Here’s a tiny proposition: innovation is in danger of becoming a word that means something like making even more instant instant microwavable noodles
On-demand butlers, maids, chaffeurs, dog-walkers. Pet spas. Tap for a drone-delivered artisanally crafted designer taco. Swipe right for a date with a better profile pic. Swipe up for the economy’s next great, earth-shaking innovation…same day delivery of everything you had to wait two days for.
Let’s take a moment to be painfully honest. The above are fripperies, trivialities, a piffling of the human spirit. Let me present you with a list of great endeavors humanity’s boundless ingenuity should be devoted to. Reversing climate change. Curing cancer (and the like). Ending poverty. Fixing the ills of democracy. Giving every child a life-changing education.
So how did we end up with a generation’s brightest minds slaving furiously over the colossal, world-changing idea of…same day delivery? Right you are: largely, because of short-termism, growthism, and “shareholder” (read: hedge-fund bots programmed to earn a penny more profit even during the implosion of the known universe) pressure.
But those exist in the first place because of a great myth. The Myth of Trickle-Down Innovation. I’d bet that you’ve heard it before, often from venture capitalists high-fiving each other in congrulatory blog posts (“aww shucks, Bob. No, you’re the Thomas Edison of the twenty-first century!!”). It goes like this: today’s luxuries are tomorrow’s necessities. What the rich enjoy today, so the poor will enjoy tomorrow. Hey, presto! Innovate!! Rinse, apply, repeat, problem (aka all of humanity’s greatest and most pressing challenges, issues, and dilemmas) solved.
The problem is that the Myth of Trickle Down Innovation isn’t really true. Like all great myths, it hides a greater truth — and symbolizes an article of faith that we ritualistically repeat, mostly to comfort one another that we are moral, just beings. While it’s certainly true that the majority of innovations trickle downwards through the strata of the economy, to the very bedrock, it’s truer that many don’t — and they are often precisely the ones that should; or worse still, that on its voyage through the strata of the economy, what was once the pure, clean water of prosperity gets polluted into something more like toxic sludge.
I just bought a new TV. Wow! It’s the kind of miraculous gadget six year old me could only have dreamt of in his widest-eyed fantasies. It’s huge, paper-thin, and does wondrous things like making everything on it 3-D. Amazing, right? Right. Innovation trickling down to a humble nobody like me. But. If the hidden cost of my new TV is that I don’t enjoy stability, mobility, opportunity, retirement — which should I want? I know, it’s a tough choice.
Here are three more examples, to make my point. Cars. Everyone has one today. But because society invested heavily in a groundbreaking (at the time) set of highways. No highways — less cars. Lesson: innovation doesn’t trickle down in a magical, unstoppable alchemy —even when it does, it often requires help, a gentle nudge, a spark (read: investment, laws, social norms). Food. It’s true that people today enjoy a cornucopia in their local supermarket. But it’s truer that food deserts exist, and much food is riddled with additives and preservatives: sure, innovation trickled down — but the high-fructose-saturated-food-like products many can afford aren’t quite the pure, clean Whole Foods the rich enjoy. Education. If you’re very rich, you can send your kids to a liberal arts school, where they’ll enjoy careful, personalized one-on-one instruction in classes of a few dozen. But if you’re not…well, fear not, innovation’s trickling down. You might enjoy online classes (read: Powerpoint presentations with canned voice-overs) with thousands of other students, with maybe a scratchy Skype connection and a few multiple-choice quizzes to boot. Not quite the same thing, are they? What’s trickling down at the very bottom isn’t the pure, clean water of life at the top of the economic mountain.
Still don’t accept my tiny theory? Here are just a few things that the richest have, that the middle class doesn’t, and probably won’t in the foreseeable future. Wealth managers, private jets, members’ clubs, private islands, property portfolios, designer yachts. Some things are more like caviar than water: they don’t trickle down the economic mountain at all.
The converse is also true. If what’s trickling down from the top of the mountain is champagne, but the people at the bottom are thirsty for water…then you’re probably not innovating in any meaningful sense. We can make all the on-demand masseuses and pet spas and same-day delivered designer sheets in the world — but they’re not going to benefit people as much as high quality jobs, incomes, savings, rights, mobility, opportunity…happiness, meaning, a planet. While some innovations never trickle down, and some turn into sludge along the way — often, innovations that do trickle down are of little benefit in the first place. Doggy butlers trickling down when most Americans can’t afford $400 for an emergency expense is like smiling and giving a person dying of thirst a designer straw to suck air through.
The trickle-down theory of innovation is essentially the discredited ideology of trickle-down economics restated using gadgets instead of formulas. The latter argues that prosperity will trickle down (it hasn’t), and the former suggests that prosperity trickles down through goods magically getting cheaper (instead of turning toxic, pointless, or simply disappearing along the way). But just as trickle-down economics has been squarely debunked, repudiated even by the IMF, for example, so it’s time for us to update our tired, rusting mental models of innovation.
Rather than employing the illogic of trickle-down innovation, you and I should ask a wiser question: what are the long-term real social benefits of this product, service, idea, project? What does it add in human terms — does it make people smarter, fitter, wiser, closer, happier? Will it change anyone’s life, in even a small way, for the better, and how many lives can it realistically change thus — or is it just another coal in the bonfire of the vanities?
Why? Because the truth is that we don’t get too many shots at groundbreaking things — and it’s those shots that come to define the worthiness of our days. If we’re going to spend our time, effort, money, imagination, our best minds and our brightest spirits, on the grand challenge of…delivering stuff we don’t really need with money we don’t really have to impress people we don’t really like to live lives we don’t really want…a few microseconds sooner…we’re not surely not investing our very selves wisely: spending our brief time on earth accomplishing things that truly matter. And lest you suggest I’m an idealist, the simple fact is: that is how great institutions, leaders, and lives, those that earn our respect, love, and admiration — and so lend our brief days a sense of greater meaning, higher purpose, and abiding worth — are built.