For Your Consideration: Innovation Decadence, The Jennifer Epidemic, Zero-Rating, and Grumbling

1. Does Innovation Arc Toward Decadence?

The original inspiration for such grousing – about progress, not about hippies – came from Robert J. Gordon, a Northwestern University economist whose 2000 paper “Does the ‘New Economy’ Measure Up to the Great Inventions of the Past?” included a damning comparison of the flood of inventions that occurred a century ago with the seeming trickle that we see today. Consider the new products invented in just the ten years between 1876 and 1886: internal combustion engine, electric lightbulb, electric transformer, steam turbine, electric railroad, automobile, telephone, movie camera, phonograph, linotype, roll film (for cameras), dictaphone, cash register, vaccines, reinforced concrete, flush toilets. The typewriter had arrived a few years earlier and the punch-card tabulator would appear a few years later. And then, in short order, came airplanes, radio, air conditioning, the vacuum tube, jet aircraft, television, refrigerators and a raft of other home appliances, as well as revolutionary advances in manufacturing processes. (And let’s not forget The Bomb.) The conditions of life changed utterly between 1890 and 1950, observed Gordon. Between 1950 and today? Not so much.

So why is innovation less impressive today? Maybe Thiel is right, and it’s the fault of hippies, liberals, and other degenerates. Or maybe it’s crappy education. Or a lack of corporate investment in research. Or short-sighted venture capitalists. Or overaggressive lawyers. Or imagination-challenged entrepreneurs. Or maybe it’s a catastrophic loss of mojo. But none of these explanations makes much sense. The aperture of science grows ever wider, after all, even as the commercial and reputational rewards for innovation grow ever larger and the ability to share ideas grows ever stronger. Any barrier to innovation should be swept away by such forces.

Let me float an alternative explanation: There has been no decline in innovation; there has just been a shift in its focus. We’re as creative as ever, but we’ve funneled our creativity into areas that produce smaller-scale, less far-reaching, less visible breakthroughs. And we’ve done that for entirely rational reasons. We’re getting precisely the kind of innovation that we desire – and that we deserve.


2. The Jennifer epidemic: How the spiking popularity of different baby names cycle like genetic drift

“There weren’t therapy sessions, per se. But there were websites that still exist where Jennifers would sort of bond over wishing their names weren’t Jennifer. It was semi-serious,” Ms. Rosenkrantz says.

Parents fight, worry, buy books and devote hours of their time to picking the perfect name. Often, these names have an almost mystical quality about them; the newly impregnated will choose monikers that trace family tradition, or that have deeper symbolism that reflects their own ambitions for their offspring. Socioeconomic status, religion, your parent’s ideology can be divined from the name they gave you.

But nothing puts this kind of magical thinking to shame more than examining one’s name under the cold, hard light of a line graph that shows 765 Jennifers were born in B.C. alone in 1984. Or of knowing that you were one of 859,112 Jennifers born in the U.S. during the peak Jennifer era.

Nothing else highlights how beholden we are to the rule of mathematics, cultural influences, fashion and fads.

“My older son’s name is Tristan. He’s 7, and we thought we were making a very unique choice,” says Matt Hahn, a professor of biology and informatics at Indiana University. He wrote a paper examining how baby names come in and out of fashion, so he has no excuses for this: “We later found out that the median age of the name Tristan is 8.”

Prof. Hahn, along with an archeology professor, tracked the frequency of baby names across generations and came up with a fascinating insight: baby names tended to cycle in and out of popularity with a mathematical frequency that was virtually identical to the rates at which researchers can track genetic drift.

In case you were thinking this may just be Canada, they probably got it from the US. Here are the most popular girls names for every State since 1960.

3. “Zero rating” poses a conundrum for net neutrality advocates around the world

“The zero rating question, here in the USA, is not central” to the net neutrality debate, “but it’s a huge issue elsewhere,” said the Open Technology Institute’s Kehl. “The question of whether or how it fits into network neutrality is one people will struggle with, weighing affordable access through low cost, low bandwidth services, versus whether that prioritization is the unfair, walled garden scenario we’re trying to avoid.”

This faceoff between human rights and network neutrality principles is emerging in dozens of countries, where limited access to some services through free data is balanced against complete access for only those that can afford to pay.

Advocates on both sides of the issues are squaring off, with no clear resolution ahead. Susan Crawford, a law professor, author, and former White House advisor on telecommunications policy, argued in Backchannel in January 2015 that zero rating is “absolutely inappropriate,” and that to allow it presents a human rights issue.

Skorup, however, says that it’s not an exaggeration to say that zero-rated apps can be lifesaving in poorer nations.

What this likely is leading much of humanity towards is the further emergence of haves and have-nots, where inequality is entrenched in differential access to services based upon data. To put it another way, instead of a purely digital divide, there will be a data divide.

In the absence of subsidized data that provides equal access to the entirety of the internet, what seems likely to emerge around the globe is not network neutrality, but network inequality.

4. A Few Notes On Grumbling
I love it when someone spends some time to think about automatic behaviors or social interactions. Here are 3 of 15 insights.

4. The atmosphere of grumbling isn’t necessarily a negative one. Grumbling can be fun. Standup is often grumbly and, like comedians, grumblers demonstrate, through their grumbling, their own intelligence and wit. It’s through drollery and discernment that the Grumbletonian differentiates herself from those tiresomely unimaginative people with “negative attitudes.” Being #grumblecore doesn’t just mean grumbling all the time but grumbling in an entertaining way.

5. Grumbling also forges bonds. In part, that’s because grumbling with someone is risky. When you grumble, you put on a critical performance. That means your grumbling has to be interesting. If it’s not, then it’s just grousing, whining, bellyaching, bitching, moaning, kvetching, or carping—and even people who enjoy grumblers won’t tolerate bellyachers. (The worst offense is wildly off-base grumbling: it reveals you as misinformed, or worse.) On the upside, when you grumble well, you present yourself as someone who has risen above her context, and who looks down upon it with judicious-yet-underappreciated insight.

6. Needless to say, it’s a two-way street. If you’re on the receiving end of a good grumbling, you must immediately respond with interesting grumbles of your own, lest you appear undiscerning and complacent about the circumstances the grumbler has just impugned. Normally, we think of friendships as the fruits of shared interests. But how many friendships are actually grumeblepacts, built upon the solid foundation of mutual grumble-respect?

“It behooves every man to remember that the work of the critic is of altogether secondary importance, and that, in the end, progress is accomplished by the man who does things.” -Theodore Roosevelt


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