Innovation Is Dead

Published September 1, 2003

Has the summer passed by with nary a daydream? Has it ever been so difficult to make up bedtime stories for our children, or ghost stories around a campfire? Imagination is under assault in this country … and that does not bode well for our future.

Turn on the television and you’ll see a steady parade of “reality TV” programs. Prefer to read? You can’t avoid the criticism of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, whose made-up stories actually involve made-up people with made-up powers. How dare she!

Has anything been shown in movie theaters this year that is not a part two or three? Even Disney–which long ago lost any shame about remaking its own films–now resorts to making hour-and-a-half movies based on theme park rides. In the evening, the apparently ideal television program has us all simply watching people who could be our neighbors, mugging for the cameras as they vie for money or mates.

Business and Politics

Executives in the bastion of corporate creativity–the software industry–seem to have run out of big ideas. Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, recently stated the software industry was done with growth and would now settle into the long economic slumber of a “mature industry”–a prediction that seems destined to taunt would-be entrepreneurs. On the Internet, the PBS Innovation site has been “retired” from

Politics and public policy offer little relief. Democrats and Republicans alike seem determined to be the party of greater spending and greater social regulation. Some environmentalists hope to “turn back the clock” to “more natural” times–ignoring that over time the environment itself has naturally changed. Some health care reform advocates want the U.S. to repeat the mistakes made by other countries with socialized health care systems, innovation-stifling price controls, and quality-crippling regulations.

In short, we seem to have lost a unique part of the American spirit: the will to think in new and exciting ways, and to expose those new thoughts in the public domain and see where they lead.

Wanted: Determination

I’ll assume you agree the U.S. truly has become an altogether less imaginative place in which to live and work. Does any of this matter? Absolutely. Information technology is just one, albeit vitally important, case in point.

Innovation–which drives our economy and is essential to our quality of life in every arena–depends on imagination, strengthened with a heavy dose of knowledge and applied with lots of determination.

Imagination, knowledge, and determination are the pulsing heart of the technology industry, and clearly the driver of emerging nanotechnology efforts. Our futures depend on keeping that heart rate strong: While information technology firms represent only 7 percent of U.S. businesses, they accounted for roughly 28 percent of the country’s real economic growth between 1996 and 2000.

Government regulation is the antithesis of innovation. Archaic laws will always stifle a fast-moving industry, and the only innovation bureaucrats appear able to accomplish is finding new ways to stop innovation. Meanwhile, tax-inclined legislators relish the idea of milking real innovation to fund the expansion of yesteryear’s programs.

The bedrock business concepts of imagination and innovation are every bit as important as sound management, fair dealing, and other key principles of the marketplace. Government’s proper role in a growing, innovative economy is to step aside and let innovation flourish, rather than view it as a threat or a golden goose for taxation.

The Romans invented and used concrete in building their empire, but the knowledge was lost for centuries–as the empire stagnated, so did innovation. Let’s hope the historians of a future generation are not forced to report the terrible loss of modern technology and American ingenuity–can you imagine a world without them?

Bartlett Cleland is director of the IPI Center for Technology Freedom. Formerly he served as the Technology and Policy Counsel for Americans for Tax Reform, and earlier he was counsel to Senator John Ashcroft. His email address is [email protected].