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Is innovation dead -- or doing just fine, thank you?

By David Futrelle

Facebook has been accused of many things: ripping off individual investors by selectively disclosing bad news to big investors before its IPO; increasing cynicism about Wall Street and damaging the IPO market; being a ridiculously pointless waste of time. Can we add “destroying innovation” to the list of charges?

On the Huffington Post, entrepreneur Steve Blank lays out the case against Facebook, arguing that its success, and that of other social-networking and social-media companies, is diverting venture capital from serious if unglamorous research with a more uncertain payoff – the sort of research that truly visionary venture capitalists should be supporting. Instead of “investing in a blockbuster cancer drug that will pay them nothing for 15 years,” Blank laments, VCs are throwing their money at the latest and possibly greatest social-media idea in hopes of scoring a quick return when it goes big.

In an interview with the Atlantic, Blank is blunt: “The golden age of Silicon Valley is over, and we’re dancing on its grave.”

On TechCrunch, meanwhile, Alexander Haislip, a marketing executive at tech start-up ScaleXtreme, broadens the critique. Facebook may be doing exciting things with advertising, he acknowledges, but how exciting is advertising, anyway? It’s hardly, he complains, “the best use of the brightest minds of our generation.”

But Facebook isn’t the only concern of the innovation worriers. In the Washington Post, tech writer Joshua Topolsky takes a look at the latest batch of allegedly cutting-edge smart phones and finds them all distressingly same-y:

Slab after slab, no keyboards, no color. Just black blocks with shiny touch screens, maybe a few buttons dotted along the side … All were familiar, and all were uninspired … It’s as if design innovation has all but stopped in the world of technology.

In the Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, Leslie Kwoh complains that the term innovation is becoming a meaningless cliché:
Businesses throw around the term to show they’re on the cutting edge of everything from technology and medicine to snacks and cosmetics … But that doesn’t mean the companies are actually doing any innovating. Instead they are using the word to convey monumental change when the progress they’re describing is quite ordinary.
It was certainly clever of Ocean Spray to turn leftover cranberry skins into Craisins. But is this really innovation?

Is innovation really dead or dying in Silicon Valley — and the cranberry bogs of New England? Or are critics suffering from their own failure of vision? Critics of the critics are stepping up to declare innovation alive and well. In Forbes, Christopher Lochhead of Play Bigger Advisors declares the attacks on Silicon Valley to be so much “bulls—”:

Innovation is thriving in Silicon Valley … buyers/users are embracing new innovations and technologies that are having just as much, or more, of an impact on the way people work, play and live as the hardware and microprocessor breakthroughs that have traditionally defined Silicon Valley.

Look at Apple, Lochhead suggests; look at Google, Pandora and Pinterest: “Personal technology has never been more fun or effective,” he writes.

And what of the much derided social media? “Ignore the handwringing,” Farhad Manjoo writes in Slate, “because a lot of it is bogus.” There’s more to Facebook than stalking exes, he argues, and more to social media than time wasting — it connects people in new ways, opening up opportunities for “new, world-changing business ideas.”

Among the innovators using the connecting power of social media to offer the world never-before-possible services, Manjoo cites car-sharing site RelayRides and Airbnb, which makes it possible for homeowners and apartment dwellers to rent out their space safely to frugal travelers. And there are countless others. (Heck, a couple of years back I got pretty enthusiastic about the book-trading social-media site BookMooch, until I realized that fully participating in it would require lots of tedious trips to the post office.) These may seem small potatoes compared with, say, the profoundly transformative technologies coming out of Bell Labs in its 20th century heyday. But just wait.

Innovation is complicated. We don’t always recognize it until afterward. When the first personal computers hit the market, some people couldn’t imagine uses for them beyond doing spreadsheets and storing recipes. They didn’t become ubiquitous until the Internet (another long-underappreciated technology) took off in the 1990s. Now the Internet and its social-media sites are migrating to smart phones.

Social media are all about taking advantage of the critical mass of users these earlier technical innovations have enabled. Sure, Farmville and Pinterest and the rest may not seem earth-shatteringly innovative. But we’re only beginning to see what’s possible. Don’t write innovation off just yet.

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