Let me say, first off, that I'm generally a fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson. The guy is obviously super smart, tells very entertaining stories, and, in general, I really like the fact that our culture has turned an astrophysicist into something of a rock star. That's awesome. And I say that even after I read Sean Davis' rather epic
takedown of Tyson's apparent penchant for fabricating quotes and stories
(when it's not necessary) and bad math
(that last one is less forgivable for someone supposedly so focused on scientific rigor -- I mean, Tyson famously bitched and bitched about the incorrect star patterns in Titanic
, but can't be bothered with the difference between a "mean" and a "median"?). Still, he tends to do this in the interest of storytelling -- and, as I've said in the past
, I have no issue with exaggerations for the sake of pure storytelling (though I have serious problems when they're used in journalism).
However, now he's wandered over into making broad statements about startup culture and innovation, and he seems to have fallen into the same ridiculous trap as all too many commentators, both in and outside the innovation fields: mocking it because lots of people are creating apps
“Nobody’s talking about ‘tomorrowland’ anymore. We’re waiting for our next app,” Tyson exclaims. “Now I love me some apps, don’t get me wrong here.”
“But, society has bigger problems than what can be solved with your next app, in transportation, and energy and health. And these are huge sectors of society and they are solved by innovations in these fields,” Tyson continued. “Without it we might as well just proceed back into the cave, because that’s where we’re headed.”
“We’re a sleepy nation right now. I want us to be a nation of innovation,” Tyson stated later.
This sort of criticism comes up again and again. Every few years, we have to write a similar story
because someone declares that there are so many "trivial" things happening in Silicon Valley or elsewhere. But this is the nature of innovation
. Innovation happens when individuals scratch an itch and see where it leads. So many great innovations in history were somewhat accidental
discoveries, not because someone set out to "change the world."
The nature of truly great disruptive innovation is that it starts out looking like a toy
. It's easy for people to dismiss. Google was a toy -- slightly better search in a world that already had a bunch of dominating search engines? Why bother? Now it's part of the global brain (for better or worse). Twitter was a toy. Who wants to communicate in 140 characters or less? Yet, it's become (almost in spite of the company's own actions at times) a core piece of communications infrastructure, relied on to organize government-changing protests and to communicate during emergencies.
Furthermore, the idea that "nobody's talking about tomorrowland" anymore is flat out wrong. He should come out here to Silicon Valley, and I or plenty of other people can show him around some of the companies we've seen lately. The "app" company that is looking to make it orders of magnitude cheaper to do medical scanning? The "app" company that is building sub-$100 satellites that will change the world? The drone companies that recognize
that they can change the way society interacts with stuff
. Lots of people like to attack things like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar for disrupting the taxi industry, but have little vision for how those companies can evolve into ones that fundamentally change the way we travel. Lots of people are attacking Bitcoin because the price has been dropping, but fewer are looking at how the very nature of commerce and transactions can fundamentally shift when money is programmable
. Lots of people are talking about Tesla, but I think many are underestimating what Elon Musk is really up to. He's not building a new kind of car company. He's rethinking transportation as a whole, and using a fancy electric car as a sneaky subversive way to get his ideas out there.
But part of the way that we get these innovations to happen is by vast experimentation
in which many of the experiments fail. Anyone even remotely familiar with the true history of Silicon Valley knows that it's a trial and error process by which a lot of shit is thrown at the wall to see what sticks. Much of it fails, but that's a sign of good experimenting
. Sure, it's easy to mock the "app" culture. It's easy to attack the success of Kim Kardashian's app in our cynical world. But there are lots of apps that are fundamentally changing how we interact, communicate, travel, share, learn and more. Much of it may be trivial, but the stuff that works can and does change the world and make it a better place.
There's a myth, which Tyson and others seem to have bought into (and which is often encouraged by the successful innovators from the previous round of innovations), that innovation is this top down thing, driven by a singular vision of brilliance. But that's rarely the case (though, Elon Musk may be an exception here, and even then, I think the public vision is a smokescreen for the real vision). Real innovation involves lots of experiments. Lots of toys. Lots of trivial "apps." And much of it fails. If it doesn't, there's not enough innovation and experimentation going on. Innovation is a process, and, to outside eyes, it almost always looks trivial. Until it's changed the world. And then people pretend it was the plan all along.
It's a facile statement to say that, because there are lots of apps out there that are popular, we're not focused on innovation any more. It's an easy sort of statement that sounds good
and doesn't require much thought. It's also wrong.