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Idealog—in the ideas business

You call this progress?

When will this low-innovation digital era end, asks HBR's Justin Fox?

It's an age of unprecedented, staggering technological change. Business models are being transformed, lives are being upended, vast new horizons of possibility opened up. Or something like that. These are all pretty common assertions in modern business/tech journalism and management literature.

Then there's another view, which I heard from author Neal Stephenson in an MIT lecture hall last week. A hundred years from now, he said, we might look back on the late 20th and early 21st century and say, "It was an actively creative society. Then the Internet happened and everything got put on hold for a generation."

Stephenson was clearly trying to be provocative. But he's not alone in the judgment that we're not actually living in an era of great innovation. Economist Tyler Cowen's ebook-turned-book, The Great Stagnation made similar points: Compared with the staggering changes in everyday life in the first half of the 20th century wrought by electricity, cars, and electronic communication, the digital age has brought relatively minor alterations to how we live. Electricity is still electricity, and still generated mostly with fossil fuels; cars are better but not all that much better, and still propelled almost entirely by fossil fuels. Only communication has been truly transformed, but is the transformation really as profound as the advent of telegraphs, radio, and TV? (For much more on this, consult economist Robert J. Gordon's productivity research.) We have no colonies on Mars, we still can't get by without prehistoric fuel, the dishwasher still doesn't get all the dishes clean, and very few of us have personal jetpacks. You call this progress?

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I must say that I don't agree.

What of advances like 3d printing? Of the ever-encroaching advent of the quantum computer? And the revolution in communication is no small matter, and yes, I believe that the upheavals we're seeing now do indeed match those of television etc (and far, FAR faster too) - simply look at what is happening with mobile phone usage, particularly in 3rd world countries.

And the shift that's happening in cultures all over the world? Unprecedented both in speed and in effect.

Regarding the regrettable fact that we're still using fossil fuels to power things, well: ask governments why they won't change, the public why they won't change, and of course large oil companies etc why they don't want change - it's hardly surprising.

Additionally, as technology becomes ever more complex, large advances become less obvious to the casual observer, and it requires more advances to push a technology forward in any material sense. Massive leaps in material science, for example, are know only as far in 'oh, look, my phone breaks less when i drop it' (as a made up example).

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