You call this progress?

When will this low-innovation digital era end, asks HBR's Justin Fox?

It's an age of unprecedented, staggering technological change. Business models are being transformed, lives are being upended, vast new horizons of possibility opened up. Or something like that. These are all pretty common assertions in modern business/tech journalism and management literature.

Then there's another view, which I heard from author Neal Stephensonin an MIT lecture hall last week. A hundred years from now, he said, we might look back on the late 20th and early 21st century and say, "It was an actively creative society. Then the Internet happened and everything got put on hold for a generation."

Stephenson was clearly trying to be provocative. But he's not alone in the judgment that we're not actually living in an era of great innovation. Economist Tyler Cowen's ebook-turned-book, The Great Stagnation made similar points: Compared with the staggering changes in everyday life in the first half of the 20th century wrought by electricity, cars, and electronic communication, the digital age has brought relatively minor alterations to how we live. Electricity is still electricity, and still generated mostly with fossil fuels; cars are better but not all that much better, and still propelled almost entirely by fossil fuels. Only communication has been truly transformed, but is the transformation really as profound as the advent of telegraphs, radio, and TV? (For much more on this, consult economist Robert J. Gordon's productivity research.) We have no colonies on Mars, we still can't get by without prehistoric fuel, the dishwasher still doesn't get all the dishes clean, and very few of us have personal jetpacks. You call this progress?

[read more]