On Information and Innovation

February 2, 2012

Sometimes I am at awe of the amount of information that we have generated and stored. Many have postulated that as economic cost of storage exponentially decreased, we will perpetually expand the amount of information produced – an exponential increase of information over time. Its positive repercussions, however, are not easily observed.

Given our current level of environmental control, progress and information accessibility, I am quite baffled of how far some individuals can come to be able to operate within our given habitat without even having a minute level of apprehension or, at most, acknowledgement of its complexity.

We have teachers who can’t perceive how a calculator function yet they are endowed with knowledge enrichment and distribution; dentists who can’t describe how might an electric motor work yet everyday it is used in their drills and recommended as such as in an electric toothbrush.

Arguments of which that have enabled many to conclude that we have now reached an innovation plateau due to the overspecialization of our métiers. Where in the 19th century, a mathematician may have proven a theorem in her 20s, but now it must take her a decade more to accomplish an equivalent task. The theory is that there is much more material now to be learned and that requires a longer time to have successfully contributed to one’s respective field.

Additionally, an innovators lifecycle tended to be more productive at a younger age as shared by von Neumann and many other eminent scientists and mathematicians. The sentiment is that the early years of the innovator are spent in training. Thus, the expanding time costs of education delay the onset of active innovative careers.

This possibility poses a problem for innovation as it reduces, ceteris paribus, the lifetime output of individual innovators, especially if their potential is greatest when young. It has also been proven that innovations in the past tended to occur when an individual crossed pollinated ideas across fields. These connections are not easily made in our current time, as the distance of knowledge within studies has widen.

Indeed, our repository of information may be exponentially on the rise. The question whether that will contribute to our knowledge augmentation is not a certain byproduct. This phenomenon may though undoubtedly increase the complexity of our environments. However, more and more information does not presuppose knowledge augmentation; most of these data bits will be just junk. Innovation has other uphills to overcome.