Monday, January 5, 2009

Innovation - a quick note

Herb Sutter is a major force in the world of programming, particularly in C++. His blog, Sutter's Mill, doesn't offer the number of entries I'd like (give us more, Herb - only 49 posts in 2008), but many of the entries provide an important look at the future of this evolving language.

But not all his posts are about C++, witness today's, in quiz form, about 16 important technologies and when they were first demonstrated. Some of them are fairly obscure to the lay reader, at least as written, but most represent the basic tools with which we deal all the time (mouse input, cut/copy/paste, and so forth). No answers yet, but the footnotes dispel some of the obvious guesses (my favorite is the "alternate link" for Keyword search and multiple weighted keyword search.

I'm willing to bet that most of the answers will surprise most people, especially if you're relatively young and believe that Bill Gates invented the PC and the Internet and the mouse (not that any of my readers would think that, but there are people...). What they will show (and I'll provide a link when Herb answers these questions) is that most of the cutting-edge technologies of today have their roots in concepts and prototypes from decades ago.

But there's a more important, and ominous, obverse to this kind of fun quiz. That is, innovation takes a long time to be filtered through the business and engineering screens that are needed to make it commercial and available and affordable.

And that's why some of us are left cold by Obama's promises to create New Energy, or by Tom Friedman's insistence that all we have to do is clear some space in the garage and the Next Big Thing will emerge. Because that's just not how innovation works, not in the real world.

I've had this old post hanging around for better than four months that I haven't linked to yet, but I will now. It's the always reliable Hank Williams talking about this very issue, with the extra fillip that many of our innovators haven't even been trying, so focused are they on short-term profits and doing things easy:
Hard does not always equal better, but real innovation is usually not cheap.

But what is worse, in this tech economy, real innovation is not respected. It used to be that if you talked about changing the world, people took notice. Now if you say such things with a straight face, you will be laughed out of the VC conference room. It seems almost silly to aspire to do something so great that it really moves the bar. And in fact, it is true that when most people today say such things, it is little more than hyperbole. The problem is that in the current environment there is little place for actually trying to *do* such things. There is little money for it, but more importantly, there is little patience even for the concept.

In fact, in our elevator pitch, fast money, thin veneer, social networking tech econonmy, real innovation is a dirty word. And I have no idea what to do about it.
If you've worked in any tech company over the past few years, you know the truth of that. "Low-hanging fruit" is the target; nobody has the stones to do anything transformational, not when there's money to be made by inching forward.

Citizen Carrie has a post out that discusses a few more aspects of innovation, in particular the fear of some that we will stifle innovation (what there is of it) by focusing too keenly on preserving jobs. Of course, this reasoning can be used as an excuse to bring more people into the country or move more jobs overseas, even though neither inexorably leads to greater innovation (that's the Tom Friedman idea, that when we "unleash" the pent-up creativity and resourcefulness of the entire world, wonders will result; as is typical of Tom, he ignores the reality that there are people of proven innovative ability who are hurting for work in this country because they're perceived as too old or too expensive).

From Carrie:
The U.S. can never quite make up its mind as to the federal government's role in fostering innovation. One school of thought is that heavy-handed government should keep away from private businesses in order to allow them to foster innovation without unnecessary encumbrances. Another school of thought tells us that government intervention is necessary to bankroll companies so they can provide the innovation needed to achieve our national goals, e.g., energy independence.
But as Herb shows us, the first is no guarantee that we will socialize our innovation quickly enough. Private industry is perfectly happy to let inventions sit around until the reward-risk model is overwhelmingly favorable, no matter how desirable it would be for society to have them in hand. On the other hand, government does have a pretty lousy track record at picking the companies of the future.

What is the answer? I don't know, but I do know we have to stop comforting ourselves with false innovations like Facebook and Twitter, which are cute and fun and occasionally useful, and realize that we're not paying the price to foster those game-changers which will generate new industries and jobs for the future. And we still don't have a model of innovation which will get those technologies out of the lab and into our garages or homes any faster than, say, the household robots that have been talked about for more than 50 years.

1 comment:

2Truthy said...

Where ARE all those Jetsonesque robots?

It is ironic that with the deluge of social networking technology came the downward spiral in social civility. I have "visions" of drowning in social networking products as global warming melts what's left of our once civil society. How many gadgets can we have before we are rendered redundant? Sure, we can always double down and find a cure for cancer. That's a lofty goal. On the other hand, I'm still vageuly optimistic for the market growth potential of energy efficient 'everything' combined with speed of sound communications devices that will hopefully advance us out of these doldrums.

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