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How Techno-creativity Will Save Us

by Bret Swanson 12.12.08 means a hypothetical iPod Nano circa 1992 would ever made a phone call, but today there are twice as
have set back the teenage Nirvana or Boyz II Men many mobile-phone subscribers in China as there are
As a new president contemplates his agenda amidst a fan around $3 million. people in the U.S. The entirety of U.S.-China trade in
deep recession and global financial crisis, he should 1992 was $33 billion. This year it will approach $400
remember his best friend: innovation. The Apart from research scientists and a few early billion. Trade with India in 1992 was just $5.7
combination of technology and entrepreneurial adopters of Compuserve and AOL, the Internet billion, but is now $35 billion. All world output in
creativity drives all real long-term growth. But today essentially didn't exist in 1992. Monthly Internet 1992 was $20.4 trillion, about the size of today's
market volatility pushes our panic buttons, and short- traffic was four terabytes. All the data traversing the output from U.S., Japan and Germany. Imagine the
term hysterics unlock the vaults of the Keynesian global net in 1992 totaled 48 terabytes. Today, rest of the world didn't exist. That was 1992.
kingdom. In these uncertain times, we forget just how YouTube alone streams 48 terabytes of data every 21
far and how fast the world moves. And how many seconds. Now imagine how similar innovation going forward
crises innovation transcends. will utterly transform all our industries, from
medicine and mining to agriculture, energy and
Think back, for example, to the last Democratic education. Or further imagine an accelerated pace of
transition, when Bill Clinton ascended to the Oval innovation. It's possible.
Office in 1992. It was only 16 years ago, but it
nevertheless offers a gauge for the pace of change. But innovation is by definition unexpected. We can't
The Soviet Union had just collapsed, Apple force it or compel it. Certainly not from Washington.
Computer was in the doldrums versus the Windows The dramatic centralization of money, power,
juggernaut, and that other unstoppable force, Miley information and influence now under way seriously
Cyrus (aka "Hannah Montana"), had just been born. threatens the entrepreneurial revelations and
The Internet was but a blip to most Americans, as technological revolutions that drive long-term
were real coffee and wine. There was no "genome," growth. If we quasi-nationalize the energy, finance,
and there were no digital cameras. The "Facebook" I auto and health care markets, and possibly bar
received as I arrived for my freshman year of college dynamic new business models on the Internet, as with
that autumn was printed on paper and played no part possible network neutrality regulation, we will close
The first integrated circuit, half an inch wide, with two off many of the most promising paths to needed
in the presidential campaign.
transistors, demonstrated by Texas Instruments on efficiencies and, more important, new wealth.
September 12, 1958. (Image courtesy of Texas
Today, an average consumer can buy a terabyte hard
Instruments.) If Washington had planned our future in 1992, we
drive (1 million megabytes), on which she might
store her family photos, videos and other digital wouldn't be here. Technology and ingenuity can
Biology is also on the innovation curve and is likely overcome many government mistakes and bloat. But
documents for as little as $109.99. In 1992, a terabyte
to accelerate. When the Human Genome Project at some point, our short-term fixes and obsessions
drive, if such a thing had existed, would have cost $5
began in the early 1990s, sequencing one DNA base with certainty will block the entrepreneurial acts so
million. The chief digital storage medium at the time
pair cost about $10. Craig Venter famously began his essential to long-term security. In many ways, they
was the 3.5-inch floppy disk, which held 1.4
own competing genome search in 1998 and already have.
megabytes. When digital photos came along and
completed the project simultaneously, at around one-
consumers found the huge square disk could only
tenth the cost. Today sequencing one base pair costs a When things look bleak, look back. You will see how
hold one photo, it was instantly obsolete.
tenth of a cent, and by 2024 – just 16 short years bright tomorrow can be.
from today's presidential transition – we'll sequence
In mid-2008, the four-gigabyte (or 4,096 megabytes)
an entire human genome (yours, if you'd like) for Bret Swanson is a senior fellow and director of the
flash memory chip in an iPod Nano cost $25. Late in
$100. Center for Global Innovation at The Progress &
2008, four-gigabyte flash cards and USB drives are
selling for $14.99. But back in 1992, four gigabytes F r e e d o m F o u n d a t i o n ( w w w. p f f . o r g / c g i /
In 1992 a tiny percentage of Chinese citizens had publications.html).
of flash memory would have cost $500,000. This