I recently attended an international conference focused on innovation, which is commonly defined as a new, and better, idea, product or process—better by the standard of human flourishing. In business, continual innovation is an essential source of above average profitability. At the conference, somebody remarked that innovation is like peace: everyone wants it, but its fundamental source and requirements are not well understood.
In an excellent column about technological innovation, Lawrence Solomon gives a partial answer. He laments, rightly, that compared to a century and more ago, we are technological laggards. Solomon argues that leading businesses today—such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon—while having developed innovative business models based on the Internet and achieved great financial success, are no technological giants. The Internet has made information easily and rapidly accessible and enabled online business, but it was originally conceived in the 1930s—nearly a century ago.
Solomon points out that there has been no path-breaking technological innovations in the last hundred years, in contrast to the breakthroughs of the previous century, such as the automobile and the assembly line, the light bulb, the airplane, the radio, and the phonograph, made by brilliant minds like Henry Ford, Alexander Graham Bell, and Thomas Edison. Solomon attributes this to today’s statism—compared to the relatively free markets in the 19th century—and political correctness dominating today’s culture. Government attempts to direct research (through grants and policies) and commercial development (through regulations and taxation) have retarded technological innovation. Solomon cites solar technologies, wind turbines, and carbon sequestration as examples of expensive failures. Political correctness prevailing at universities has encouraged conformity, not free inquiry and innovativeness.
Solomon is right in implicating statism: freedom is a fundamental requirement of innovation. The human mind, with all of its capacity to think and discover new knowledge—the source of innovation—cannot do so under force. Government telling us what to think or which research to pursue has never amounted to any significant innovations. Observe that all the path-breaking innovations that Lawrence Solomon cites emerged in the freest era in the freest country at the time: the United States, while the most statist, the least free, countries produced none.
Solomon gets closer to the fundamental cause that stifles innovation when he points at political correctness emanating from the universities. However, political correctness is not the fundamental cause but a consequence of it. The fundamental cause is modern philosophy, as conceived by Immanuel Kant. Kant argued that man’s senses are invalid and therefore we cannot really know reality. He worked systematically to destroy the human means of knowledge: integration. We know reality by integrating perceptions into concepts and generalizations of increasing levels of abstraction and by connecting knowledge across different fields. Kant’s followers continued the destruction of integration, which culminated in the utter nihilism (that aims to destroy man’s mind and values) of post-modernism.
Philosophical ideas are developed at and spread by universities through the education of students. The education faculties of universities have a particularly far-reaching influence. There the philosophical ideas, such as disintegration of knowledge, get translated into educational philosophy that penetrates all levels of education. While the idea of disintegration of knowledge is the fundamental cause for the lack of significant innovation today, the education system is the primary conduit of those ideas and therefore the immediate cause.
With a few notable exceptions, such as Montessori schools (primarily at the pre-school level), the late Marva Collins’ private school for poor black students in Chicago, and a handful of other private schools, schools today do not teach their curriculum in an integrated manner or the proper method of integration (the proper method of forming and using concepts). Instead, subjects are taught in non-logical order (history by themes, such as revolutions, rather than chronologically; science by random topics rather than in the order of induction), preventing the students from forming concepts and generalizations logically and seeing connections between different subjects such as history, science, and literature.
Innovations are the product of human minds, such as that of Thomas Edison—minds that are actively integrating perceptual observations into more and more abstract knowledge: concepts and generalizations, and making connections between different areas of knowledge.
Government interference in the economy (operating public schools included) retards innovation. But the fundamental reason we have not seen path-breaking innovations for almost a century, are bad philosophical ideas and a bad education system that rest on them. If we want a renaissance of innovation, we need to restore to the human means cognition, integration, and to teach students to think accordingly. Freer markets, smaller governments—and more path-breaking innovations—would follow.