Innovation Lust

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

Back in the 1970s, I began to wonder just how much longer we humans could continue to produce things without the world becoming saturated with those things. I am not speaking here of pollution—which presents its own problems—but of the possible end of ingenuity. At first I thought I was probably alone in my concern because I had never heard or read of such a potential issue. However, in 1977, while waiting in a company’s break room for a job interview, I saw in a magazine an article concerning product saturation. Unfortunately, the interview began after I had read only a couple of paragraphs, and the magazine was not my own so I could not take it with me. I have occasionally wondered what the author’s thesis and conclusion were.

Since that time, I have been observant of any new products and trends in product changes, curious what they imply for my country’s economic future. What I have seen has been a fascinating historical arc. But before I get involved here in modern innovations, I want to share part of a brief history I recently read about a much older start-up: the Pony Express. I see in that story a very evocative pattern for what has happened since the Pony Express was inaugurated in April 1861.

According to the Pony Express Museum’s website, the mail service was started by three men—William H. Russell, William B. Waddell, and Alexander Majors—as one response to the threat of the Civil War; the purpose obviously was to speed up communication between the East and the West. The acceleration of mail delivery would not be very impressive by today’s standards: the first westbound ride, from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California, took 9 days and 23 hours, while the eastbound journey clocked 11 days and 12 hours, almost a day and a half difference. The service lasted only 19 months, until Oct. 24, 1861, when completion of the Pacific Telegraph line ended the need for it. Despite its usefulness in providing Californians with relatively contemporaneous news of the war’s progress, the Pony Express was not a financial success, and its founders ended up filing for bankruptcy. On a positive note, however, only one mail delivery was lost.

The main reason I mention the Pony Express, beyond its romantic history, is to provide a fairly simple, clear example of how an innovation develops and how ephemeral it can be. The express was fairly quickly perceived as a solution to an urgent problem; it was started by a small group of men willing to risk their livelihoods on its success; it was reliant on the energies and bodies of men and animals; and it lost out to a mechanical innovation. (The Pony Express was not unique, however. Marco Polo reported that, during his trip to China, he had witnessed a mounted mail service created by Genghis Khan.)

Over the roughly fifty-five years of my adulthood, I have witnessed various innovations come and go.

While employed at my first journalistic job—publications manager for the Texas Electronics Association in Fort Worth—I noticed that home repair of television sets had died out (or was dying out). The people who sold TVs in the past had usually also visited homes to work on roof antennas or replace tubes in the sets. Now all they did was sell TVs; and it was usually more expensive to repair a TV set than to buy a new one. Also, the number of American TV manufacturers had dwindled from about twelve to four; the Japanese were winning the TV set war. Moreover, American electronics retailers were reliant upon a new popular product: the CB radio.

In less than a decade, another innovation was on the market: the “beeper”. Originally and perhaps more descriptively known as the “pager”, a beeper was a little plastic box with its own phone number by which a person could be alerted that he or she was needed to call the number shown by an LED on his pager. The beeper is pretty much passé now, although a group of “entrepreneurs” was reportedly working last summer on a prototype for a more sophisticated version of the beeper.

There seems to be an unbalanced emphasis on electronic innovations, particularly in the field of communications. Every year, Microsoft or Apple or one of the other electronics giants has a show where they display the latest gadget, usually some added feature for the ipad. And within a few months, huge lines develop outside stores where eager customers have waited since the wee morning hours to buy the latest gadget.  We have all noted, too, how many of us consumers seemingly cannot drive down a road or sit through a movie or share a meal out with a friend without one of those cell phones in our hand. This madness has called forth innumerable cartoon satires as well as warnings from health officials.

But the TVs have not been entirely neglected: they have gotten wider, thinner, more inundated with channels, and more definitional. They and streaming FM radio channels have pushed the old juke boxes (which I miss) into the cubicles of flea markets. The saturation of TVs in many bars (I counted five in one of our local hangouts) has caused the description of those venues to be changed to “sports bars”.

Movie houses have become sparser because people can view films, initially on VHS tapes and then on DVDs, through their home-based big screen TVs within six months after their initial showings in the movie houses. For a couple of decades, many cities and towns could boast at least one “video store” where the tapes and DVDs could be rented, but the entrepreneurs who established those stores made the common entrepreneurial mistake of expanding too fast and too far, and then their businesses became threatened by the innovation of online movie rentals.

And this mad race to “build a better mouse trap” and replace the proverbial “buggy whip maker” presents a scene of a very nervous humanity racing not just to “keep up with the Joneses” but to out-pace, even supersede, them. It constitutes a prospect of a not very healthy, integrated community, very different from the cohesive communities of the days when buggy whip makers prospered.

All of these major innovations have occurred within the span of the last fifty years. I witnessed them. A fellow named Alvin Toffler published a book back in 1970 titled Future Shock. In that book, Toffler described “‘future shock’” as “‘too much change in too short a period of time’”. (I confess that, although I was aware of Toffler’s book when it came out, I never read it because I had read a review describing its thesis—with which I agreed—and saw no need to read it. What I have quoted here is derived from the Wikipedia article on Future Shock.)  “He believed the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from ‘shattering stress and disorientation’—future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems are symptoms of future shock.”

Toffler’s book was published forty-five years ago. I have witnessed much of the changes he wrote about and can attest to his veracity, for I feel “‘disconnected and suffering from ‘shattering stress and disorientation’”.



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