Monday, May 28, 2012

Reflections on a hierarchy of innovation

[Nicholas] Carr describes what he refers to as the Hierarchy of Innovation, which is loosely analogous to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. As Carr puts it: 
“The focus, or emphasis, of innovation moves up through five stages, propelled by shifts in the needs we seek to fulfill. In the beginning come Technologies of Survival (think fire), then Technologies of Social Organization (think cathedral), then Technologies of Prosperity (think steam engine), then technologies of leisure (think TV), and finally Technologies of the Self (think Facebook, or Prozac).” 
I’m OK with the hierarchy concept and think it’s a fine first-order mechanism to understand the underlying social values driving innovation at any given stage in civil development. 
However, I think much deeper drivers are worth considering....
Presently, 125 years later, civilization is still reliant on the core energy production technologies created in the Industrial Revolution. Economies with the mastery and control of those technologies enjoy almost unlimited access to abundant and cheap energy, and it is in those societies that we see the shift in innovation so lamented by Carr in his article.
Yet the current energy paradigm, not so unlike the one based on livestock and human power, is fundamentally based on commodity fuels and highly fragmented production and distribution industries that can be owned and controlled (usually to their own benefit) by anyone with the resources and power to do to so. As such, the paradigm is defined by energy haves and have-nots; and the energy have-nots are consistently plagued by crushing poverty and disease. This disparity is growing rapidly.
 On a global basis, this imbalance is likely coming to a critical point, and, like the mid-19th century, the stage is formally set for another innovation in energy production, one that frees us from the burdens and challenges of fossil fuels and unleashes another unprecedented transformation in economies and ultimately the human condition.
Read it at Climate Progress
The World’s Energy Disparity Is Reaching A Critical Stage To Spawn Innovation
by Ned L. Harvey | Chief Operating Officer of the Rocky Mountain Institute

 I have been thinking about technology and innovation lately, too, so I found the post apropos. My thinking has run more along the lines of historical eras. Humans differentiated from other animals through the development of sufficient intelligence through brain development and physical resources like a larynx capable of articulate phonation that made use communication through language possible and opposable thumbs that made tool use available. This all happen in the remote past and we are just beginning to reconstruct the biblical cultural narrative based on discoveries in archeology and anthropology.

Tools were initially used for piercing, cutting, striking and other simple operations, and fire was also domesticated. These were huge advances over other other animals, and it provided humans with an incredible advantage, especially the development of weapons technology for hunting, protection, and territorial defense and expansion. Proto-machines, which bridged the gap between tools and machines also appear, for instance, the use of the lever and pulley to amply effort and the use of the wheel to reduce friction, enabling humans to move heavy objects for construction. All of this is lost in the mysts of time, however, and what remains is monuments that still amaze. It is impossible, however, to exaggerate these accomplishments, which where as huge then as any technological advances made today, since it involved primates leaving their natural environment, to which animals had been confined, and creating an artificial environment and constructing social reality based on information.

My thinking is that technology and innovation need to be viewed chiefly in terms of the expansion of intelligence and the application of information. As a result, humanity when through several major transformations that results in different eras. The first historical era is that of agriculture, which lasted until the industrial revolution. The economy of the agricultural era was feudal, based on control of land as the means of production. The energy was provided by human and animal labor and the technology was agricultural know-how and basic tools like the plow and basic engineering like irrigation. Return on energy invested was low, and the human cost was very high indeed, for most people at least.

The industrial revolution changed all that dramatically with the introduction of labor saving devices that harnessed energy for work. Humans had used water wheels and windmills previously, but heat used in engines had not yet been exploited for transformation into work. This invention catapulted humanity onto altogether different level of functioning, with a concomitant change in society and social organization. Capitalism became dominant economically as machines replaced human and animal labor, and investment was needed to produce the capital goods that resulted huge expansion of consumer goods and also provided the possibility for more leisure, since less labor was needed for subsistence.

Clearly, the transition from the agricultural era to the industrial era, and from feudalism to capitalism, was based on a transformation that arose from a different level of information use. Similarly today, humanity stands on the brink of a new era, the age of information, also known as the age of knowledge and the digital age, as it learns to tap the potential of information directly, instead of using it indirectly through science and engineering. It is as yet unclear what effect this transition is going to have on humanity socially, politically, and economically. However, it promises to be as significant as any of the previous transformations in shaping a new humanity and civilization as the potential of human nature unfolds through evolution and displays itself in the environment.

However, the major transformations of the past, from the primitive era to the era of agriculture, and then to the industrial era have resulted in institutional transformation as well, which has been accompanied by a transformation in collective consciousness. We can expect that this transformation will lay the foundation for the major trends of this century. This is what forward thinkers are now attempting to foresee. What will be the effect of innovation in robotics, molecular medicine, artificial intelligence, and alternative energy as they are scaled, for instance? How is this era of increasing globalism going to be governed? What economic system will either evolve out of capitalism or replace it?


Anonymous said...

Was going to psot it in the other thread but may as well post it here:

Going nuclear-free: Germany smashes solar power world record

Anonymous said...

Some of the countries without the benefit of any native energy reserves (e.g. Hong Kong & Singapore) are not mired in crushing poverty. While some that have been blessed with huge reserves are poor.(Venezuela). It's not lack of energy reserves that makes a country and its people poor.

JK said...

Interesting development in energy: