Creative Accounting: Taking Stock of Big Ideas

By Bailey, Ronald | Reason, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Creative Accounting: Taking Stock of Big Ideas


Bailey, Ronald, Reason


Is innovation endangered? An analysis in the journal Technological Forecasting & Social Change suggests it may be. Jonathan Huebner, a physicist working at the Pentagon's Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, takes a look at two measures of technological change: U.S. patents per capita from 1790 to 1999 and a subjective list of 7,200 "significant" innovations since the end of the Dark Ages.

According to Huebner's patent data, rates of innovation peaked in 1915, dropping by half by 1985 before rising back to 75 percent of the 1915 rate in 1999. Using data from a recently published book, The History of Science and Technology, Huebner dismally concludes that innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. At these rates, he projects that humanity will run into a technological dead end by mid-century.

Meanwhile, techno-gurus such as Ray Kurzweil, author The Age of Spiritual Machines, and John Smart, president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, think technological progress is not only advancing but moving at exponential rates. As evidence, Kurzweil cites the explosive growth of the Internet and the steeply falling costs of technologies such as DNA sequencing and computing. …

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