No, Innovation is Not Overrated

25 June 2007 at 9:45 am 3 comments

| Chihmao Hsieh |

This is posted in response to the book commentary within Peter’s post. If the indented synopsis indeed captures the book’s main thesis, it might be “concise and elegant,” and “provocative” to a person crawling out from underneath prehistoric rock, but suffice it to say it’s about as far from innovative (hmm, how ironic) as it gets. Some might call it the result of being direly underinformed.

What’s technological innovation for? Aside from a few exceptions, and aside from nuances introduced by incentives, technological innovation serves to support and appeal to our physical well-being,* emotional well-being, and psychological well-being in the context of a (limited) 70-100+ yr life span. Full stop. (So O&M founder Nicolai Foss has been passing around a thought-provoking working paper addressing the nature of opportunities, one example cited therein describing the technology of the barbed wire fence. Is the barbed wire fence an invention that appeals to those three sources of well-being? Not directly, it seems. But it is elementary to conclude that its absence would reduce our capability to feed ourselves, which does support physical well-being.)

I will not touch the notion of novelty. Generally speaking, when people speak of ‘novelty’ reference is made to novelty in (superficial elements of) design (e.g. cosmetic fashionable changes), not novelties in technology that would solve yet-to-be-visited problems. Whether novelty in design is valuable is surely a subjective matter.

It’s hard to deny that many of the technological innovations that we develop today are seemingly useless… even ones based on government-funded ‘basic research.’ After all, thousands of patents were granted one day 5 years ago, and how many of them do we know to have benefited us? But some of these minute incremental gains in our knowledge that seem useless today may be crucial in developing cutting-edge technologies in the far-off future. Naively optimistic? Perhaps. But the alternative of sitting on our hands thinking that our human lives cannot possibly be improved unless all our innovations are as earth-shattering as the wheel… that’s foolish.

The focus on prescribing re-framing in terms of ‘technology-in-use’ is so ridiculously ignorant. Case in point: a consortium of Japanese companies is hoping to deliver to consumers a TV by 2020 that can deliver sensations of touch and smell. It’s easy to argue that such an invention will eliminate many limitations imposed by human life’s experience. How do you formulate such an invention? Who knows for sure? And that’s why we can’t afford to disregard many of the incremental innovations that we find in the meantime.

Edgerton’s stance is at best terribly pessimistic and cynical (and at worst, ridiculously underinformed and completely insensitive to the hopes that we might have for future generations). An economic historian indeed! While some country bumpkin might consider the thesis ‘interesting,’ I genuinely hope policy makers don’t take it seriously.

* By innovations that “support our physical well-being” I am referring to those innovations that not only improve or maintain our human endowments to experience touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound, I’m also referring to those innovations that support the development of products that appeal to those senses. The fact of the matter is, none of us is around sometime in the next 100+ years. Those feelings and sensations you get today when your skin brushes up against something warm or cold or hard or soft; or the ones you get when you smell something fatty or cinnamony; or the ones you get when you taste something sweet or sour… we should learn all that we can from these most inexplicably human of experiences, right?

Entry filed under: Entrepreneurship, Former Guest Bloggers.

Is Innovation Overrated? Should We Axe the (US) Small Business Administration?

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Peter Klein  |  25 June 2007 at 10:45 am

    Chihmao, I think you’ve been misled by the summary. The point is not that “technology” per se is overrated, but that novelty, technical elegance, and flair are frequently overrated. The argument is addressed at economic historians, who have tended to disount the importance of incremental versus systemic technological innovation and to confuse engineering importance with economic importance. Isn’t that what the whole QWERTY debate is about? Betamax may indeed have been a “better” technology than VHS, from an engineering perspective, but consumers ended up valuing price and recording time over picture quality and tape size.

    Indeed, Edgerton’s argument (if I understand it correctly), far from trying to prescribe efficiency based on use value, implies exactly the opposite, namely that we cannot predict the importance of particular technologies until we know, ex post, how they are used.

  • 2. Chihmao Hsieh  |  25 June 2007 at 11:24 am

    I think it isn’t a stretch to assume that very few of the more influential public policy makers cared about ‘technical elegance’ or ‘flair’ or even ‘novelty’, before this book came out. So if Edgerton’s point really is that ‘novelty, technical elegance, and flair are frequently overrated,’ then I think he’s wasting his breath.

    As for prediction of the value of knowledge and technology, well, this is one of my major research areas. Prediction is difficult, but efforts at estimation may not be as foolhardy as we think. So would say Fleming and Sorenson (2001) as well as some extending work of mine profiled recently at .

  • 3. Chihmao Hsieh  |  26 June 2007 at 9:30 pm

    I’ve had more chance to read up on that book. My criticisms of the stances are many, but mainly (1) many of the comparisons it makes between sets of technologies to show which ones are more valuable than others are silly, and (2) a stance criticizing technological innovations because we misjudge their value and that we should wait for society to figure out how they can be used actually shouldn’t be criticizing them in the first place.

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