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New Innovators of Old

The cover article in latest issue of The Economist got me thinking. At issue are increasingly giant global firms that do not seem to be playing fair. “Paying tax seems to be unavoidable for individuals but optional for firms. Rules are unbending for citizens, and up for negotiation when it comes to companies.” And if that doesn’t boil blood, just think about what all that corporate privilege and wealth is going towards.

Actually, that’s what I’d like to think about. What could all that privilege and wealth do? I’ve got an idea of how to have fun answering that question. But first, just a touch of context.

As recently as 2006, the top-5 largest companies were: Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Gazprom, Microsoft, and Citigroup. Notice, only one high-tech firm in the mix. In fact, Microsoft was the only tech firm in the top-10. In 2016 that top-5 list looks like this: Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway and Exxon Mobil. And there are five tech firms in the top-10, including Amazon and Facebook.

How have these technology giants grown so big in less than a decade? And what are they doing with their hugeness? “High-tech companies grow more useful to customers when they attract more users and when they gather ever more data about those users.” As long as tech firms can keep users clicking in such a way that they share more personal information, tech firms thrive. And what do users get in return? Tech firms “churn out products that improve consumers’ lives, from smarter smartphones to sharper televisions.”

I read that and my self-driving brain slammed on the breaks. Tradeoff: personal privacy for HDTV? And then my self-driving brain down shifted and smoked the tires with an idea.

Perhaps an issue is that the technological revolution has outpaced the imagination of its beneficiaries. Oil, metallurgy, and calculus turned horses into trains and planes. Silicon, transistors, and machine code turned vistas into check-ins and gifs.

Of course, there’s been more to innovation than 360-degree replays on Madden NFL 2017. But maybe that underscores the point. Why is it that when we think of twenty-first-century innovation, we so easily default to naming examples of higher resolution television and hyper-targeted advertising? How might we broaden our imagination of what’s possible?

What if we stopped imagining ourselves and solicited some help? Perhaps we are too close to the innovation we are getting, and our imaginations have become constrained by the all-too-apparent possibilities. Who could we call on to think of something genuinely innovative to do with all this new technology?

I know! Let’s get someone from the past to help. So here’s the challenge. Think of a historical figure (ideally, pre-1700s) and given her or his historical situation, what innovation would that person dream up with today’s technology? Would Socrates think up Twitter? Would Michelangelo come up with Instagram? Don’t know. What do you think?202

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