the myth of innovative progress?

my new headphones

That’s me wearing my new iPod headphones. Strangely, I caught a fair bit of stick for wearing them today – including a relatively sarcastic ‘nice retro look’. I thought this was particularly interesting in light of a nice post I read this morning called The Myth of Evolutionary Ascent (found via John Wilkins’ blog). The post makes a few key points – that in evolutionary biology, there is no inevitable march towards increasing complexity (contra Kevin Kelly!); “The evolutionary ‘ladder’ may be a valid model for one thing: the history of a single lineage, with height representing nothing more than simply the time axis. Complexity has nothing to do with it”; and that a lot of evolutionary complexity is non-adaptive in that it is discovered as organisms experiment within the design space available to them.

After seeing links to about 10,000 words of blog posts, you may well be ready to ask me what does this have to do with headphones and innovation? And it’s this: even though a lot of technology becomes intentionally more complex, this isn’t necessarily always progress, nor does all the increased complexity always lead to increased functionality. For the second point, just think of word processing software – how many of the extra features that have been added over the past 15+ years do you actually use? There’s a lot of extra complexity there, but the vast majority of us still just type…

So….. headphones. A lot of the recent advances in mobile headphones have been pretty good. The quality of sound in even fairly cheap ones now is pretty good. But not all of the changes are progress – a lot of them are just explorations across all of the available headphone design space. So even though we can get smaller, good-sounding headphones now, they are not ‘higher’ up the headphone hierarchy. They’re just a different design. And even though I can see the appeal of wearing white headphones to signal to everyone that I’ve got a genuine Apple product in my pocket – wait, no, actually I can’t see the appeal to that. The other problem with those headphones is that they won’t stay in my ears – which, for me at least, is one of the key features that I’m looking for in headphones. I don’t hear very much when my slick new iPod headphones are constantly sliding out of my ears. So I’ve travelled across the design space to older-looking headphones, which actually stay on. And I end up listening to my iPod a lot more that way.

So the main point today is that new and more complex products are not always better, nor do they necessarily show progress. The only thing we know for sure is that they are new, and more complex. There are plenty of older designs that may be just as good, if not better. Innovation is important, but new is not by definition better. We judge that by how well the new things meet our needs.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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9 thoughts on “the myth of innovative progress?

  1. Actually, the extremely well-adapted design that I had in my head while I was writing this was the nautilus, not the shark. But it would be cool to have a nautilus with frickin’ laser beams!

  2. Okay, that “Ascent of Toxoplasma” graphic is downright hilarious. And now back to reading the rest of the words..

  3. All right, well, I didn’t make it through all (linked) words, but I did try – and that’s because this is something I’ve thought about a lot when thinking about evolution. I saw a lot of “this is our misunderstanding of evolution” but I’m trying to get a grasp of what we – that is, our current scientific community – think evolution really is. 99.9999% – that was an actual figure given in The 11th Hour, which I recently watched – of all species who have ever lived on Earth have died out. That leaves us with a lot of confusion over how our species actually progressed! I really wish we had our relatives who died out 20,000 years ago still around. We could, like, hang with them and stuff.

  4. I’ve always found evolutionary research fascinating Amber – which is probably a good part of why I ended up being an evolutionary economist!

  5. Question, Tim: In your study of theories surrounding evolution, has there been any credence given to the idea of genetic memory as memory that passes experiences on to the next generation, rather than just an identical imprint of the DNA? I was having a discussion about this with my husband on our vacation we just returned from, and told him that I considered complementary to the statement that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” that nothing in evolution makes sense without genetic memory, however slight its influence. This was after a hike in which the guide informed us that a “stinging nettle” which is like no nettle I had ever seen (it had a red stem and no defensive spikes on the leaves, the stem, or the fruit-ish clusters hanging from it like the sharp-all-over nettles I’m used to), and seemed to deliberately sting only when brushed against. How else could a plant develop such precise reactions without memories that are passed to the next generation? How could relationships of mutualism develop without them? I feel that natural selection can’t completely explain evolution without an element of memory in DNA.

  6. I’ve run across a few things – they inevitably get written up and discussed as Lamarckian evolution. One book on this that I’ve been meaning to read is called ‘Lamarck’s Signature’ by Steele, Lindley and Blanden.

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