Warning! We are entering a dark age of innovation…

We are indebted to one Jonathan Huebner, a physicist working at the Pentagon’s Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California for bringing to our attention the fact that technological innovation reached a peak a century ago and has been declining ever since.

I sure hope he isn’t working on anything important. I would hate to think that our next missile defense system would involve wearing hardened leather hats and carrying shields.

According to this report in NewScientist.com,  Jonathan is basing his conclusions on a lot of hard data like US patents granted per decade divided by the country’s population.  He says the rate of technological innovation reached a peak a century ago and has been declining ever since. And like the lookout on the Titanic who spotted the fateful iceberg, Huebner sees the end of innovation looming dead ahead. His study will be published in Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

If Huebner really said this and it isn’t just a media spin by NewScientist, I think John Huebner lives in an alternate reality from the one in which we exist.

I left a comment  on Fred Giasson’s weblog. Here is an excerpt:

If Huebners ideas are being accurately presented, then he will not be the first to stand in the midst of an enormous paradigm shift and exclaim, "Why…nothing is happening!"

Too many experts get stuck in the last paradigm they recognized; invention of fire, vulcanization, whatever, and fail to see that paradigms shifts, almost by definition, cannot be evaluated from pre-shift viewpoints.

This quote from Huebner gives it away: "It doesn’t matter if it is humans or machines that are the source of innovation. If it isn’t noticeable to the people who chronicle technological history then it is probably a minor event."

The people who chronicle technological history are probably still stuck in dead-tree media.

From my experience they tend to determine whether something is historically significant, by what degrees the inventor has and what prestiginous universities he attended.

The fact that Huebner considers that machines are a source of innovation reveals his disassociation with the innovative process!

What do you think?

Are we Entering a dark age of innovation?
Or is NewScientist just another online science tabloid?

Think about it as you work from home and do business with your friends around the world.

Let me know.

By the way, check out Fred Giasson’s excellent weblog, Fred On Something. It has at least three other related blogs and they are all worthy of study.

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0 Responses to Warning! We are entering a dark age of innovation…

  1. Ric says:

    I guess that if you believe that we are no longer innovating, YOU probably aren’t.

  2. GBGames says:

    Didn’t someone from the patent office many years ago claim that everything that could be invented had already been invented? B-)

    Also, I don’t think you can look at patents granted vs population has any meaning. Would a population of one with five patents be more innovative than a population of five with five patents? Also, just because a patent was granted, it doesn’t make it innovative. Look at the majority of software patents.

    People will always come up with new things. If anything, perhaps people are being raised today to stick with the status quo, but a number of others are being raised to believe that they can do better. I think it will balance out.

  3. Fred says:

    Hello Mr. St. Lawrence,

    Thank for your kind words.

    Are we entering a dark age of innovation?

    The problem with the theory of Mr. Huebner is that he relies only on the number of granted patents.

    What if people do not ask for patents anymore? I mean: what if most of the innovations are of the public domain and not patented? I do not know, but could it explain the current situation? It could.

    This said, when I check at our current technological state, in comparison with the one 10 or 20 years before, I can’t really say, with a simple observation, that we are entering a dark age of innovation. 60 Years ago, the first programmable computer were created during the Second World War. 60 years after, two autonomous robots are exploring Mars. If we are entering in a dark age of innovation, then I can certainly say that it is a good thing.

    By the way, could he define what a dark age of innovation is? If we check what is an innovation on Encarta we can’t say that we are in such an era.

    Then, why I “bookmarked” this piece of news if I do not agree with what is related in the article? It is only a way to tell me, when I will revise my Link Blog in some months or year: Fred, there is a possibility that he right.

    It is the way I use my blog. I use it as a knowledge management tool. A way to wrote about things that happen or will happen in my life (mostly professional). It is a way to clarify what I think and to crystallize these pieces of knowledge in my mind. It is a way to focus on things. And, by the beauty of the Internet, I get feedbacks from my readers, I discuss with them, and I possibly change my mind.



  4. For some reason, people love this idea. A good example: The end of physics. Max Planck’s advisors tried to steer him into a music career since “everyone knew” physics was a dead field. And of course that was before quantum physics or relativity.

    I recall computers were declared dead – just before the Internet took off.

    And today, even as things like RSS and podcasting are reshaping the way we communicate (note: no one patented blogging), some people insist that this innovation thing is just about over.

    I think this is getting play because, as mentioned in Freakonomics, the media love stories where conventional wisdom is challenged. Often times conventional wisdom is wrong … but sometimes it isn’t. I think given the massive shifts in communication we just dimly see right now, it is safe to say that we’re not slouches at innovation just yet. And add in the possibilities emerging from biotech, nanotechnology, quantum computers, etc., I think it is safe to say that innovation isn’t dead – and is probably still accelerating.

  5. Fred says:

    Hello Jay,

    Right to the point!

    And I would add that as mortal, self-centric creatures, we think that the destiny of everything we know is the same as ours: their deaths and finality. It seems that we think that all things we create or have an effect on, is destined to die, somewhere in the time.

    It seems that it is just another example of the phenomenon.

    But the author reached his goal: he makes us think about it.



  6. Jane Chin says:

    As usual, experts ask the wrong questions then strike fear (or cynicism) into the hearts of the masses. What have we done with all this innovation (area under the curve – see blog and amazing mouse-drawing of graph)? Have we truly maximized or optimized each significant innovation we have, or at we still catching up to the application of many innovations?

  7. Da Goddess says:

    Perhaps one should look at the quality of patents instead of the quantity.

    When you come right down to it, we may not be churning out tons of new ideas that require patenting, but what’s being developed is nothing less than miraculous. Especially on the medical front.

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