The word “inventor” is a loaded one. For many of us, it conjures up romanticized images of an obsessive tinkerer, toiling away in his backyard workshop to perfect some device or technology that is going to change the world. We think of Tesla, Edison, Hewlett and Packard. Those of us versed in the history of wireless technology might think of Dr. Irwin Jacobs as well.
The barriers to invention have typically been fairly high. It wasn't enough to have a garage, you also needed access to materials, tools, free time, and capital if you were going to break out and succeed. (Amber Case discusses these barriers to invention in her excellent Spark Salon article.)
But becoming an inventor is easier than it used to be. At least that’s how it seems to me. As our societies have hoisted themselves out of the purely physical world, many of the barriers to creating new products and experiences have fallen by the wayside.
Take the printed word. It’s easy to chart the spread of literature and learning as the tools for distributing the written word have moved from hand scribed to printing press to laser printers to ebooks, and now Facebook and Twitter (yes, I meant to equate Twitter to a printing press). More than ever, anyone can publish. But does that mean everyone is a writer? Let’s come back to that question.
We’re also at an inflection point in the physical world—in the design of 3D objects. There are innumerable applications for 3D printing technology; let's talk about toys, for instance. Used to be that toys were carved from wood or cast in metal. Then we had the mass market of plastic toys made in countries far away. But today you can buy a 3D printer for less than $2,000 and “print” your own toys from open-source designs that you can develop and change. The ability to invent form and function has just started us rolling down that slope of faster and faster change.
I think the most influential shift has happened in the world of software. In the last 30 years, our ability to create complex and wonderful systems has skyrocketed. Each year, we learn more about how to build large-scale and distributed systems, which create user experiences and community interaction that we could have not easily created even in the 1990s. The growth in power of both computing (processors) and connectivity (the Internet) has exponentially driven innovation at a scale that was unheard of before.
Take mobile games-maker Zynga, which has experienced phenomenal growth in just a few years thanks to hits such as FarmVille and Words With Friends. Zynga developers didn’t have to build a giant communications and networking platform for their games, because Facebook did that for them. Instead, they were able to focus on what they did best.
Now let’s come back to my comment on publishing versus writing. We learned in the early days of the Internet that just because you can publish a web page doesn’t mean you should. And we know that not everyone with a blog should be a writer.
But on an individual level, the ability to become a widely read writer, or a successful musician, or a blockbuster developer is open to everyone, as is the ability to hone a craft and discover new skills. That’s a big change. The democratization of invention doesn’t just mean that the tools of invention are open to everyone; it also means the brightest minds in our society will be discovered, and untapped creativity can be put to use.
Some questions to think about: Can invention keep up the rapid pace of democratization? And if so, what impact will this democratization have on consumers? Are we seeing the beginnings of a new class of consumer/producers, who are fully empowered to build the world around them?
The views expressed are the author’s own.