Are We Really Running Out of Innovation?

Robert Gordon’s vision, presented in his book “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” is quite reasonable, but also pessimistic. As I was reading his thoughts that after the 1970s the standard economic measure of impact of innovation and technological changes has significantly slowed down, the Roman Empire came to my mind. Again, the title of Gordon’s work is “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” and the Roman Empire also eventually experienced a spectacular fall. Many ideas initiated during the victorious days of the Roman Empire were further rediscovered and developed during the eras of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Is Gordon right? Is America the Roman Empire of the 21st century?

In Chapter 17, Gordon asks whether the future can match the great inventions of the past. In my opinion, we are unable to predict it. Though, I agree with some of his concepts regarding exhaustion of certain ideas, including running out of innovation. A lot of current discussions evolve around topics related to whether imitation can spark innovation, or whether we are running out of trademarks. There are many unanswered questions, as it is simply challenging to predict the future given the limited information we are able to gather and analyze. Research is usually based on statistical predictions, and even if some people say that numbers do not lie, I believe that numerical data cannot explain every single factor influencing the results.

So… Are we really running out of innovation? I remember the first time I arrived in America to attend a basketball camp. I was 16 years old. Even though I come from a developed country, I was amazed with what I saw in the United States – the shops, the technology, the educational and the athletic resources. However, as a young adult I do not see America the same way I saw it as a teenager. Gordon is right – America was the first one to achieve a growth peak in the middle of the 20th century, and the Western, and eventually Central European countries reached similar level.

I have not noticed much revolution in the United States since my first visit. Yes, Snapchat underwent an IPO, augmented reality is said to overtake every single aspect of our life, Blockchain is apparently the most disruptive invention since the Internet, and the MTA in NYC is attempting to equip all the stations with cellular service, but I do not quite grasp how these phenomena are going to revolutionize our lives. Undoubtedly, there is a “narrower palette of progress,” even though its measures are highly subjective. Despite my skepticism in this field, I am aware that some technologists would reject my theory.

Recently I discussed with my grandparents born in the 1920s the inventions that have occurred during their lifetime. My grandfather, who just had an implantable cardioverter defibrillator surgery, made an excellent point regarding the development of cardiology. Christiaan Barnard conducted the first heart transplant in the late 1960s, doctors enhanced the techniques to discover and treat artery diseases, we are able to control the heartbeat in a better way, but the inventions are not taken to the next level, but are rather being gradually improved.

My grandparents also observed that some technological inventions, including the use of emails and social media platforms did not simplify, but actually made our lives more difficult. According to Gordon we are, in fact, experiencing clustering – some inventions are more important than others.

A few days ago once I was on the Q train, I noticed numerous advertisements encouraging people to implement their innovative ideas. They stated, “how long can you keep your ideas on your phone,” or “entrepreneur in French means ‘I quit.” Gordon argues that Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg are not Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. I am not quite certain whether we can draw such conclusions. These men were active in completely different time periods, governed by different values, and their inventions targeted people with various needs. In the past being innovative meant to possess the ability to simplify people’s lives. I think that today it has achieved a contrasting meaning.

As Gordon analyzes, many of the inventions, especially in today’s digitalized reality are focused on supposedly improving productivity. Has the invention of a light bulb had a more tremendous impact on our lives than the creation of Snapchat filters? Probably yes, but the latter was designed to satisfy our needs we might not have been even aware of.

Throughout my short analysis, I have tried to prove that America might be at its edge of the growth peak. When inventions try to contradict the majority’s values, it forecasts the end of prosperity. Is China the next one to dictate the trends of innovation? I am not sure, but if history repeats itself, then we can conclude that America is a modern Roman Empire. As a potential crisis in the “Columbus land” might be approaching, someone else could be preparing to rediscover ideas derived in the US, and to take them to the next level. However, the American values will remain forever.


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