Kitchen Stagnation

January 31, 2011

Paul Krugman and Tyler Cowen argue that the pace of innovation in the kitchen has stagnated over the last 50 years or so.

The same can be said for one of my favorite technologies, the canoe. The modern day canoe is based on the Aboriginal birchbark canoe. The original design is hundreds of years old and remains unchanged though the materials used in the construction of the modern canoe have changed over time. The birchbark was first replaced by canvas in the 19th century followed by modern composites like fiberglass and Kevlar about 50 years ago. There have been no significant improvements in canoe technology since then.

Is the lack of canoe innovation a sign that we are doomed to technological stagnation?

For me, the canoe is an example of a perfected technology. Within its problem space, it is done. It is complete. It represents the fruits of a long and arduous process, the engineering end-game. It makes me happy. It is the high bar for anything I create.

I admit that kitchen appliances do not give me the same sense of engineering perfection or completeness that the canoe does. They do, however, represent another common engineering measure, that of being “good enough”. It is a waste of time and money to try to improve a technology that is “good enough”. Perhaps that is the definition. A technology is “good enough” when additional engineering resources applied to the problem space result in negligible technological improvement.

One would think that economists preoccupied with the allocation of resources would have a special place in their heart for technology that is either “done” or “good enough” rather than seeing it as a harbinger of middle-class decline.

2 Responses to “Kitchen Stagnation”

  1. tomslee Says:

    The Krugman article (or a similar one I read some years ago) did make me think we naturally overestimate the current rate of change because previous innovations just seem normal. That said, you have a good point about “good enough” – plus, there’s coffee makers and bread makers and so on. In the end, how do you compare the electrical grid and cars to computers and biotechnology? I don’t know that you can.

  2. RAD Says:

    Nicholas Carr has certainly done a fine job of comparing computing technology to the electrical grid. The parallels are only informative if you start with a model in which innovation for any one technology follows a pattern or cycle. Nick compared the two technologies at what he believes are equivalent points in their innovation cycle. He did not claim that innovation is in decline because the technology behind the electrical grid is no longer improving at the same rate it had in the time of Edison. Unless I misunderstand their articles, that is the exact argument Cowen and Krugman are making.

    Their sample may be anecdotal but the anecdote is based on several assumptions that are seriously flawed in my opinion.

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