THE recent death of Steve Jobs is a timely moment to step back and reconsider what innovation is really for. Reading the obituaries and testimonies posted across the internet, you would not be alone in assuming that Saint Jobs had cured the world of cancer and is now in heaven, reconfiguring God’s messaging system from analogue to digital.
There are many good things that can be said about Steve Jobs, particularly concerning his role as a leader and his ability to commercialise solutions to irksome consumer user experiences. But the pedestal of a great innovator on a par with Edison is highly debatable.
The difficulty is that Steve Jobs reached his peak at a time when society is suffering from lowered expectations and ambitions, particularly with regard to technology.
It is simply not tenable to compare Apple with breakthrough innovations like the electric light, the space race, the discovery of nuclear power, or the invention of the jet engine. The Apple universe is narrowly focused on the creation of devices and applications that elevate the self above all else; self-expression, self-absorption, individuated entertainment and therapeutic communications. Innovation today is focused not on the transformation of nature to ensure human progress, but the transmission of the self. Updating your status on a beautifully designed device is now regarded as important, if not more important, than upgrading your understanding of how the world works.
This is not nostalgia but a vital point: the inflation of Steve Jobs and the supposedly unprecedented Apple-led innovation era masks a culture of lowered ambitions, increasingly hostile to large-scale technological advances that aspire to tame nature and shape the world we live in. We need to ask what a man of Jobs’s ambition and passion could have achieved had this been an era when innovation was about genuinely changing the world.
What is never mentioned or remembered is that the technologies upon which Steve Jobs and Apple built a commercial empire were based upon scientific discoveries made almost a century ago. The scientific revolution – the discovery of quantum physics and mechanics – gave rise to the innovations we now take for granted and praise. When the great physicists like Albert Einstein or Niels Bohr formulated quantum mechanics from 1900 to 1930, they were trying to understand the fundamental laws of the universe, not invent something of great economic importance. Their quest was for the sheer beauty of solving some of the most baffling and abstract theoretical questions in order to advance mankind’s knowledge and our ability to control nature.
The subsequent implications were so far-reaching they transformed sister disciplines like chemistry and provided the foundation for technological wonders: quantum mechanics, for example, is necessary to engineer solid-state devices such as transistors, which are the building blocks of electronics and computers. The behaviour of semiconductors, an essential material for transistors, cannot be fully grasped with classical physics alone (the physics known before the discoveries of quantum mechanics and relativity). Without quantum mechanics, the information age and much of modern science would not exist. The inventions of the computer, the transistor, the World Wide Web and the laser used in fibre optics – the basis for our global telecommunications industry – owe their existence to quantum mechanics.
These are the giant shoulders upon which individuals like Steve Jobs stood. Of course, there will always be a relationship between scientific endeavour and its subsequent exploitation. Both are necessary because that is how society realises innovation. But the depth of mourning for Jobs reveals we have moved away from understanding how critical scientific knowledge remains to future innovation. Praising those who put scientific knowledge to work while remaining hostile or suspicious of the abstract pursuit of new knowledge that will allow even greater breakthroughs suggests we need to refocus our attention.
The idolatry surrounding Jobs since his sad passing detracts from the critical importance of the pursuit of pure scientific inquiry. The era of the scientific revolution can rightly be called an era of unparalleled innovation, but it became so because it was, first and foremost, an age ambitious for knowledge. Innovation was an outcome rather than an end in itself. And no matter how cool or slick its design, we should never forget that innovation’s true purpose lies in its potential to transform nature for the benefit of mankind.
Dr Norman Lewis is a consultant on innovation and co-author of Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation. He is speaking at the debate What Is Innovation For? at the Battle of Ideas festival at the Royal College of Art on 29 October, sponsored by City A.M. www.battleofideas.org.uk
Innovation today is focused on transmitting the self, not the transformation of nature