Saturday, January 24, 2015

decadent innovation

Nicholas Carr asks a great question: "does innovation arc towards decadence?"

The proposition: as civilisations get more complex and sophisticated, once they have more or less mastered Nature and the physical environment, what happens is that an increasingly large proportion of any society's innovation-drive is directed towards the domain of pleasure / leisure, lifestyle enhancement and self-development.

The piece expands upon an earlier one that Carr wrote titled “The Hierarchy of Innovation,” "which argued, speculatively, that the focus of innovation has followed Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, beginning with Technologies of Survival and now concentrating on Technologies of the Self." 

That piece was itself responding to an opinion piece by Justin Fox for Wired called "When Will This Low-Innovation Internet Era End?" and mentions a bunch of other similar laments which I've linked to before myself (Neal Stephenson's worries about lack of  visionary goals and s.f.'s possible role in stirring up a hunger for Giant Steps; Tyler Cowen's argument about "innovation stagnation"; Peter Thiel's  conviction that . large-scale innovation has gone dormant).  

Carr says the original  gloomy-gus, however,  was economist Robert J. Gordon, who in 2000 published “Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure Up to the Great Inventions of the Past?. In Carr's words, Gordon's argument was that "the conditions of life changed utterly between 1890 and 1950," what with the internal combustion engine, electric lightbulb, electric transformer, steam turbine, electric railroad, automobile, telephone, movie camera, phonograph, linotype, roll film (for cameras), dictaphone, cash register, vaccines, reinforced concrete, flush toilets, the typewriter, punch-card tabulator, airplanes, radio, air conditioning, the vacuum tube, jet aircraft, television, refrigerators....  as well as all kinds of Giant Steps in warfare, atomic energy etc. But nothing like this 60 year surge of limits-on-life-lifting breakthroughs had occurred from between 1950 and 2000.  
Reviewing various explanations for this apparent decline in inventiveness, Carr then proposes "an alternative explanation... There has been no decline in innovation; there has just been a shift in its focus. We’re as creative as ever, but we’ve funneled our creativity into areas that produce smaller-scale, less far-reaching, less visible breakthroughs. And we’ve done that for entirely rational reasons. We’re getting precisely the kind of innovation that we desire – and that we deserve."

He uses Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs as the basis for a Hierarchy of innovation, arguing that "the tools we invent would move through the hierarchy of needs, from tools that help safeguard our bodies on up to tools that allow us to modify our internal states, from tools of survival to tools of the self."
hierarchy of innovation.jpg


"As we move to the top level of the innovation hierarchy, the inventions have less visible, less transformative effects. We’re no longer changing the shape of the physical world or even of society, as it manifests itself in the physical world. We’re altering internal states, transforming the invisible self. Not surprisingly, when you step back and take a broad view, it looks like stagnation – it looks like nothing is changing very much.... If the current state of progress disappoints you, don’t blame innovation. Blame yourself."

This is actually an idea addressed in Retromania: that most of the innovations of the last 20 years have been in personal communications and entertainment/leisure (games getting ever more complex, social media, apps, GPS, smartphones, monstrous increases in personal portable computing power etc). 

Like Carr with his "blame yourself" / "the kind of innovation... we deserve" tone of admonishment and indictment, I also flirt in Retromania with the notion of  "decadence", asking whether this concept (controversial/questionable as it is) is the accurate term to characterisee a civilisation obsessed with clothes, food, interior decor - essentially comforts and treats. Is this culinary-isation of culture (to use Breton's term) a sign of  "the recline and fall of the West"? 

The source for this stuff in Retromania comes from a 2007 piece I did for Salon, that used the book Daniel H. Wilson's “Where's My Jetpack? A Guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived.” as a launchpad for musings on how: 

"Our expectations of the “futuristic” have undergone an insidious scaling down in recent decades. Mostly, “the future” seems to infiltrate our lives in a low-key, subtle fashion. In their own way, the miniaturization of communications technology (cellphones, BlackBerrys, etc.) and the compression of information (iPods, MP3s, YouTube, downloadable movies, etc.) are just as mind-blowing as the space stations and robots once pictured as the everyday scenery of 21st century life. Macro simply looks way more impressive than micro".