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Should we deliberately slow down innovation?

Did you notice that Alvin Toffler, author of “Future Shock” just passed away? His book was published in 1970. That was well before the Internet, Twitter, Facebook and even photocopiers and hand-held electronic calculators. Think what he would say today?

Clearly the pace of change has accelerated dramatically since Toffler alerted us to the problem. Essentially he was warning us that as innovation speeds up its gets to be a continuous series of ever bigger shocks. Where are we in the process now?

How many people can keep up with the constant barrage of –admittedly smart and useful  - gadgets, apps and so on? I think now it’s impossible for the vast majority of people to keep up with their names, let alone what they do.

Maybe your kids can keep up with some of the latest chat apps. But as they get older do they also keep up with the shattering advances in biotechnology, space exploration, cosmology and neuroscience? I think not. The shocking future is already with us and the fact is, much as the vast majority of us doesn’t want to admit it, that most of us just can’t keep up.

Is there a neural or cognitive speed limit on how much change we can absorb and respond to constructively? That’s something that neuroscience hasn’t really checked out to the best of my knowledge. But it might be the most important limit there is, up there and maybe beyond the capacity to love, aspire and lead.

But what we can say with almost virtual certainty is that we are approaching our limits, both individually and socially. On the social side it is reflected I n increasing levels of ungovernability or semi-governability in an increasing number of countries. How might it be reflected at the level of the individual?

Here’s my take on it. Most people are at or past their levels of capability to absorb the accelerating levels of innovations and change. The number of people who can still respond effectively to this change is already a minority and is diminishing the more the level of change increases.

This cognitive elite is the one that is supplying most of our knowledge workers, and especially the ones actually creating the innovations and change. The cognitive elite are naturally earning more and more money, but it is a diminishing proportion of the population.

The majority of people are not members of this elite. They are the ones that are losing out in the earnings and lifestyle sweepstakes ( see “In Advanced Economies, Two-Thirds of Population Have Seen Incomes Stagnate”). Many of these are the ones that are voting for radical change, as per Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Many of them voted for BREXIT and the Far Right in Europe.

As the levels of innovation and change inexorably rise, the cognitive elite will comprise an ever-smaller proportion of the population and the vast majority of the population will suffer relative declines in earnings and life style benefits and possibilities. So we can expect them to get progressively even more unhappy than they are now.

For these disaffected people I don’t think the problem is just a loss of jobs, although that’s part of it. It’s their perception that with the advance of technology most of them, and their kids, are going to lose out. So there's no hope for them.

And we're not just talking about intelligence and education either. Being part of the cognitive elite is having the innate capability to respond constructively to massive continuous change. That’s not a common capability and people know that.

The conventional answer is to speed up growth. But none of the developed countries now look as if they can do that. The emerging countries are probably a lost cause too despite their needs. So it looks as if we cannot grow our way out of the problem either.

And if we distribute more of the wealth it might make things even worse by reducing incentives in the system to innovate our way out of the problem either. That’s because the more you innovate, the worse the problem of inequality becomes.

It might be that there is an answer but it might be radical and highly discomfiting to everyone including yours truly. But you have to think through the worst if you want to discover the best.

Here’s what I think. It might be that governments might have to adopt deliberate policies of slowing innovation and change. I know, it goes totally against the grain of what every business guru in the world is saying. So be it.

Some possibilities:

  • Weaken patent protection to provide less incentive for technology changes and products
  • Regulate the pace at which companies can introduce new products
  • Regulate the pace of new IPOs especially tech IPOs
  • Introduce curricula in schools and universities showing how to cope with change
  • Introduce curricula to show people how to make do with less
  • Increase the tax on capital gains
  • Eliminate the favored tax treatment for investment funds.

Full disclosure: I am an incorrigible disruptor so this definitely goes totally against the grain.

But desperate times call for desperate measures.







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