We never invent anything new, yet progress is made!

Practical innovation explains how per-capita wealth increased eightfold during the last century. Yet, we are constantly reminded that we never invent anything new:

  • Most movies are remake or variations on older movies.
  • Most research papers are variation on a theme.
  • Most products and services are variations on existing products and services.

Even if I invent something recognized as drastically novel, I am sure someone will say “oh! but we did that 20 years ago.” A recent example are the tag clouds which have no equivalent in my pre-Web textbooks. Yet, I am sure we can show that they are variation on much older visualization techniques.

If nothing really new is ever invented, why do we observe so much innovation? As I watch the 1993-1993 X-Files (season 1), I am amazed at how backward these FBI agents appear:

  • They do not carry a cell phone and must run back to a land line to get help. (Update: toward the end of the season, we learn that Scully has a cell phone.)
  • Even though agent Scully uses a DOS word processor (probably Word Perfect), all their archives are on paper or microfilms.
  • While Scully has a modem, it is not clear that she uses any networked application. Agent Mulder does not use a computer? I found no sign of the Web.
  • Files are not shared. For example, Mulder has his own files (the X-files) and apparently, others must come to him to have (paper) copies.

The key? Progress is incremental. Human beings are gregarious for a reason: our innovation process is social. Innovation occurs when new ideas are put into action by society.

For researchers wanting to create innovation, there are several implications:

  • You can only be an effective researcher if you are an effective communicator.
  • You should be connected as much as possible to the rest of society. It is not sufficient to impress the ivory tower: you must reach out.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

3 thoughts on “We never invent anything new, yet progress is made!”

  1. I found your implications for researchers especially useful for those of us thinking about design-based research projects. It’s too easy to just “innovate” in isolation and test with isolated groups.

    But one of the purposes of design-based research is to create useful prototypes rather than impractical frameworks or ideas. Your two implications are useful and concise reminders of how to go about achieving this objective.

  2. I agree with except on one point. Sometimes (rarely) a significant breakthrough is acheived by someone who really invent someting. Some examples :

    – Copernic and geocentrism give up,
    – Darwin and evolution theory,
    – …

    Sure that these breakthroughs have been possible by previous incremental progress. Citing Thomas Khun, science progress is discontinuous by nature. It is more rupture than accumulation.

  3. The following sentence seems to be pretty much on the spot:
    Even if I invent something recognized as drastically novel, I am sure someone will say “oh! but we did that 20 years ago.”

    I guess, novel ideas often present some known fact, in a new context.

    I find some of your posts to be quite interesting.

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