“Which innovation of the past three years has changed your life?” It is a Thursday night, what is known as the “small weekend”, and the people I am having drinks with suddenly fall silent.
We had just talked about a new social network; a friend had remarked that Facebook “stopped being cool about three years ago”. Upon closer inspection, however, the potential replacement turned out to be no game changer. Is that it, we wonder? An endless array of new social networks? Nothing — to stick with the question — that could change our lives? We silently sip our beers.
Many of the supposedly new ideas of the past years have turned out to be old ideas in fancy new wrappers, existing business models plugged into the internet. Take Uber, the startup that is as much hyped as it is discussed: Its service isn’t being challenged by European regulators because it constitutes a new form of transport but because it refuses to adhere to the rules of an industry it doubtlessly belongs to.
Perhaps we have also been spoiled. The new millennium kicked into gear with such intensity that the sheer pace of innovation created a feeling of relentless progress. Just remember that internet access on the go and the seamless communication it enabled were impossible a few years ago. Today we merely shrug it off as a given. And what’s worse: Because these innovations came about so effortlessly, we have grown accustomed to our role as consumers; we have delegated the task of innovating to others. We share and like; they invent. And when the steady stream of innovations and “disruptive” business models runs dry, we stare at the bottom of our beer glasses, wondering what went wrong.
Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Just last week, The Atlantic writer Alexis Madrigal argued:
“(…) politicians and bullshitters and ideologues have taken the idea of societal change and replaced it with a particular notion of technology as the only or main causal mechanism in history. Somehow, we’ve been convinced that only machines and corporations make the future, not people and ideas.
Maybe staring at our smartphones and computer screens all day has clouded our view of what progress used to be about: people who don’t just think about how the world is (and how to assemble its elements into slick and efficient taxi services) but how it should be. Real progress happens when people throw the existing paradigms overboard in order to create something entirely different. They question individual transport and the need for it. They realize that taking a bike might be faster than calling a cab.
What I find the most distressing is that we seem to have forgotten that each one of us can be one of those people.
It could also be true that Madrigal is pointing his finger in the wrong direction. Is it really the “bullshitters and ideologues” who have become so addicted to technology that they can’t imagine change to come about any other way? I think we are all at fault here
So: When was the last time you had an idea that changed your life?0