Pondering the Future's Future: VISIONS: It Used to Be That One Einstein Could Change the Course of Science and Technology. Now, in the Age of the Internet, Innovation Has Become Routinized by a Global Entrepreneurial Culture. Are the Days of the Lone Genius Long Gone?

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Byline: Fred Guterl

He changed the future without ever winning an election or commanding an army. All Albert Einstein did was have an idea. It's not a particularly easy one to grasp in all its ramifications, but the basic insight he expressed in his 1905 paper on special relativity is almost childlike in its simplicity. And yet it ushered in a golden age of physics and did much to shape the course of the 20th century. It also transformed the way the future is made: not with wars and revolutions but with scientific insights. But Einstein has also come to represent an obsolete stereotype. This disheveled, socially challenged scientist with the wild hair and the shabby cardigan epitomizes the popular notion that science proceeds in great leaps at the hands of the lone genius, who reinterprets everything and achieves, in one bold stroke, what science philosophers like to call a "paradigm shift." There's no doubt that Einstein did exactly that. Physics was never the same, and his insights cleared the way for the solid-state electronics that undergird the Internet and the atom bombs that loomed over the cold war. Einstein's brilliance set the 20th century in motion. But what about the next one? Will a towering figure emerge to shape its trajectory?

There's reason to think not. Times have changed since Einstein worked by day as a clerk in the Swiss Patent Office, and by night as a World-Historical Physicist. Early in the last century, science and technology were still largely the province of private patrons and individual inventors working in basement labs. These days vast networks of laboratories sponsored by governments, universities, corporations and venture capitalists are all pushing to find the next new thing. Discovery and invention--in developed countries, at least--have become regularized. The insights of individuals are still important, of course, but the overall effort relies less on any one genius. "In the late 19th century you had predominantly the private inventor," says Yale historian Daniel Kevles. "Now you have the organized inventor. Even the big conceptual scientific leaps are much less likely to occur nowadays. Scientific fields are crowded with geniuses. Everybody's working at the big problems all the time." The advances we take for granted in 2012 will have sprung not from one mind but from an army of them.

What that means is our society has become more steady in producing earth-shattering advances. The need for breakthroughs-on-demand started during World War II, when the U.S. military wanted its antiaircraft shells to inflict damage even when they missed enemy planes. Nobody knew how to get the bombs to explode in midair at just the right moment, so the Pentagon funded the applied-physics lab at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and staffed it with experts in plastics, electromagnetics and other specialties. The proximity fuse they came up with was decisive in winning the war. And the effort to make it, along with the legendary Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb, set the precedent for organizing an array of expertise based on the need for a particular invention.

This shift in the methodology of discovery has complicated matters. It gave inventors the wherewithal to build ever more complex machines, but made the act of inventing more complex as well. The Pentagon awards a contract for a new jet fighter to a prime contractor, which passes the various subsystems and components down through layers of subcontractors. "Henry Ford could understand every piece of his assembly line," says Don Kash, a technology expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "Nobody can do that at Toyota." Complexity has spread from big-ticket items like cars and planes to toasters, stuffed animals and Game Boys.

What's different now, though, is how comfortable we've become with complexity. Innovation is part of our lives in a way it wasn't for previous generations. In 1970 Alvin Toffler argued in "Future Shock" that technology was changing society so quickly that in the span of a single lifetime a person would find himself a stranger in his own culture. …