Modern societies enjoy immense benefits from innovative application of knowledge to products and services that make lives easier.
The distinctive “move fast and break things,” the worship of “disruption,” and the logic of venture capitalism for near term growth – all these value speed at levels unusual in world history. Their success rate is low, but the impact of their successes is very, very high. Those subcultures have produced innovations; they continue to invent new products and services. In some sense, enough “high risk, high payoff” ideas have succeeded that collectively this subculture has changed the larger society in fundamental ways.
Such developments tend to excel at assembling existing things into new collections that produce novel outcomes. For example, Uber and Lyft, without cellular-based internet communication, smart phones, remote credit card processing, and GPS, cannot support their most valued features. Such novel combinations solve problems unsolved in the status quo. Hence, identifying problems to solve is a key attribute of the entrepreneur using these approaches.
There is much commentary about the myopia that plagues some actors in this environment. Widespread criticism of indirect harmful effects of practices – biases in facial recognition, which when used for law enforcement, can harm individuals; poorly chosen training data sets for machine learning algorithms, which when use to guide high-staked decisions, can create unjustifiable inequalities. Perhaps most fully salient is the amplification of violent speech through social media algorithms. Solving one problem through combining existing knowledge, often threatens creating another problem.
Two issues arise in thinking about these issues these subcultures of assembling existing things into new combinations:
- Who is responsible for societal infrastructure that serves the common good?
- Who will support the basic research that produces new knowledge requisite to technological innovation?
To exemplify the first question, the growth in electric cars will likely require transmission, storage, and coordinated production of electricity in an unprecedented fashion. Who will redesign the grid? The growth of digital data on human behavior, arising from e-commerce and government program platforms, offers the possibility of common-good statistical information on the well-being of the population, but there is no existing coordinated infrastructure to make it possible. Who should be responsible for building such an infrastructure? Application of mRNA science rapidly developed new vaccines, but access to them is highly variable across the population. Who’s to build the social and programmatic infrastructure to ensure vaccinations?
It has been the tradition of central governments to build and maintain infrastructures that cannot generate profit if they were led by the private sector. This requires support for longer-run thinking and patient funding of common-good facilities and functions.
On the second question, technological change, the application of new knowledge into practical new combinations to solve problems, is exciting. It often offers a direct path to economic riches and societal impact. It is understandable that it is easier to gain support for it. But technological innovation depends on disparate discoveries in diverse fields. At their inception, the discoveries often have no obvious application. Typically, applications depend on multiple, disparate discoveries. In that sense, basic research is the “soil” of technological change. Support for basic research requires deferred gratification and long-run thinking. However, it is key to the technological change that will occur twenty years from now.
The flower is a pleasing sight, but its seed produces nothing without proper ingredients of the soil.