Here’s pretty much all I know about Scott Adams: Sometimes he says (or does) wacky things. Most of the time he draws funny comics about a luckless office drone named Dilbert. I can relate! But not today.
Today, Adams is on the soap box again, penning his way into the public discourse with a Wall Street Journal column about how a lack of boredom has led to an innovation rut in the U.S.
Because of that rut, he says, our economy is headed into the can. He even drew a special little cartoon for the column, which hints at the overall theme of his argument. That argument being all these gadgets and gizmos and search engines are taking away our opportunity to be bored. Boredom, to Adams, equals an opportunity for innovation. Moving mankind forward. That sort of thing.
In the column he reminisses a lot, as older people often do, especially about how simple he had things when he was a kid:
We didn’t have many toys by modern standards. But I discovered that if you have a blob of clay and some Lincoln Logs, you can make your own toy rifle. You can use those same materials to create a FrankenBarbie doll with body-image issues and a G.I. Joe that looks like an angry starfish with snow shoes. I’d take turns shooting at both of them, sometimes using the Lincoln Log rifle and sometimes the handgun that I whittled out of a block of wood. I blame society for all of that.
He argues that the smartphones, gadgets and other gizmos mean we are in a state of constant entertainment. Like a porta-potty at a rock concert after you just downed four beers, people are always occupied at the wrong times — times when they could be doodling the next great idea or writing the next Great American Novel.
My issue is with Adam’s assertion that a lack of boredom has led to a rut in innovation. He seems to want to apply the phenomenon to all people, which is silly, because mankind has never innovated as a species — it’s always driven forward by a few individuals and the rest of us follow like a herd. It’s like lemmings except instead of a cliff we’re all headed toward better batteries or nanotechnology or stem cell-grown replacement organs. OK, sometimes there are cliffs. Point made, but that’s the tricky nature of progress at play!
Now, it doesn’t take much effort to see how the thought leaders and innovators have remained as relevant and provoking today as they were back when Adams was whittling guns out of wood in his 40-person Windham, N.Y. schoolyard.
Remember Johnny Chung Lee? He single-handedly made himself a YouTube sensation with little more than a Wii and his amazing brain. And you know how it probably started? When he picked up a Wiimote for the first time and started to think about what made it tick. Simply holding that Wiimote and understanding the IR camera and the accelerometer housed within allowed him to create some fantastic tech demos. Oh, and land a job at Google. Lee excelled because of the gadget in his hand, not in spite of it.
Or what about Apple? Don’t groan! From an innovation and design standpoint, they’ve literally created entire industries, and did so during one of the worst economic downturns in our nation’s history. The word tablet is, so far, nearly synonymous with iPad. It’s well-designed and the combination of features — some borrowed, some created — have been innovative enough to secure the device’s place in tech history books. In what will be seen as one solitary moment of agreement with Adams, I will concede that Steve Jobs does appear bored at times, but only when he’s forced to deal with questions about competitor’s products or software.
Adams goes on to try and tie the failing economy into this lack of boredom too, but I’m not really buying that either. Our current economic woes in this country are actually explained pretty simply: We spend more than we have, and no one wants to be the bad guy who tightens the belt, raises taxes or makes cuts where they’ll matter to help right the ship. That there’s not yet an iPad: Quantum Edition on the market with teleportation features and Spooky Action at a Distance faster-than-light instant messaging has nothing to do with that or a lack of boredom. It’s irresponsible spending and a lack of revenue (tax increases). It’s common sense and a pair of stones that our government is lacking at the moment, not boredom.
Maybe the issue here is Adams, who’s been around for a while and hasn’t exactly had the best year ever, is starting to show his age. Maybe people aren’t responding as favourably to his rants as they did a few years ago, or maybe he’s finding his ideas aren’t receiving the same warm, enthusiastic responses from syndicates or entertainment executives that they did back when Dilbert’s cubicle life was a bit more relevant to people than it is today. Maybe he’s the bored one, but the ideas aren’t coming rapid fire like they did when he was imagining things as a kid or his younger self. That could be pretty frustrating. I dunno.
What I do know is there are even more amazing tools, platforms, gadgets and technology than there was 5, 10 or 20 years ago. Things have progressed. We grow organs in vats now. Wounded soldiers can feel the objects they manipulate with artificial limbs. Social networks, while annoying and occasionally dangerous, have kept me in touch with family members and friends that a Jack Loftus who was my age 20 years ago would have never heard from again. A single smartphone created this year could have flown dozens of Apollo missions all by itself!
To innovate in today’s environment, you need to have these gadgets and tools in your hand and you need to be interacting with them. To innovate as Adams recommends, from some vacuum where these gadgets are turned off or mitigated in some way, just doesn’t work. Can you imagine telling an Android developer to create the next Angry Birds phenomenon without playing any Android games?
Come to think of it, maybe that’s the real issue here. While we’re zipping around with iPhones and whatnot, Adams is still clutching that clay pistol he made back in Wndham, N.Y. That sounds absolutely boring to me. [WSJ]