Can innovation be sped up?
By Scott Sumner
One would think that there are public policies that would substantially accelerate the pace of innovation. I’m not so sure. I’ll address this issue in a roundabout fashion, starting with a discussion of innovation in some seemingly unrelated fields.
In 1969, we had just landed on the moon, the Boeing 747 was carrying 400 passengers at 600 mph, and cars sped down expressways at 70 mph. President Nixon would soon launch the war on cancer. Given the incredible progress in medicine and transport over the previous 50 years, people expected fantastic gains in manned space travel, air and ground transport, as well as a cure for cancer. Certainly within the next 50 years. I was also guilty of excessive optimism, as several supersonic commercial airplanes were being developed at this time.
Of course, those dreams did not pan out. We fly and drive more slowly than in 1969. (Where’s my flying car?) There was impressive innovation, but mostly in areas that people didn’t expect, such as the internet.
Tyler Cowen recently linked to a post by Evert Cilliers, listing what he thought were the 10 best songwriters of all time. Five were born between 1885-1902, and the other five between 1940-43. The reputation of the latter group rests almost entirely with their work from the 1960s. I don’t think many people in 1969 anticipated that the golden age of songwriting was over. (I didn’t.) And the golden age of cinema seemed to end around 1980 (except in Asia.)
At this point, there are often two different responses:
1. The fact that art goes in cycles of creativity shows that it is not a progressive field like physics. The scientists of today are better than the scientists of the past, whereas today’s artists are inferior.
2. It’s just nostalgia to assume the best artists were in the past. Today’s scientists are better, our chess players are better, our athletes are better, so our artists and musicians must also be better than ever.
I’ll try to show that both views are wrong.
Let’s start with the first argument, which compares apples and oranges. It’s true that modern scientists know more than earlier scientists. But it’s also true that the theoretical physicists of the period from 1900 to 1969 were more creative and more productive than during the period since the “standard model” was developed. (In 1969, people didn’t know that the golden age of physics was over.) In the same way, art experts today know more about art than art experts 100 years ago, but that doesn’t mean that today’s painters are more creative than those of 100 years ago.
It seems like there are certain periods of time in each field that are more “fertile”. Periods when it’s easier to be a great innovator. If Thomas Edison had been born in 1347 instead of 1847, it’s unlikely he would have invented lots of neat consumer products. But that’s also true if he had been born in 1947. Is it a coincidence that 5 great songwriters were born between 1940 and 1943? I’ll try to show that it was not.
The second argument makes some sense. Nostalgic people often claim that the athletes of the past were greater than today’s athletes, a claim that’s almost certainly false. Nonetheless, it is very likely true that the arts really do have periods of creativity and decline, and this isn’t just baby boomer nostalgia.
Consider European painting between 1625 and 1725. Those familiar with art history know that this 100-year period was extremely uneven. During 1625-75, great artists such as Rubens, Velasquez, Vermeer, Rembrandt and Poussin produced many, many astounding masterpieces, perhaps the greatest flowering of the European visual arts. And then . . . almost nothing of significance for 50 years. This is far enough back that history’s verdict is likely to be final.
Nor can this 1625-75 golden age to attributed to coincidence. While I only cited 5 painters, the next tier were also far superior to those of 1675-1725. Behind Vermeer and Rembrandt, you had many other Dutch painters such as Frans Hals, Jacob Ruisdael, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and Carel Frabritius (a film was just made of one of his paintings.) It’s the second tier that confirms it really was a fertile period for innovation in art, not just a coincidence. Of course, the same could be said about painting in the Renaissance, or the period from 1865-1920 (after which cinema took over.) I’m no expert on music, but doesn’t the period from Bach to Beethoven also qualify?
There’s no point in discovering the Theory of Relativity twice, inventing the light bulb twice, writing another Beethoven-style symphony, directing another Godfather, or painting another Vermeer. To get innovation, we need a development that opens up new opportunities. The computer chip obviously qualifies. Basic research in reading the human genome has allowed recent discoveries regarding the genetic links of various populations around the world, reinvigorating ancient history.
Can government speed up innovation in music, art, technology and basic physics? For technology, some cite the government’s role in creating the internet. But wouldn’t the private sector have tried to link up computers during the 1990s, once the PC revolution was in full swing? If Edison had not invented the light bulb, wouldn’t someone else have done so at roughly the same time? Indeed, someone else did so! The US government tried to invent the airplane and failed. But it didn’t matter because the Wright brothers succeeded, and did so privately.
If industrial policy can do anything useful, it would be to create the fundamental scientific and artistic discoveries that lead to many smaller discoveries. But can it? I’m skeptical that it can do very much. In the arts, pop music was reinvigorated by hip hop once rock music had stagnated. Does anyone think a government program could have invented rap music? Can government produce the next Einstein in physics? I’m not saying there is nothing they could do (and they can certainly discourage innovation), but it remains to be proven that government can play a major role in producing fundamental innovation.
Innovation seems to occur when the time is ripe. Since I’ve talked a lot about music, I’ll end with a great song from the 1960s: “You Can’t Hurry Love”.
Here’s the Fabritius painting that led to the novel and the film.
And remember that Fabritius was a “minor” artist!
PS. The Cilliers article actually focuses on the top 8 songwriters, but later on indicated that Jagger and Richards are #9 and #10, and well above the next tier.
PPS. It may well be true that today’s music and films are, on average, made with more skill and “craftmanship”, by more talented people. But they are less innovative, less “great”.