The great innovation debate | economist.com


The Economist

Growth

Fears that innovation is slowing are exaggerated, but governments need to help it along

WITH the pace of technological change making heads spin, we tend to think of our age as the most innovative ever. We have smartphones and supercomputers, big data and nanotechnologies, gene therapy and stem-cell transplants. Governments, universities and firms together spend around $1.4 trillion a year on R&D, more than ever before.

Yet nobody recently has come up with an invention half as useful as that depicted on our cover. With its clean lines and intuitive user interface, the humble loo transformed the lives of billions of people. And it wasn’t just modern sanitation that sprang from late-19th and early-20th-century brains: they produced cars, planes, the telephone, radio and antibiotics.

Modern science has failed to make anything like the same impact, and this is why a growing band of thinkers claim that the pace of innovation has slowed (see article). Interestingly, the gloomsters include not just academics such as Robert Gordon, the American economist who offered the toilet test of uninventiveness, but also entrepreneurs such as Peter Thiel, a venture capitalist behind Facebook.

If the pessimists are right, the implications are huge. Economies can generate growth by adding more stuff: more workers, investment and education. But sustained increases in output per person, which are necessary to raise incomes and welfare, entail using the stuff we already have in better ways—innovating, in other words. If the rate at which we innovate, and spread that innovation, slows down, so too, other things being equal, will our growth rate.

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Modern etiquette: We interrupt this meeting for an email


BY RICHARD BAUM

A Blackberry.The BlackBerry … A new office tool or office distraction? Photo: James Davies

Is it rude to check your BlackBerry during a meeting? Can we really multi-task effectively? Richard Baum explores the etiquette around the smart phone‘s infiltration into the working day.

Do you check your BlackBerry during work meetings? Do you do it furtively under the table, while your colleagues are distracted by a presentation?

Do you leave it in front of you so you can give it the occasional peck whenever it buzzes? Or are you bold enough in the board room to hold it up while you type your replies, a practice that’s provoked comedian Jerry Seinfeld to respond, “Can I just pick up a magazine and read it in front of your face while you’re talking to me?”

Unless you work in a company that bans BlackBerry use in meetings, you’ve seen all these behaviours. Most likely, you’ve been that person. But is it bad etiquette? Don’t the pressures of time and overflowing inboxes make this a necessary evil of the 21st century workplace?

Other journalists who have taken time out from deleting emails to investigate this burning issue have concluded that polite society abhors the employee whose eyes wander from the PowerPoint presentation to the new email alert.

But as someone who struggles to ignore the siren buzz of the BlackBerry, I demand leave to appeal this collective ruling by the media’s finest minds. After all, every new technology that transforms communications encounters resistance from the old guard. Surely the cool kids accept that it is possible to concentrate on a meeting and accept email requests for other meetings at the same time?

It didn’t take much Googling to find some research that confirmed my hunch: while 68 percent of the baby-boom generation born before 1964 think that the use of smartphones during meetings is distracting, just 49 percent of the under-30s see a problem. As this 2008 LexisNexis survey helpfully points out, that’s less than half. If the person running your meeting is a Generation Y’er, there’s a better than even chance that she won’t mind you checking your email.

Still, most of us have bosses who are too old to skateboard to work. What does Generation X think of BlackBerry peckers? I asked John Freeman, a member of that demographic and the author of The Tyranny of Email.

“You never have everyone’s full attention in a meeting any longer, and I think that’s why meetings are becoming so ineffective,” he wrote in a non-tyrannical email.

“Whether it’s the lot who try to thumb under the table, or those who brazenly do it in the open, the message, from a significant group of those gathered, is – I have other things to do. Which totally defeats the purpose of meeting: you want to create a sense of group purpose. And on top of that it’s rude.”

But John, I can multitask. It may look like I’m updating my Facebook status under the table, but a co-worker has sent me an urgent question and I can answer that and concentrate on your presentation at the same time. Surely I can get an expert on multitasking to back me up here.

I called Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University in California. Nass was part of a group that researched the concentration skills of students who frequently multitasked while consuming media. Did he find that those of us who listen and email at the same time are an elite brigade of hyper-efficient workers? Not exactly.

“The more you multitask, the worse you become at it,” he said. According to the Stanford team’s research, there’s a cost to memory and attention when you switch from one task to another. And that cost increases for people who multitask heavily… Leer más “Modern etiquette: We interrupt this meeting for an email”