In a recent issue, a venerable magazine asked a provocative question: Has the pace of innovation begun to stagnate? This might seem paradoxical that in the age of hot internet IPOs and instant communication. In fact, productivity (that is, output per worker) was up during the most recent recession, as businesses did more with fewer employees, which might be attributable to the use of computers.
This reminds me of the proposition that the last real invention was the telegraph. The first practical electric communication device neatly separates the era of human history into a time before, when all messages had to have a physical embodiment (a cuneiform tablet, a piece of paper, or someone’s memory) transported to the recipient’s location, and a time after, when information moved at (almost) the speed of light. I’m eliding over the various semaphore systems, which had many practical limitations, including susceptibility to sabotage. In any case, the telegraph revolutionized how we traded, fought wars, and found spouses – and it might be argued that later advances in electric communication, like telephones, radio, and the internet – are all comparatively minor improvements. In fact, since computers run on a binary system, any program or app or webpage could, in theory, be transmitted by telegraph, assuming you were willing to wait a few days to see a retweeted picture of someone’s lunch. Indeed, another irony of the cyclic nature of technology: We might feel so much more advanced than our great-grandparents by wielding fancy smart phones, although we basically use them to send text and tweets that are just glorified telegrams. As if to prove my point, NASA has just beamed an image of the Mona Lisa to the moon (actually, to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter). By representing the grey-scale pixel values as laser beam pulses, the entire image could be reconstructed. Some have pointed out that this makes it a very long distance 300 baud modem.
At the Consumer electronics show this month in Las Vegas, some complained that, while impressive, the new technologies presented seemed to be mere incremental improvements rather than exciting breakthroughs. I think that this drastically underestimates the importance of gradual advances (see previous post). Exciting as new concepts are, the value comes when products are perfected over time. Kinks are worked out, designs are improved, and perhaps most importantly, we find out which features are really important. The iPod was not the first .mp3 player; it was the first good .mp3 player that people wanted to have.