Competition and Technological Innovation

Jared Diamond discusses in his 1998 Pulitzer Prize winning book “Guns Germs and Steel” the reasons Eurasian civilization was the fastest to develop out of a universal hunting-gathering society into the dominant player in world affairs as we have come to know it today. Diamond’s conjecture is that the most dominant forces in history have had not as much to do with the people living it out but rather the variation in the geographical settings in which people lived. Diamond succeeds in making an extremely strong case for civilization first getting off the ground in the Fertile Crescent on the basis of natural selection and further for the diffusion of technology developed here to adjacent regions of similar latitude and climate. Diamond seems to ignore the fact that Mesopotamia is connected to multiple regions of equivalent geography. Turkey, and the Balkans aren’t particularly different from Afghanistan and northern India to the east, the Caucasus in the north, and the horn of Africa in the south. All of these areas are roughly equivalent in their ability to grow the crops and herd the animals Diamond cites as the basis of successful early agriculture.

In the epilogue, Diamond makes his most conscious effort to reconcile this discrepancy. Citing geographical differences between Europe and Eastern Asia he demonstrates the increased likelihood of technological adoption in the highly partitioned feudal system of Europe when compared with the super-nation controlled by one consolidated Chinese government. Diamond leaves his argument here, allowing the reader to speculate and fill in the details with respect to the extent of this description as a general rule. What Diamond is suggesting is that revolutionary change is only adopted in a competitive society whereas mundane technological development is universally implemented. While a powered pump to improve irrigation of a rice patty wouldn’t be readily accepted in ancient China, a systematic technique to reroute existing irrigation channels for uniform water distribution would be accepted without hesitation. According to Diamond a revolutionary European inventor would more likely see adoption of their new technology than a Chinese one because a sense of competition exists between one valley’s kingdom and the one over the hill.

Does the same rule apply today? Are revolutionary technological advances more likely to be accepted if they exist in an environment of competition? I would argue that this fails to remain universally true. Modern day global competition is driving routine small advances in technological change. Intel has invested billions to upgrade a microprocessor facility from 90 nm technology to the 45 nm technology now in production. This advance was made not so much as an improvement of their devices, but because it allows them to step ahead in a competitive market. The market for commercial laser printers varies between 42 pages per minute and 48 pages per minute, customers are won and lost over a few seconds. These advances make or break a company, but are hardly contributing to positive technological development.

It is my suggestion that the globalization of many industries has stifled revolutionary thinking, possibly preventing the development of new technologies. A global market allows businesses existing in well defined industries to compete on a larger scale, this improves the ability of said industry to quickly develop new changes to old technology as a way to keep ahead of competition. Analogous to early neighboring farmers growing different varieties of wheat, the advantage of the farmer growing a lower yield to trade and adopt the slightly higher yield grain is obvious. If the pool of of higher yield wheat is extremely extensive (a global market) it is likely that the farmer will focus on upgrading their crop rather than investing effort in doing what they can to try domestication of a new species or improving their existing yield by a new planting technique or spreading manure as fertilizer.

The natural experiment described by Diamond of the Polynesian settlement of the pacific islands, is in some sense and example of what I am trying to describe. These people would load up a boat with taro, yams, chickens and pigs, settle a new island, populate it and expand onwards. This was seen over and over, and it worked. The nature of their advance was an incremental one, not particularly stimulating of new technology. When the technology at hand didn’t quite work, as is evidenced by Easter Island, the Polynesians weren’t thinking about adapting or trying new things, rather they tried to pound a square peg in a round hole and failed.

When faced with obvious competition in an ‘obvious’ or existing industry it’s more likely that existing technologies are refined and expected to solve all problem; even though new problems may be addressed more effectively through new avenues. The Middle Ages saw many castles build taller and thicker walls while they built bigger trebuchets and battering rams to compete directly on the issue rather than try a different avenue of attack. This directed competition as it was seen hundred of years ago gave rise to a period of stagnation in the obvious industries associated with it. The rise of a global economy is certainly providing an even broader competitive avenue for businesses to pursue improved technology in existing industries. It is not, in my opinion, stimulating competition in new fields as well as it could be. Budding technology is often directed early in its development towards existing contemporary industries that appear to have practical and profitable applications for it.

The field of microfluidics is a brand new technology that is, in my opinion, suffering from such stifling. Microfluidic devices provide the ability to perform various chemical reactions using extremely small quantities of the chemicals involved. The application of these devices has been directed while the technology is still well in its infancy towards diagnostic testing for disease. While this is not generally a bad application, it is an example of a situation in which an existing industry sees this technology as a means to an existing end. Funding for microfluidics research is largely conditional that the goals of the project are directed towards biological testing applications. There has not been, nor will there ever be, an opportunity for companies or research institutions to develop microfluidics as a stand alone entity. From the time the devices were able to be used for primitive diagnostic testing any development of the technology towards improving device versatility or range of applications was essentially halted. Likewise, when the neighboring farmer knew that there was a superior plant to grow, their interest in growing their previous crops to their full potential waned.

The global marketplace is not a terribly difficult place for a revolutionary new idea to get off the ground. It is not however, an environment that stimulates revolutionary change the way competition has in the past. I will admit that I am unsure of whether or not this is a symptom of the adoption of a consolidated marketplace or a symptom of a global market itself. The preoccupation with trying to do everything marginally better than the competition may or may not be a phase that the world goes through. Ideally large scale competition is something that will also stimulate revolutionary new developments in technology in addition to the slow crawl of incrementally better equipment. As we all know, the things we hope to see done are not always the things that are done.

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