Martin van Beynen
Who would have thought at a time, when your cellphone or DVD player is obsolete before you leave the store, there is a worry about a lack of innovation and dearth of new technology?
The Economist magazine tells us so anyway. It has a great cover (January 12-18) putting the statue of the thinker on a toilet with the caption, "The growing debate about dwindling innovation".
The concern held in some quarters is that the technological strides we have made over the last 20 years are not showing the productivity and economic gains of the true game changers of yesteryear, like electricity, the internal combustion engine, petro- chemicals, the telephone and modern plumbing.
Despite the apparent boom in Silicon Valley at the moment, some experts are calling the present state of innovation the "Great Stagnation".
George Madison University economist Tyler Cowen believes the "various motors of 20th century growth" - some technological, some not - have become exhausted and, according to the Economist, he says "new technologies are not going to have the same invigorating effect on the economies of the future. For all its flat-screen dazzle and high- bandwidth pizzazz, it seems the world has run out of ideas".
The Economist then goes on to argue the pessimism is largely unfounded because technological revolutions take a while to gather steam and progress is much more likely to go in fits and starts.
If the author of the article watched a modern innovation called infomercials he or she would have found even more fertile ground for optimism. I involuntarily watch a lot of infomercials because my desk in the newsroom offers a prime view of our three TV screens. Late mornings and early afternoons are particularly educational on this score.
That is why I know about a new product called Easy Feet. The device consists of two sandals which you can stick onto the floor of your shower or the side of your bath. The sandals are equipped with brushes and other protruding bits which cleanse your feet as you move them back and forward. Brilliant. No need for awkward bending down to wash between your toes and the soles of the feet.
I have also become acquainted with the revolution in women's undergarments, namely big stiff knickers and comfortable bras. They might not be electricity or semi- conductors, but in terms of improving self-image and confidence, they are indeed up there with the best.
Another productive ground for our modern day-innovators, as illustrated by infomercials, is exercise, particularly in the home. Gone are the days when a few weights, a bench, a medicine ball and a rowing machine were enough to fully equip the home gym and keep you in shape. Now an abundance of expensive devices can tone you up in only a few minutes a day. Sensational stuff and a trend the Economist has evidently not noticed.
The Economist mentions the kitchen as an area that hasn't changed much since the innovations of the 70s. "The gizmos are more numerous and digital displays ubiquitous, but cooking is done much the same way as Grandma."
The author has obviously not spent much time in the modern kitchen because then he or she would have mentioned the crock pot, the coffee grinder, the bread maker, the kitchen whizz and the deep fryer. For Christmas I got a D Line potato chipper that turns the right-sized potato into two different sizes of chips. I could not have been happier. We have another slicer called the Alligator that neatly dissects onions and carrots.
Nor does the Economist scribe take account of individual and unheralded resourcefulness in the home. During the holidays I got sick of the toothbrushes and toothpaste tube on the bathroom sink, so I made my own holder complete with an ingenious device which not only holds the toothpaste tube but squeezes the toothpaste upwards so it is never far from the tube outlet.
The question is, of course, are any of these innovations contributing to the economy and making workers more productive? My toothpaste device, for instance, was made from an old plastic chopping board. Apart from removing a bit of plastic from the waste stream it contributed not an iota to the economy. You could argue it has made me more productive because I now spend less time squeezing the toothpaste tube, but that assumes I am using the saved time usefully, which is not always the case.
The other new products I have mentioned may have improved people's lives but not necessarily their incomes. The products, invariably made in China, do not keep local workers employed, and apart from a few weeks, might end up spending most of the time in storage.
There is hope, however. My toothpaste holder could become an export industry, creating lots of local jobs. So many good ideas spring from the home. Would electricity have been invented if candles were more effective? Would the steam engine have come about without a boiling kettle?
So innovation is far from dead nor is it stagnating.
The innovation pessimists are just not looking in all the right places.
- © Fairfax NZ News