Innovation, but why?

Ancient peoples worshiped many gods, but modern civilization bows before a single principle: Innovation. As President Obama said in Tuesday's State of the Union address, “In America, innovation doesn't just change our lives. It is how we make our living.” He went on to use the word innovation ten more times, making it the major theme of his speech. Innovation is more than just a word, its influence can be seen in the ways that major institutions, such as business and the military, have re-organized themselves around a state of permanent innovation. In the following, I will examine two paths to this state, and its consequence for the scientific community and society at large.

Carlson traces the development of the corporate research and development lab. The first innovators were inventors, craftsmen who improved devices increment by increment. But as a systemic source of innovation, these small inventors typical of Industrial revolution were hobbled by a lack of capital, and the limitations of human knowledge. While tinkering with existing devices and principles was within the reach of many ambitious craftsmen, truly novel principles and the means to bring advanced technologies to market were out of reach.

Carlson traces the dawn of institutional innovation to the telegraph. As Western Union spread across the country, competing with local firms, railroads, financiers, and anti-trust lawyers, it became apparent that the difference between profit and extinct lay in harnessing the latest in electronics technology, usually by buying patents off of private inventors. Thomas Edison parlayed his success as an inventor into an immense private workshop, however General Electric and its chief scientist, Elihu Thompson, created the modern model of corporate R&D in 1900. Frustrated by the amount of coordination between scattered factories required to build an experimental car, he convinced the GE board to create a permanent lab conducting basic research.

At first, the purpose of the lab was purely defensive, to protect GE products from superior competitors. But as time passed, industrialists realized that new knowledge could be used offensively, to create new markets, to trade with competitors, and to improve public standing. Compared to the 'random genius' of inventors, management preferred scientific innovation because it seemed predictable and controllable. This basic pattern, with the added details of intra-industry collaboration and Federal support of risky technologies, has continued through the 21st century, although in real terms, large R&D labs have been responsible for surprisingly few breakthroughs, with much of the most creative work coming from smaller companies, a model best demonstrated in biotech and computers, where small start-ups with one piece of very valuable IP are purchased and developed by larger conglomerates.

A second side of institutional innovation is the military, which supports up to half of the basic research conducted in America. War and technology have long been closely intertwined, as brilliant explored by William McNeill in The Pursuit of Power. Perhaps the first noteworthy institutionalization of innovation was the British shipbuilding industry circa 1900, where an “Iron Triangle” of shipyards, admirals, and hawkish liberal politicians pushed steel to its limits with ever more powerful battleships. But it was not until WW1 that innovative warfare had its first chance to shine. Innovation was applied haphazardly, in the form of machine guns, poison gas, aircraft, tanks, submarines and anti-submarine warfare, but there was little coordination between scientists and soldiers. A new weapon would make an initial splash, but quickly add to the stalemate. The war was eventually decided by a German economic collapse.

Many of the scientific institution of WW1 were dismantled in the interwar years, but WW2 was above and beyond a war won by cutting edge science. Radar, operations research, airpower, and of course the atomic bomb were all products of Allied scientific knowledge, while jet fighters and rockets rolled off of Nazi lines at the close of the war. Federally supported labs, and defense companies who sold solely to the government proliferated, too many to name. With an obvious and immediate clash between the Allies and the Soviet Union at hand, neither side disarmed their scientific apparatus. Both sides sought to avoid a qualitative defeat, or worse, technological surprise, investing ever larger sums in military R&D, and leading to the domineering “military-industrial complex” of President Eisenhower's farewell address.

For scientists, these twin processes have been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, science has obtained a great deal of funding from industrial and military sources, orders of magnitude more than the pure 'pursuit of truth'. Yet, scientists have lost their autonomy, tied either to market forces or military imperatives. Biomedicine has improved healthcare, but also exponentially increased costs. The process of introducing a new drug is more akin to marketing than science or medicine. Through the military, “Science has known sin,” to paraphrase Oppenheimer's haunting phrase. Where for a period from about 1850 to 1945, the scientist could truly claim to represent a universal humanity, working towards the ends of destruction has permanently damaged scientific prestige and credibility. The values of science are subordinated towards petty, nationalist ends.

For society, pursuit of innovation has lead to the threat of man-made extinction through nuclear war. The process of action-reaction in the arms race brings us ever closer to the brink of annihilation. From the market side, the permanent churning of the basic constituents of society has created an immense dislocation. Skills and jobs can become obsolete in less than a decade. With new-found material wealth came a crass materialism. The objects around us change constantly, their principles of operation becoming ever more opaque. The deep sense of unease pervading American society might be reasonably traced to chronic future shock. Innovation is a god, but it has become Moloch, concerned solely with profit and military might.

So, to return to the State of the Union. I've read it several times, and I feel conflicted. It's a good speech, certainly, and I agree with many of the specific policies he outlines for a continued investment in innovation, yet there is a certain hollowness to it, a failure to grapple with the crux of why we innovate. The main drive to innovate is material, the jobs of the 21st century should be located in America, yet we don't know that innovation will bring back jobs, at best we know from the lessons of the past that a failure to innovate will mean the loss of more jobs. But the ultimate hollowness came at the end. President Obama made a deliberate callback to the space race, with the phrase “Sputnik moment,” but President Kennedy knew where we were going; the moon, in ten years.

Obama's answer to Kennedy, “I'm not sure how we'll reach that better place beyond the horizon, but I know we'll get there. I know we will.”

That's certainly true. We'll definitely make it to the future the old-fashioned way, by living it, one day at a time. But that's no guarantee that the future will be any place we want to live. Right now, all we have is a notion that America must be wealthier than China. As individuals, as a nation, and as a species, we must decide what is beyond that horizon, and we must build the institutions of governance to take us there.

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