Sunday, July 13, 2014

On Escaping The Age of Copy-and-Catch-Up

Tyler Cowen has a point when he proclaims that 'innovation is over' and that we live in an age of 'copy and catch up'. Indeed, one can take issues with this and show that 'innovation', as it is meant, is not about big ideas but more about finding better ways of doing things and making lives better. But that would be missing the real point: That despite all our claims of breakthrough progress, we are often mere tinkerers, satisfying ourselves being recipients of lost property and creating the illusions of progress. Rather provocatively, Dr Cowen takes the point further that claims that middle class life has got worse, despite the zillions of apps, smartphones and ubiquitous Internet, with failing education, uncertain jobs, fragile health and worsening security, and only more and more debt kept us afloat. He is somewhat dismissive about all the emergence of the emerging economies, which are playing the 'copy and catch up' game, he says, merely throwing their cheap labour at yesterday's problems.

Even the optimists who scoff at our habit to conjure up bleak futures usually base their arguments on our collective ability to come up with ideas and solve problems, but this is exactly where this hits home. My favourite example is the 1898 International Conference in New York for Urban Planning, which deliberated seriously on the terrible pollution problem of the cities due to transport - it was horse manure then - and failed to come up with a solution; the solution appeared within a few years in the form of electric cars and automobile and the problem completely vanished. What Dr Cowen is saying, though, is that there are no big ideas like automobiles (in this case) in sight right now, and while we may be being good at making improvements, we may be failing behind in creating breakthroughs.

There may not be anything to worry about, because big ideas happen over a large period of time, while looking back at them, we take a compressed view of history and they appear entirely magical. We may complain that we don't have a Socrates, or a Jesus, or a Budhdha, among us, but then we only have one each of those great thinkers in the thousands of years of human history. So the lack of breakthrough progress does not automatically mean that we are not going anywhere, but this may just be one of those gap-years in history, entirely trivial periods of time given the span of time, and this may be all leading to another great flowering of human ideas.

However, this view, that we are in a gestation and great ideas will again appear, is just as speculative as the assertion that we are in a great decline; this makes it a pointless debate. It is better to engage in the debate exploring what, in our contemporary culture and the institutions we built, comes on the way of big ideas. Dr Cowen, provocative as usual, is really trying to draw attention to this point.

First, one may argue that there is a lack of ambition in popular imagination. The talk of changing the world has become cheap: These days, one talks about changing the world by making indecent photos self-destruct in a few seconds. The brightest individuals from finest colleges dream of making millions selling start-ups producing apps, or even worse, designing derivatives which no one can decipher, rather than spending their lives in seeking the cure for cancer. The Higher Education industry below the top-tier colleges churn out graduates in love with themselves and their degree certificates, but otherwise without a clue what to do in the world. Blame it on post-modernism if you will, but the ambition that one can do something significant is really gone.

Second, this may also be connected with the withdrawal of the state from various social functions, including education and research, and handing these over to private capital. With their typically short time span of expectations, this has resulted in the quest of tinkering and copy-and-catch-up culture that Dr Cowen bemoans. Add to this the disappearance of monopoly positions and the cut-throat world of public capital markets, and the nature of things that we could think up has changed. Google's 20% time is gone because it is not consistent with the culture of capital markets, not because it was not productive. Increasingly, the universities are trying to make them 'result orientated' without necessarily reconciling this with the idea of 'research'. 

Third, the rhetoric in public life, the advent of the art of saying more than doing, undermine the big ideas: Leadership is now less about making a difference than making people feel that there is a difference. In this world of nudge and fudge, the big ideas are really at a disadvantage. Even if one may claim that there is greater public scrutiny now than ever before, the long tail world of the media puts cult practices ahead of hit shows, as the ownership gets increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, subject to the same dynamics of the public capital markets which prize returns overs revolutions.

So, in summary, the Copy-and-Catch-Up world is perhaps one unintended consequence of how we have structured our society: With the monochrome incentive of more money, we are increasingly focused on incremental tinkering rather than risky departures. With an education tailored to maintain social status quo, and with a polity that eschew any possibilities of change, our world is relegated to become a hyphenated period in human history, the invisible time between big ideas. 

But standing still is also decline. The essential life force of all the progress we celebrate today came from the ordinary folks being able to challenge the orthodoxies of the establishment, rather than being suppressed by the establishment. That is indeed the lesson from the divergence of history of the East and the West, of Argentina from the United States. If we comply, we decline. But this age of copy-and-catch-up is an inexorable journey in the status quo, we go round and round, with the power elite accumulating wealth and even controlling our minds and our rhetoric, getting to the point of breakdown.

Globalisation also makes it worse. In fact, it suppresses rather than generates ideas. Emerging countries accept meekly that there is only one way to develop - the sequential path traversed by the rich nations of the West - and fashion their policies faithfully to commit to copy-and-catch-up. In India, all capital gets diverted to provide cheap backoffice services; in China, people focus on getting things made. Bangladesh revels on its garments economy, though this may lead to accentuating the rich and poor differences even further. Africa, late in the game, gratefully accepts the Chinese colonies, trying to kickstart a mining economy to the benefit of the Dictators' Swiss Bank accounts. And, students in the universities in these countries merely aspire to be the cannon fodder of this globalised economy, and would rather leave their creative selves at home because there is no money in creativity.

While Dr Cowen warns about the despondency of being average in these desperate times, this is what it is exactly about: Everyone, countries, societies, institutions, families are in a desperate run to become average. The escape, I shall argue, is defying this lure of the average and trying to reimagine the future. The route runs through education, indeed, and a new kind of imaginative action, based on cooperation and volunteerism. The age of average has not completely swamped the human spirit yet, and there remains the hope that the big ideas will come from undying idealism. In this, lies our great hope, and the end of the era that we got used to.

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