You may have heard of an economist named Tyler Cowen. If not, look him up, and read his book, The Great Stagnation. It argues, correctly, irrefutably, something the main stream media will never discuss: That the United States's financial problems (and the world's, for that matter) derive less from bad policy decisions, entitlement spending run amuck, or Wall Street malfeasance, than they do from simple lack of Big Innovations. That we've run out of game-changing advances like electricity, television, automobiles, easily-tapped oil, the Internet, etc. That all of the "low hanging fruit" has been exhausted, and that all innovation going forward will occur in small increments.
He says this like it's an entirely bad thing.
I bought a bottle of Johnnie Walker Double Black a couple weeks ago. I had to get it as soon as it became available stateside because it's a new product from one of my favorite distillers. When I say "new" product, however, that's mostly in name (and even there, it's limited). In substance, JWDB isn't really new at all. It's a lot like Johnnie Walker Black, the almost already perfect gold standard of blended scotches.*
Around the same time, I stumbled onto Dr. Pepper Ten, a new quasi-diet soda that's essentially nothing more than Diet Dr. Pepper with just enough enough sugar to ad ten calories to the mix.
And about a week or so after that, cruising iTunes half-drunk, I ran across the Stones's new deluxe version of the classic Some Girls album. Same old singles you recall - "Miss You," "Shattered," "Beast of Burden" - only with a second disc of new material added.
I bought all three, the two physically consumable ones several times since, and I couldn't be happier with them.
What do these products share? What makes them such immediately likable innovations? None are gimmicks. None are non-inventions sold as inventions. None are needless, useless, modifications of existing lines, like the "dry," "ice," or "low carb" beer fads of the past.** None are Blu-Ray versions of movies packed with extra director's commentary no one would ever watch, designed solely to compel people to buy new media players. These products satisfy.
The second disc of Some Girls, a sloppy mix of country and blues harkening back Gram Parsons-inspired elements of Exile on Main Street is satisfying in a way no modern Stones release could ever be. Not that the band's new stuff isn't good. Just that their old stuff was special. It had a certain gravitas, a credibility grounded in the moment, in the irreplaceable ingredients of those recording sessions, that couldn't be replicated today.
As to the Dr. Pepper Ten, standard Diet Dr. Pepper was already one the best diet sodas before.*** So well designed I often couldn't distinguish it from real Dr. Pepper. Now I can. Because Dr. Pepper Ten is even better - so close to regular Dr. Pepper it widens the previously imperceptible difference between Diet Dr. Pepper and regular Dr. Pepper from an inch to a matter of yards. That little bit of sugar makes all the difference to the palate, reminding you why regular soda is satisfying in a way diet soda can never really be. Just a little hint of high fructose corn syrup - the difference between good and perfect.
And JWDB? Imagine JWB, only with twice the intensity. It's not higher in alcohol. It's not stronger in any single regard. They simply amped all the flavors, as a brewer would double the hops in an "imperial" beer, allowing the essential smoky essence of the liquor to jump from strong to just-shy-of-overpowering. Hardly creative, but unsurpassable in terms of effectiveness. If you like JWB, JWDB will give you everything he ever wanted in a scotch, and then some.
This is where I'm supposed to take Sections 1 through 3.5, and wind them together into a brilliant conclusion. To enhance the suspense, however, confer additional gravitas on what will assuredly be mind-blowing, and buy myself some white space to make this seem longer than it is, I'm saving that for Section 5.
Why do these minimal modifications make these products such must haves? Why would I go out and buy them, even though I already own previous versions of them ranging from barely to not-significantly distinguishable from the new variants? Because they're working with what works, with critical components that are bulletproof. JWB's been made for more than a century. Keith's guitar and Charlie Watt's drumming would would be infectious if the band were fronted by a vocal trio of Yoko Ono, Bjork, and William Hung. Disliking Dr. Pepper is like hating ice cream, beer on a hot summer afternoon, or a hand job in the movie theater in junior high.
Innovation needn't be a re-inventing of the wheel. There are millions of excellent products, devices, pieces of art and music, and services, which can be minimally enhanced, mildly modified, with fantastic results. Is this going to create tens of millions of new jobs? No. But it can create a few million, and more importantly, it can drive the conversation away from one about searching for the Next Entirely New Big Thing to focusing on the endless variations of already proven products, goods, and services we can bring to market.
Improvement as Innovation. It's not the sexiest of concepts. Only the most realistic. And it's limitless.
While the revolutionaries search for the completely new Rolling Stones, Johnnie Walker Black, or Dr. Pepper, the rest of us can enjoy economic activity created by tweaking the stuff we already have. What do the Stones have in the vaults? Maybe a thousand hours of unreleased tracks? If there can be Johnnie Walker Double Black, why not Triple Black? And if there's Dr. Pepper Ten, why not a fountain soda machine in every 7Eleven that lets the buyer customize the level of sugar he wants in his soda?**** Perhaps one that lets him pick the type of artificial sweetener, and level of carbonation?
This might sound like concession, the inventions of a society that has, as Cowen notes in The Great Stagnation, lost its ability to innovate. But that's a surface judgment, and one that misapprehends the concept. Innovation can be anything, and it can come in any form. It could be in terms of quality, a revolutionary product altering the way we live. Or it could come in the form of quantity, millions of small enhancements to already existing things, improving our lives and creating needed economic activity in aggregate. Hundreds of thousands of businesses around the world thrive on a thin margin, high volume model.
Perhaps this approach is dull. Maybe it sends the wrong message at a "Sputnik Moment" when we ought to dreaming of something more grandiose. But there's no arguing it's realistic - a pragmatic, "art of the possible" approach. And let's be honest... If there were a New Transformative Technology on the horizon, we'd have heard of it by now. The Boom would started, with loads of money chasing it. This much is fact, and we all know it: The Big Ideas are Done. At least for the near term. The small innovations are all we have. But this is no defeat, no requiem for our economy. It's simply a catalyst for a new mode of thinking. If we can take our minds off the post-future-future for a second, and stop believing we've all got to be the next Steve Jobs to start an economic resurgence, we'll notice there's a whole lot of great stuff we can improve upon waiting to be made even better. Sitting where I am, glass of Double Black on the desk, the new Some Girls tracks cranked on the stereo, this message is quite persuasive.
Why did I break this up into numbered sections suggesting I might not be able to write well enough to link the ideas in such a simplistic piece together, or that you, the reader, couldn't follow if I did so? I don't know. Neither, I suspect, does anybody else who uses this style. My best guess is the suggestion any one portion deserves its own number signals it's stating something really important. If the average reader reads five numbered sections, all connected, and in a row, he can't help but walk away from the text thinking, That was Truly Profound. Which makes him think the author has many profound thoughts, which colors what he thinks about everything the author writes. This is how one builds a brand. Or maybe people just like numbering things.
*Some would say that title belongs to Johnnie Walker Blue. Most of these are status buyers who don't know scotch. ^
** The carbohydrate difference between "light" and "low carb" beers is both mathematically, and in terms of the drinker's weight gain or loss, insignificant. ^
*** My top three: 1. Diet Mountain Dew; 2. Diet Dr. Pepper; 3. Coke Zero. ^
**** Downward, one would hope. ^