New Innovators of Old


The cover article in latest issue of The Economist got me thinking. At issue are increasingly giant global firms that do not seem to be playing fair. “Paying tax seems to be unavoidable for individuals but optional for firms. Rules are unbending for citizens, and up for negotiation when it comes to companies.” And if that doesn’t boil blood, just think about what all that corporate privilege and wealth is going towards.

Actually, that’s what I’d like to think about. What could all that privilege and wealth do? I’ve got an idea of how to have fun answering that question. But first, just a touch of context.

As recently as 2006, the top-5 largest companies were: Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Gazprom, Microsoft, and Citigroup. Notice, only one high-tech firm in the mix. In fact, Microsoft was the only tech firm in the top-10. In 2016 that top-5 list looks like this: Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Berkshire Hathaway and Exxon Mobil. And there are five tech firms in the top-10, including Amazon and Facebook.

How have these technology giants grown so big in less than a decade? And what are they doing with their hugeness? “High-tech companies grow more useful to customers when they attract more users and when they gather ever more data about those users.” As long as tech firms can keep users clicking in such a way that they share more personal information, tech firms thrive. And what do users get in return? Tech firms “churn out products that improve consumers’ lives, from smarter smartphones to sharper televisions.”

I read that and my self-driving brain slammed on the breaks. Tradeoff: personal privacy for HDTV? And then my self-driving brain down shifted and smoked the tires with an idea.

Perhaps an issue is that the technological revolution has outpaced the imagination of its beneficiaries. Oil, metallurgy, and calculus turned horses into trains and planes. Silicon, transistors, and machine code turned vistas into check-ins and gifs.

Of course, there’s been more to innovation than 360-degree replays on Madden NFL 2017. But maybe that underscores the point. Why is it that when we think of twenty-first-century innovation, we so easily default to naming examples of higher resolution television and hyper-targeted advertising? How might we broaden our imagination of what’s possible?

What if we stopped imagining ourselves and solicited some help? Perhaps we are too close to the innovation we are getting, and our imaginations have become constrained by the all-too-apparent possibilities. Who could we call on to think of something genuinely innovative to do with all this new technology?

I know! Let’s get someone from the past to help. So here’s the challenge. Think of a historical figure (ideally, pre-1700s) and given her or his historical situation, what innovation would that person dream up with today’s technology? Would Socrates think up Twitter? Would Michelangelo come up with Instagram? Don’t know. What do you think?202

Dave is an author, educator, and advocate of living simply. Dave has spoken nationally and internationally about simplicity. He has appeared in Time Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine, the London Times, and The Guardian, and has been a guest of the 700 Club. His book The 100 Thing Challenge (HarperCollins, 2010) tells the story of his simple-living journey and the worldwide movement it contributed to. Dave holds an M.A. from Wheaton College and a B.A. from Moody Bible Institute. He works at Point Loma Nazarene University and lives in San Diego with his wife and three daughters.


  1. David Michael Bruno


    After writing this, I read Andrew Sullivan’s piece, “I Use to Be  Human Being.” And now I wonder if my question is misplaced. Perhaps the innovators of old would not think up some new technology to solve a problem.

    There must be a mix. Surely there’s nothing wrong with inventing the wheel or running water systems. And now as I am writing, I am wondering if my question is in fact relevant. Perhaps the issue, like Sullivan says, is that we are wasting our creativity on innovations that waste our humanity.

    I know I’m not answering my own question with a historical figure and innovation. But maybe this post was more about reacting to the discomfort of our times.

  2. Josh Duncan


    I am wrestling with that discomfort as well, @guynameddave. I’ve come to believe that technological advances are neutral things most of the time–they can be used to improve lives or harm them. Figuring out how to do the former while avoiding the latter is a process, and we seem to be doing an egregiously bad job of it these days. The problem is exacerbated by our inability to disconnect from our current landslide of apps and media. We can’t escape, or we simply don’t notice we need to escape.

    If we do notice our need for escape, it’s not long until we feel the urge to hop online again. A strong urge, in fact. I think it’s appropriate to use addiction language when describing this phenomenon. It would be useful for me, and probably for many others, to take a page from Sullivan’s book and disconnect for awhile. I took third order monastic vows to try and fight this battle in my life several years ago. It’s been helpful, but it feels like the rest of the culture is pushing the other direction.

    The irony of posting this on a website is not lost on me, but I’m thankful that there are places like the Rabbit Room that seek to use this technology in ways that encourage wholeness.


  3. Owen Fulghum


    Good question… which mostly made me think of more questions! With a nod toward Sullivan’s really interesting “confessional” article: Is our current pervasive technology so insidious that even great innovators (pre1700s or later) would be seduced down the same path of trading vistas for screens and check-ins? Who had/has such a rigorous and resilient imagination regarding human flourishing that they could resist the Borg/Matrix and actually help save us? Would they be like the folks who’ve invented the Light Phone

  4. Kevan Gilbert

    There is a lot to explore here, Dave — thank you for thoughtfully pushing us forward. I really enjoyed the thoughtfulness and turns-of-phrase in this part you wrote: “Perhaps an issue is that the technological revolution has outpaced the imagination of its beneficiaries. Oil, metallurgy, and calculus turned horses into trains and planes. Silicon, transistors, and machine code turned vistas into check-ins and gifs.”

    I read your piece just after reading this one: “Your new iPhone’s features include oppression, inequality – and vast profit.” It further highlights the desperate reality our consumption is creating.

    Also, this small book particular wasn’t terribly well-edited, but starts to ask the questions about how to incentivize our markets towards human well-being: Humanity in the Machine.

  5. Hannah

    I really love this question. I’m a Rabbit Room reader who happens to have written a dissertation on the seventeenth century poets (and preachers) John Donne and George Herbert. I know it seems really unlikely, but I think John Donne actually has a lot to say to the internet. The sense of community with all humanity across geographic distances that Donne explores in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions seems like a great place to start thinking about what it means to be connected to people across the world digitally, and Donne’s reflections are soaked in his faith in Christ.

    The trouble is, I have no idea what actual technology he would invent (other than maybe a dating app full of audacious love poetry in his wild younger days!). But I feel like he might retweet sites like Global Voices, which curates citizen journalists from around the world and translates their work so that it’s easier for people to learn what’s happening in other places. And I imagine he’d follow groups like The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.

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