Techno-Creativity Will Save Us
Release 4.25 December 2008
[Originally published in Forbes.com on December 12, 2008]
by Bret Swanson*
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As a new president contemplates
his agenda amidst a deep recession and global financial crisis,
he should remember his best friend: innovation. The combination
of technology and entrepreneurial creativity drives all real
long-term growth. But today market volatility pushes our panic
buttons, and short-term hysterics unlock the vaults of the Keynesian
kingdom. In these uncertain times, we forget just how far and
how fast the world moves. And how many crises innovation transcends.
Think back, for example, to the last Democratic transition, when
Bill Clinton ascended to the Oval Office in 1992. It was only
16 years ago, but it nevertheless
offers a gauge for the pace of change. The Soviet Union had just collapsed,
Apple Computer was in the doldrums versus the Windows juggernaut, and that
other unstoppable force, Miley Cyrus (aka "Hannah Montana"), had
just been born. The Internet was but a blip to most Americans, as were real
coffee and wine. There was no "genome," and there were no digital
cameras. The "Facebook" I received as I arrived for my freshman year
of college that autumn was printed on paper and played no part in the presidential
Today, an average consumer can
buy a terabyte hard drive (1 million megabytes), on which she
might store her family photos, videos and other digital documents
for as little as $109.99. In 1992, a terabyte drive, if such
a thing had existed, would have cost $5 million. The chief digital
storage medium at the time was the 3.5-inch floppy disk, which
held 1.4 megabytes. When digital photos came along and consumers
found the huge square disk could only hold one photo, it was
In mid-2008, the four-gigabyte
(or 4,096 megabytes) flash memory chip in an iPod Nano cost $25.
Late in 2008, four-gigabyte flash cards and USB drives are selling
for $14.99. But back in 1992, four gigabytes of flash memory
would have cost $500,000. This means a hypothetical iPod Nano
circa 1992 would have set back the teenage Nirvana or Boyz II
Men fan around $3 million.
Apart from research scientists
and a few early adopters of Compuserve and AOL, the Internet
essentially didn't exist in 1992. Monthly Internet traffic was
four terabytes. All the data traversing the global net in 1992
totaled 48 terabytes. Today, YouTube alone streams 48 terabytes
of data every 21 seconds.
Biology is also on the innovation
curve and is likely to accelerate. When the Human Genome Project
began in the early 1990s, sequencing one DNA base pair cost about
$10. Craig Venter famously began his own competing genome search
in 1998 and completed the project simultaneously, at around one-tenth
the cost. Today sequencing one base pair costs a tenth of a cent,
and by 2024--just 16 short years from today's presidential transition--we'll
sequence an entire human genome (yours, if you'd like) for $100.
In 1992 a tiny percentage of
Chinese citizens had ever made a phone call, but today there
are twice as many mobile-phone subscribers in China as there
are people in the U.S. The entirety of U.S.-China trade in 1992
was $33 billion. This year it will approach $400 billion. Trade
with India in 1992 was just $5.7 billion, but is now $35 billion.
All world output in 1992 was $20.4 trillion, about the size of
today's output from U.S., Japan and Germany. Imagine the rest
of the world didn't exist. That was 1992.
Now imagine how similar innovation
going forward will utterly transform all our industries, from
medicine and mining to agriculture, energy and education. Or
further imagine an accelerated pace of innovation. It's possible.
But innovation is by definition
unexpected. We can't force it or compel it. Certainly not from
Washington. The dramatic centralization of money, power, information
and influence now under way seriously threatens the entrepreneurial
revelations and technological revolutions that drive long-term
growth. If we quasi-nationalize the energy, finance, auto and
health care markets, and possibly bar dynamic new business models
on the Internet, as with possible network neutrality regulation,
we will close off many of the most promising paths to needed
efficiencies and, more important, new wealth.
If Washington had planned our
future in 1992, we wouldn't be here. Technology and ingenuity
can overcome many government mistakes and bloat. But at some
point, our short-term fixes and obsessions with certainty will
block the entrepreneurial acts so essential to long-term security.
In many ways, they already have.
When things look bleak, look
back. You will see how bright tomorrow can be.