Innovation is the most abused word in tech

August 29, 2012 2:56 PM EDT

Photo: Postcard, circa, 1908. The postcard is an early iteration of what later became Twitter

The iPad is about as innovative as the toaster. You can still read books without an iPad, and you can still toast bread without a toaster.

True innovation radically alters the way we interact with the world. It is something like air conditioning, the combustion engine or the telephone, not the smartphone.

But in tech, every little thing is called “innovative.”

Twitter is sometimes heralded as an innovation. It’s no more innovative than the postcard. The postcard has been used for more than a century to send short messages and images back and forth. Twitter has the advantage of viral broadcasting, but that’s only because of the Internet, a genuine innovation.   

Real innovation does not involve the things that Apple and Samsung fought over in their patent lawsuit. Restrictions on the use of features such as “pinch-to-zoom” will no more shut down development of rival products to Apple than Amazon’s shopping cart patent killed ecommerce.

Most of what is called innovation today is mere distraction. But don’t take my word for it. Read this paper by Robert Gordon, written for the National Bureau of Economic Research. The Financial Times assesses it and has a link to the 25-page PDF.

The paper includes some thought experiments to help you gain more respect for genuine innovations such as indoor plumbing. Here’s one, “Option B.”

Option B is that you get everything invented in the past decade right up to Facebook, Twitter, and the iPad, but you have to give up running water and indoor toilets. You have to haul the water into your dwelling and carry out the waste. Even at 3 a.m. on a rainy night, your only toilet option is a wet and perhaps muddy walk to the outhouse. Which option do you choose?

Goodbye Facebook “friends.” So long Angry Birds. Hello postcards.

Gordon’s paper, titled “Is U.S. Economic Growth Over? Faltering Innovation Confronts the Six Headwinds,” looks at faux-innovation in America and the threats to genuine innovation.  He also gut checks recent “innovation” claims:

Attention in the past decade has focused not on labor-saving innovation, but rather on a succession of entertainment and communication devices that do the same things as we could do before, but now in smaller and more convenient packages.

Gordon, an economics professor at Northwestern University, argues that innovation isn’t guaranteed and the big innovations that have advanced civilization over the past 200 years or so may well amount to a fluke in human history. But he isn’t a pessimist, and assumes that innovation continues “with such marvels as the driverless Google car on the near term horizon.”  

Nonetheless, the “daunting headwinds” that Gordon sees facing America include the retiring Baby Boomers, a plateau in educational attainment, rising income inequality, less costly overseas labor, energy and environmental concerns, and government and household deficits.

The most daunting is related to outsourcing, or as Gordon writes, “the interplay between globalization and modern technology, which accelerates the process of catching up of the emerging markets and the downward pressure on wages and real incomes in the advanced nations.”

To offset the Baby Boomer decline, Gordon argues that one potential option “would be unlimited immigration of high-skilled workers.” He writes:

For decades Canada has encouraged the immigration not only of skilled applicants but also those who are already rich and by so doing has transformed its culture from British colonial blandness to international world-class diversity.

Gordon’s paper is provocative and interesting, and a reminder that big innovations in history are rare.