02: Go beyond the post-war legacy of innovation

Experts on innovation always agree that it is speeding up ‘exponentially’. But is that true?

In 1965, in just four pages, the later co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, noted that the ‘complexity for minimum component costs’ of integrated circuits – that is, the number of transistors per chip that yielded the minimum cost per transistor – had roughly doubled each year from 1962 to 1965. Though he hardly needed to say so, that pattern is an exponential one. Still, Moore added that there was no reason to believe that it would not remain nearly constant for at least another 10 years. [1]

Letter: Mankind needs to rediscover its hunger for innovation, Financial Times

In the Financial Times Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel published one of the most important articles in the spirit of the BIG POTATOES perspectives since we published. The article – Our dangerous illusion of tech progress, Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel, Financial Times, November 8, 2012 – picks up on the themes in our Principle 02: Go beyond the post-war legacy of innovation. Though their emphasis is slightly different it is hard to find fault with.

Our reply has been published in the FT, slightly edited, as Mankind needs to rediscover its hunger for innovation, November 13, 2012. The letter as submitted follows. We have Tweeted about it and would value re-Tweets:

Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel are right that the bright future of scientific ingenuity we expected to solve our problems has gone missing (“Our dangerous illusion of tech progress”, November 8, 2012). Though this vision was technocratic – borne out of the necessity of a World War and the Cold War – today, by comparison, its seems wonderfully positive and ambitious.

As we observed in our 2010 BIG POTATOES manifesto, when boosters of ICT – the main game in innovation today – rave about ‘exponential growth’, they should really say ‘accelerating, but only for the moment’. In reality we are seeing the endgame of research into micro-electronics, computing and telecommunications conducted 40 or more years ago. That these innovations have transformed the media has made amplified our perception of them, in our mediated age. But we are blinded to the lack of investment in fundamental research that will lay the basis for future growth.

Previous huge leaps in innovation were international, mutually reinforcing and, critically, coincided with major social, economic and political upheavals, and the new hopes in the possibility and necessity of progress they ushered in. Today our emphasis is not on revolutionising production, but rather on finance, home insulation, consumer goods, and consumer services. As the authors note, the only huge leap proposed is a misanthropic and irrational leap backward ‘for the environment’s sake’.

In the second decade of the 21st century we badly need to leap ahead in creating new industries. To achieve this we need to re-establish the principles around which mankind should continue innovating.