Nothing New Under the Sun

OldTimeTwitter-messages When a new innovation appears, we often “ooh” and “gasp” and wonder how soon we can bring it into our lives. But often, what we take for innovation is simply a recycling of an idea within a new context. When Derek Jenkins linked to the image above, it made me wonder how many contextual innovations like this we could find from the past.

Of course, what any innovation is attempting to do, is solve a problem – and any solution is going to be bound by the limits of available (or scalable)technology and the willingness of the society to absorb and adopt the innovation.

As a child I expected the 2000s to be a time of robot housekeepers and flying cars. But I have a feeling that such expectations are to do with linear thinking – identify problem, extrapolate issue, propose solution. For me, the most interesting aspect of innovation is the discontinuous type – where a product or idea seems to come “out of the blue”. But when I really think about it, I find it hard to find a real example that cannot be linked to something else – some thinking, a predecessor or some contextual innovation.

Maybe there really is nothing new under the sun.

6 thoughts on “Nothing New Under the Sun

  1. You essentially sum up a foundation of patent law, that innovation builds upon innovation. If someone has a practical idea that they’re able to render into a useful form, a patent is assurance and incentive to share it with the world in exchange for a monopoly on its exploitation. Its a mutually beneficial arrangement between society and innovators that theoretically encourages the advancement of technology. Patents don’t just describe the invention, they indicate a particular technology’s limits so that they may be advanced.
    It is rare for a new technology to have no direct antecedent. Its epochal when it does happen, like Gutenberg’s print press.

  2. It would be nice to see more epochal innovation!
    I think one of the interesting things is that the real innovation often occurs not in the invention but in the invention’s use – ie HOW people use something can be as innovative as the invention’s first appearance.

  3. Just after reading this I came across a TED talk by Clay Shirky. He explains that technology doesn’t reach its potential until it becomes mundane and widespread. Clay tells the story of how the social movement to document vote tampering on SMS in Nigeria inspired the same mere months later with video and camera phones in the 2008 US election. There was backward tech transfer that proves that its not how advanced technology is but how socially advanced it is.
    Makes me wonder how iPhones will change society once they’re widespread…

  4. Check out this classic William Gibson story for some examples of retrofuturism:
    Gav – I think Oscar’s right in that we only see “epochal” innovations after the fact. When the World Wide Web emerged in the early 90s there were no headlines or ticker tape parades. Game changing innovations are generally seen as curios when they begin because the early verrsions are often less effective than the products they replace (c.f. early mobile phones).
    Osacr – I’ve used that Shirky quote to kick off a few presentations. I think the opporunities in “reverse development” (where you seek out innovative ideas in less technologically developed markets) are huge. Because the tech is simpler, people have to be smarter.

  5. Of course, once technology is mundane and widespread is when the early adopters lose interest. That’s where you get the “end of blogging” or “death of twitter” type conversations – but for me, that is when technology gets interesting: because that’s the point where we care less about the tech itself and focus on the people who use it and the stories they tell.
    I don’t know if the iPhone will change society. Sure, it’s novel, but I don’t know if it is epochal. Not yet, at least – but I think that is more to do with the experience that is tied to networks – and until that is sorted, the device is throttled.

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