The challenge for policymakers and populations alike is how to cope with the pervasive – and perverse – consequences of ever more people gaining ever greater access to ever more innovations that offer ever greater impact for ever lower costs. Why? Because diffusion is inherently messy and unpredictable, and because the ingenuity of a technology’s adopters more than rivals the creativity of its original innovators. We ignore this at our peril.
This new millennium’s most excruciating irony is that the rising democratization of innovation disproportionately empowers the most totalitarian and fundamentalist of ideologies. As economist cum nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling has so chillingly documented, the ability of tiny groups of fanatics to kill large groups of innocents has grown by orders of magnitude over the past fifty years. Using home-brewed technologies, reasonably well-funded sociopaths would today find it easier than ever to kill hundreds of thousands of people at a time. Oppenheimer’s lament upon witnessing the first nuclear explosion in Alamogordo – “I am become death, shatterer of worlds” – now seems the quaintest of anachronisms. Truly, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The monopolies on destruction held by states and sovereigns are rapidly devolving into entrepreneurial opportunities for cults and causes.
Yet at the same time, it’s easier than ever for a successful medical device or video game devised in Karachi, Kampala, or Caracas to catch fire and spread swiftly around the world. There has never been a better time to appreciate, explore, adopt, and adapt the ideas and innovations of others. Even in economies constricted by regulation and corruption, enormous gray markets in innovation somehow take root and prosper.
The accelerating spread of innovation ultimately amounts to the greatest revolution in choice the world has ever known. The diffusion of innovation is about the diffusion of choice – both good and bad. The more choices you have, the more your values matter.
Politics aside, the values of this column demand that I end by acknowledging the readers and editors who’ve taken the time to share their concerns with me over the past two and a half years. It’s been gratifying to get responses from so many smart people who care about what I’ve been saying. Thank you.