Thursday, June 05, 2014

Is Innovation Over? Comments On A Debate

During my teaching sessions on Innovation, I show students a debate between Professor Bhaskar Chakravorti and Tyler Cowen, on the subject 'Is Innovation Over?', hosted by The Economist. It is interesting to see the reactions I get after the students have seen the video, as they remain overwhelmingly convinced that innovation isn't over, given the marvels of technology they enjoy in their lives and the coming marvels they continue to expect. While Tyler Cowen's arguments (and certainly his presentation) are cogent and provocative at the same time - where is the new Budhdha, Socrates and Jesus Christ - he fails to convince the twenty-somethings that the world is going to slow down, even as they sit in London.

This is why I believe Professor Chakvorti's arguments in the debate, primarily focused on the emerging world, falls short. As Tyler Cowen rightly points out, celebrating innovation in India in the form of Mitticool is actually being unduly pessimistic about innovation. This example comes out as a 'man bites dog' phenomena: The very fact that one is talking about a earthen food storage and reducing price arbitrage as the great examples of innovation in this day and age proves that nothing much is happening. The celebration of great resourcefulness inherent in such improvisations that the Indian academics tend to do does not necessarily prove there is a great flourishing of new ideas, but rather a poverty of institutional frameworks in these emergoing countries, which fail to alleviate crushing poverty, illiteracy, and the other great problems which continue to afflict a great number of people.

Indeed, Professor Cowen's arguments are flawed, and perhaps intentionally so. Is there a point in being so pessimistic about technology? I hear this refrain often - that one would think the claims about singularity is serious when the web browsers stop crashing (or as Tom Friedman will say, when his computer becomes aware of his printer) - but surely these people know that the browser crashing is an economic phenomena rather than a technological one. It is not the poverty of inventiveness, but the social form, which puts some limits on some technologies; the same social forms may actually encourage and build other technologies: So one may indeed get self-driving cars but not be able to connect printers with computers in average homes. 

As one of my students perhaps philosophically observed - the point is to reinvent the human - remains an argument that both the commentators avoid. Indeed, Tyler Cowen is talking about philosophy and religion, but he compares a compressed version of the past with present rather unfairly: Surely one has to take account of the time between Budhdha and Socrates and Christ before making that argument. But Professor Cowen also avoids any discussion about social practices that limit innovation, as does Professor Chakravorti, who forgets to mention that life is only getting better for a only a few in the developing world, the environmental problems are often getting worse and indebtedness of nations are soaring. In that sense, my student's observation is right on the money: To talk about whether innovation is over, one must challenge and explore the limits of our social thinking, and there are big things yet to be done in that realm.

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