Gloom + Doom: Is the Social Media “Revolution” Indicative of Future Innovation?

Would you consider social media revolutionary?

By standard definition, a revolutionary act or product is one that brings about a major or fundamental change. Economist and Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard, Steven Strauss, takes that definition one step further and proposes that “an innovation is revolutionary if it so changes society that going back to the pre-innovation technology would be catastrophic.”

So I ask again, would you consider social media revolutionary?

When we imagine the future – or say, when we watch Alex P. Keaton hop in the modified ’81 DeLorean  – we might imagine flying cars, space vacations, and a generally Jetson-esque lifestyle. But in reality, as Peter Thiel of the venture capital firm Founders Fund put it: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

Is that such a bad thing though? Should we be disappointed? Or fear for the future of innovation?

25 years ago, the Internet – and generally, most of today’s digital technology – would’ve been unfathomable. The Internet, along with the automobile and communication technology, fit Strauss’s definition: it would be catastrophic to lose any of the above.

I’m obviously not going to make the argument that if Facebook and Twitter suddenly vanished, the world economy would collapse. However, I will argue that the advent of social media has brought about fundamental change. Social networks have taken the “world stage” to a whole new level. We are more interconnected than ever before, and I’d argue, than we ever could have imagined. This sort of globalization and connectedness has created myriad opportunities for individuals and brands.

Marketing campaigns can go viral in a matter of hours, celebrities can fall from grace with the click of a button, more and more sporting events are deemed my least favorite oxymoron, “instant classic,” due to the constant commentary and interaction that the Internet, and more pointedly, social media allows.

So no, I don’t think we should be disappointed that our latest innovation is social media.

Strauss argues that these most recent innovations are incremental rather than revolutionary, and further, that we’re “at the start of a new megatrend of diminishing marginal innovation.”

I hate to go all economics on you, but let’s talk about that.

Strauss argues that the low-hanging fruits of revolutionary technologies have already been picked, that innovations in high-growth sectors won’t be sufficient to drive revolutionary change/growth in the overall economy, and that this sort of slow-growth incremental capitalism will favor corporate bureaucrats rather than visionary entrepreneurs.

He goes on to state that “for most of human history, economic innovation and productivity growth have been low, as were productivity differences between countries. The last two or so centuries have been an exciting exception–but not the norm–for human history.”

I think that’s a fairly debbish* outlook. The Founders Fund attributes the incremental innovations of recent years to the venture capital community’s failure to support revolutionary tech companies and is itself dedicated to investing in revolutionary technologies. The Facebook debacle not withstanding, I am much more prone to agree with the Founders Fund rather than Strauss.

Just like those who came before us, we cannot fathom the technology and innovation that is to come. It should be our mission as a country to foster innovation – whether that means strengthening our education system, providing more research grants, or privately investing.

It would be foolish to rely on the next high-impact revolutionary technological innovation to drive our economy, but it is equally as foolish to settle and quit pursuing such innovations. And in the meantime, social media isn’t too shabby.

*Debbish (adj.): of or referring to one that is being a Debbie Downer.

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