Nobody questions the importance of innovation in sustaining a healthy economy, but that alone is insufficient. Innovation has to have substance.
In an article in the Wall Street Journal Nicholas Carr argues that “innovation’s turn toward the trifling” has a lot to do with our deteriorating economy. He illustrates the point with Facebook’s recent announcement that it planned to buy Instagram for $1 billion.
What Earth-shaking development would make a company with just 13 employees and zero revenues worth that much? “A smartphone app that reformats photographs to look as if they were taken by an old Kodak Instamatic.”
Carr sees that as symptomatic of a shift in innovation “to smaller-scale, less far-reaching, less conspicuous advances” that are directed at satisfying a growing need “to indulge our vanity and pursue our desire for self-expression and self-promotion.” As consumers’ vision turns inward, entrepreneurs will direct their attention to that which provides self-gratification at the expense of that which serves the best interests of society as a whole.
“Not surprisingly,” Carr says, “when you step back and take a broad view, it often looks like stagnation – or decadence.” Although it may look as though the trend is signaling the deterioration of societal values, however, there is an equally plausible explanation.
The need for self-gratification, I believe, has much to do with the declining quality of life for American families. We are starved for something to feel good about. When people feel powerless to stem the tide they will naturally seek comfort wherever it can be found.
There has been no loss of ingenuity in the productive sector. It has merely been redirected to serve a different need. What is needed most is innovation at the highest levels of government. But there big money is heavily vested in the status quo. There is no payback for radical new ideas that could transform our society for the better.
Historians almost universally attribute the decline of great empires at least in part to growing decadence among their citizens. In America today we label it excessive consumption. Whether that is the cause of our problems, a symptom of government having grown too large to address the fundamental needs of its people, or a combination of the two merits serious contemplation.