Why Modern Innovation Traffics in Trifles
When Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg announced in April that his company would pay $1 billion in cash and stock to buy Instagram, the deal put an exclamation mark on the shrinking ambitions of our inventors and entrepreneurs. Instagram has 13 employees and zero revenues. Its claim to fame is a free smartphone app that reformats photographs to look as if they were taken by an old Kodak Instamatic. Providing yet another means for people to fiddle with snapshots is super, but it’s hardly a moonshot.
What’s behind innovation’s turn toward the trifling? Declinists point to several possible culprits: America’s schools are broken, investors and executives have become shortsighted, taxes are too high (sapping the entrepreneurial spirit), taxes are too low (preventing the government from funding basic research). Or maybe America has just lost its mojo.
But none of these explanations is particularly compelling. In all sorts of ways, the conditions for ingenuity and enterprise have never been better, and more patents were granted last year than ever before in American history. In the past few years, companies have decoded the human genome, shrunk multipurpose computers to the size of sardine tins and built cars that can drive themselves. The Internet itself, a global computer network of mind-blowing speed, size and utility, testifies to the ability of today’s engineers to perform miracles.
It’s not quite right to say that society’s collective failure of imagination stems from a slump in innovation. I would suggest a different explanation. What we are seeing is not a slowdown in the pace of innovation but a shift in its focus. Americans are as creative as ever, but today’s buzz and big-money speculation are devoted to smaller-scale, less far-reaching, less conspicuous advances. We are getting precisely the kind of innovation that we desire—and deserve.