google cached version of Stephenson’s essay, because the original web site seems to be down at the moment.