DT Debates: Has the Internet hurt innovation?

dt debates internet versus innovation

While the Internet has inarguably become one of our most important resources, there’s also the implication that it has limited us. In an age where the tangibility of our creations is becoming increasingly unimportant, some believe that we’re shortchanging ourselves by focusing on all things digital. In the spirit of this debate, writers Andrew Couts and Jeffrey Van Camp argue whether or not the Internet is hurting — or helping — innovation. 

dt debate question



andrew-coutsClearly the Internet has helped innovation — on the Internet. We can find, spread, and organize information, and connect with each other, in ways never before possible, all thanks to this nifty series of tubes. But I agree with Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal and Facebook’s biggest early investor, as well as science fiction author Neal Stephenson, both of whom believe that the incremental technological developments allowed by the Internet have made us all complacent. We think technology is moving faster than the speed of light, and yet we have become unable to make the same kinds of giant leaps seen in the 20th century. During that time, society saw the creation of the airplane, the automobile, nuclear energy, cell phones, and the computer itself — inventions that you and I take for granted. And yet, here we are, still reliant upon fossil fuels. The NASA space shuttle program has been dismantled. And we are all enamored by iPads, Instagram, and glasses with video cameras in them. Those things are all interesting, but fall far short of the leap of putting a man on the moon. 




Jeffrey Van CampI read the article and Mr. Stephenson makes some good points. While we definitely haven’t solved some of the problems that have plagued us since the 70s due to politics, I think our society is still engaging in meaningful innovation all the time.

It’s easy to point out airplanes and the space shuttle as examples of great human innovation, along with the light bulb, film projector, car, phonograph, and all of those other life-changing inventions of the last century. But it isn’t quite fair to say we’re failing simply because somebody hasn’t outlightbulbed the lightbulb or landed on the moon again. In fact there has been a lot of innovation in light bulb technology in the last decade, but it can’t possibly ever hope to get the same amount of attention. Before the 20th century we had almost virtually no modern conveniences

The Internet itself was a monumental, world-changing invention on par with anything else. We’re still exploring its broad-reaching possibilities, of which this debate over email is a part of. You can argue that we haven’t advanced airplanes enough, but thanks to massive innovation in communication technologies we don’t even need to travel as much as we used to.




The Internet was, and continues to be, a monumental technological advancement. But it too is an old invention. TCP/IP, the communications protocol on which the Internet is based, was developed in the early 1970s. Email has barely changed since the standards were set in the mid 70s. And Tim Berners-Lee rolled out the first successful implementation of HTTP, which is the basis for the World Wide Web, nearly 22 years ago. We are still relying upon these aging technologies for much of what we do online. That’s fine. But I would not call what has come out of these technologies anything close to staggering innovation.

The reason it’s easy to point out examples like airplanes and space shuttles is because those were monumental achievements — and that’s exactly what I believe we are lacking. You’re probably right: a lot of the stagnation we have is likely due to the ever-hardening political stalemate that we see here in the U.S. But this is a democracy, and it is up to us as a people to demand more, either through direct government action, like NASA, or through indirect government action, like massive tax breaks, grants and other incentives for universities or private enterprise to find viable alternative energies, for example. My point is that we, for whatever reason, lack the resolve as a nation to demand such advancements.

I’m looking for something that will make us say, “Wow, the world is a whole new place now.” Instead of just, “Neat, I think I’ll sign up.”




Sure, the Internet was technically started years ago, but it’s been progressing at a rapid pace since then. Things have changed quite dramatically. Smartphones are only just now becoming a mainstream thing and computing in general is changing at a rapid pace.

This entire argument feels like it’s based more on nostalgia than anything else. There are plenty of innovative products and technologies that have rapidly transformed how we think about everything. We have live shots of Mars now. We’ve traveled there. How is that not significant? Is it only monumental when a man walks there? That’s more symbolism than anything else. We also have companies developing commercial spacecraft. We’ve made huge strides in robotics and other areas as well. We write about new, amazing advancements every day that change things for people.

I think we can be forgiven as a society for getting overly excited about the Internet and computers for a few years. The Internet and computers have gotten a lot of attention because they are inventions that enable an almost unlimited amount of new innovation and impossible things on top of them. They are much more transformative than an airplane travelling at Mach 10 or one trip to the moon. We’re seeing tens of thousands of small innovations being built and enabling the entire population to participate, something that hasn’t happened before in human history. Progress is being shared.




You’re right — I take back my previous statement that the Internet has not created any staggering innovations. And you’re also right that our ability to explore stars, planets, and galaxies right from home is a monumental achievement — something that even science fiction writers failed to predict or inspire. So you’ve got me there. 

But I still can’t shake the feeling that we have become complacent. That we’re settling for good enough. That our imaginations have slowed, retracted, and taken a break. Yes, new, amazing advancements happen everyday, as we both know. It’s just that I do not feel that I’ve once witnessed something quite as spectacular as the first flight, or even the first car. Perhaps that’s nostalgia — but I don’t think so. I am not nostalgic for the creation of airplanes. That happened decades before either of us were born. I am simply saying that what we call innovation today is nothing more than baby steps from already-existing technology. Better cars. Better planes. Better telescopes. Faster Internet access. Slicker email applications. Smaller, wireless computers. All of those things are great. But they aren’t drastically new. 

It’s true that innovation is always an evolutionary process, that nothing comes from nothing — it is always a twist on something before it. And perhaps that’s coming. I just hope it comes soon and proves me wrong.




I think we forget just how long it took things like cars and airplanes and other fancy inventions to become what we know today. Every great invention like those seems like a great big revolution in retrospect, but they evolved for decades and decades, much like how we’re watching the net evolve today. It’s amazing how many things in all fields have changed in only the last 10 years, let alone 20 or 30. 

With that said, as a nation, we have definitely been resting on our laurels. While I think technological innovation continues to happen, we have lost the drive that we used to have as recent as the 1970s. The strand of unity that was strong enough to bring about massive change in the 50s and 60s is gone and since the cold war ended, and especially since the attacks a decade ago, we’ve been lost. This nation, and others, should be rising up to the challenge of energy and exploration but instead we’ve been complacent to sit back and let money flow. So, I’m with you, in a way. I’d love for us to stop being so cynical and start believing in bigger ideas… more than that, I’d like us to start acting on the many good ideas that have been ignored for the last 30 years.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.


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