Edwin Land was brilliant, prescient, prickly, and demanding, and hounded his employees into doing great things they might never have accomplished otherwise. That sounds like Steve Jobs. Land described photography as “the intersection of science and art.” Jobs likes to cite Land’s quote and says that Apple’s work sits “at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology,” a location which is surely in the same neighborhood. Land demoed new Polaroid products himself at corporate events that were famous for their hypnotic effect. Jobs carries on the tradition. And both Land and Jobs were forced out of the companies they founded, in two of the more preposterous decisions in business history.
I could go on: Polaroid’s advertising and packaging, for instance, emphasized classy minimalism. So do Apple’s.
It’s possible to overstate the similarities: Edwin Land, for instance, was profoundly involved in the engineering and chemistry of Polaroid products in a way that Jobs is not with Apple’s wares. Overall, though, Polaroid resembles Apple more than it did any of its 20th-century competitors. And Apple resembles Polaroid more than it does any 21st-century consumer electronics company.
Yes, there has been mind-blowing progress in information technology over the past four decades—in short, the Internet—but that progress may be blinding us to a major innovation slowdown in important scientific and technical areas. The Boeing 747, which first flew commercially just three years after Kahn’s book was published, remains the dominant long-distance plane. Our progress toward a cheap, safe, low-carbon form of energy has been glacial. In 1984, President Reagan’s health secretary promised an HIV vaccine within two years. We’re still waiting. The reason for this lag, according to economist Tyler Cowen, is that we have burned through all of the relatively easy innovation. The low-hanging fruit has been plucked, as he argues in The Great Stagnation. Making progress in areas such as transportation, energy, and medicine now requires more complex efforts on a much larger scale, efforts that are unlikely to emerge without some smart prodding by government and the private sector.
it could be that everyone is looking in the wrong place and the real innovation is in the hacking that goes on in Africa’s informal sector. Hersman’s Afrigadget blog celebrates African inventors who have hacked into their mobiles and got them remotely opening and closing doors, setting up 400-volt electric shocks on their doorknobs to lie in wait for burglars, and even make pots of tea—on their way home, they send a text message to their home phone, which sets the tea-maker to work.