The status quo gap

Everything in America seems polarized right now, so perhaps it’s no surprise that innovation is as well. In Silicon Valley, a small fraction of the population wants to push every technical boundary, transform every industry, re-imagine every job, and re-engineer the limits of life itself. Meanwhile, much of the rest of the country takes solace in tradition, and seeks to preserve the way things are.

That’s the theme of my column in the latest issue of HBR, about a few new books and a film, all in one way or another about innovation. Here’s the gist:

Wolfe focuses on PayPal’s founder, Peter Thiel, and a cohort of teenagers selected by his foundation to forgo college and start companies, but she also lets us peek into a variety of tech subcultures—from seasteaders to polygamists to those who, like Thiel, chase immortality through investments in life-extending technology. The suggestion isn’t that these pursuits are inherently flawed; it’s that they stem from a single-minded desire to push boundaries—technological and social.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the country, Cowen argues, most “Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change, or to avoid it altogether.”

The column covers The Circle, The Upstarts, Valley of the Gods, and The Complacent Class. But my deadline was in February, and since then I’ve read a couple books that feel relevant to this theme.

I wrote recently about A Culture of Growth, in which economic historian Joel Mokyr argues that the connection between intellectuals and artisans helped propel the Industrial Revolution. The cultural divide between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world doesn’t quite map onto Mokyr’s divide, but his broader point about the economic importance of connections between different parts of society surely applies here. The innovation sector works best when it’s attached to the rest of society — to scientists, intellectuals, politicians, and the public. When the divide between the innovative sector and the rest of society grows too large, bad things can happen.

A version of this shows up in Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano, which anticipates basically all of our current debate over artificial intelligence stealing jobs. In the book, the managers and the engineers are separated from the public, physically, as well as ideologically. Neither side ends up looking good, and the ending is not one we should hope for.