I do not like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I don’t like it because it’s made up, yet people treat it as a universal law. But it’s an invention. It’s an interesting invention but we’ve taken it to be definitive, which it isn’t. Maslow made observations, mostly about American culture and formed them into a framework we often take as predictive for the entire species. There are plenty of other frameworks, including ones that recognize needs are not hierarchical, an observation about your own life that’s easy to make when you stop to consider: do you organize your meals hierarchically? your day? your week? The worthy long and short term ambitions you have likely cut across the “hierarchy” in dozens of reasonable ways.
Recently Carr wrote about the arc of innovation, suggesting that there’s a hierarchy of innovation much like Maslow’s. Carr does point out some of the hierarchy’s flaws, but he still, maddeningly, uses a triangular hierarchy for his model for innovation. (It’s like the insanity of people making everything into periodic tables. What is wrong with you people?) It was always dumb that Maslow, if it was his choice, made it a pyramid. Why is the top level so small? is it really smaller in space? Does the smaller size suggest it’s easier to fulfill? What does it mean? It’s just bad design.
Anyway, the thrust of Carr’s post is about the diminishing returns of modern inventions, and here I agree with him. The common gripe is the rate of change today is faster than ever, but that’s perception. It feels that way certainly, but the amount of change is smaller than in the past.
The leap from steam power to electricity was larger than anything we experienced in modern times, bringing cheap power into workplaces and homes, granting nighttime lighting (which redefined sleep itself!) and thousands of things into the lives of ordinary people. The move from a telephone to a cellphone, as impressive as it is, is far less of a shift and it’s impact smaller on the important parts of our daily lives.
This is an opinion of course as all comparisons of the value of two innovations always are. I love the internet, but when you break down how important it is compared to running water, electricity, a nearby market with food, stable democracy, reliable health care and hundreds of other older innovations it’s not even close.
There has been no decline in innovation; there has just been a shift in its focus. We’re as creative as ever, but we’ve funneled our creativity into areas that produce smaller-scale, less far-reaching, less visible breakthroughs.
Part of the problem is smaller breakthroughs, like a bigger screen for your phone, are made incredibly visible through billions in marketing dollars, whereas more substantial improvements that are less profitable are barely noticed (or would have to have the same financial support to become noticed).
There are plenty of holes to poke in Carr’s hierarchy. Healthcare, which would be at the bottom of the pile, constantly sees technological breakthroughs. It’s just that unless you are sick or know someone who is, these breakthroughs do not make the news and are never part of the consumer marketing machine. And of course many inventions slice through the hierarchy, as an app that lets you work with friends by playing games to watch your diet hits nearly every level in one fell swoop.
There are six important themes I see at work in the larger discussion we should have:
1. Innovation is relative, not universal. There is no universal index of progress. America is still struggling to provide universal health care, while many European countries already have it. Japan has fast trains, America does not. Progress and regress are always shifting around the world, and with countries, cities and neighborhoods. There is no universal constant. Even now America is divided on who has access to what innovations. From this perspective innovation in some third world countries is at an all time peak. This is why grand arguments about the pace of innovation seem esoteric to me.
2. Decline of research funding. The peak of U.S. Federal spending on science research and development was in the 1960s. Every major invention that makes up the internet was developed decades ago. It’s science where true breakthroughs happen, and by breakthrough I mean the acquisition of new knowledge. It takes years, decades, for that knowledge to be converted into products or solutions, and we may have ridden out the major wave from 50 years ago. Who is investing in the next wave for all of us? It won’t be a corporation (although what Tesla did is interesting).
3. There are only financial rewards for some breakthroughs. The marketplace will rarely invest in true discoveries since they are far too expensive to find. It’s possible that the most transformative technology advancements require government support as no corporation could ever afford to develop them.
4. The best ideas don’t necessarily become popular. We have faith that progress is a straight line, but history makes clear it isn’t even a line at all. A slowdown in technological advancement might be because of other factors, social, political (The last Congress passed fewer laws than any in history) and economic, that have nothing to do with the invention or ideas themselves.
5. Consumer culture has shifted our perceptions on innovation. Will the latest cell phone improve your contributions to social justice? Will an app upgrade save your marriage? Strengthen your community? America is more of a consumer culture than ever before, and that is part of Carr’s point: “We’re getting precisely the kind of innovation that we desire – and that we deserve.” But then the issues are philosophical, not technological. How did we become so shallow and lost? Were we always shallow and lost? The answers are not going to come from technologists and businesspeople.
6. Infrastructure is hard to replace. My point about the primacy of running water and electricity is really about infrastructure. You only get one chance to make certain choices about a city, or a nation. It’s extremely expensive to change these large decisions later, or even with the money on hand, it’s hard for a government to bet on a new approach. The 1950s was when America made its big bet about transportation, and we chose cars over everything else. Which suggests that American may be past it’s innovation prime. Our infrastructure was among the best in the world in 1965. But now, we’re in trouble. It’s a mature nation, with aging technology infrastructure, and bureaucracies and traditions that inhibit big changes. The U.S. is 10th in the world in providing broadband internet, something we basically invented. The future of big advancements might be shifting, or have already shifted, to countries with hungrier cultures. We need to reinvest, but do we have the will?
7. There are limits to progress. There are limits to innovation even if we’re not sure what they are. We have faith there are always ways to make things better, but that faith may be unfounded. We’re aware that the speed of light is the fastest possible thing in the universe: why can’t there be other maximums, like for computer power or algorithmic complexity? There is no way to know for sure that there are more discoveries to make, just as there is no way to know for sure that their aren’t.