What ought to be appended to President Carter's recently announced master plan for inspiring a new wave of job-creating Yankee ingenuity is that now and then there's a case to be made for technological immobility, even for regression or selective Ludditism.
As a nation whose advertising industry runs on the word "new," America gags on the proposition that an item of commerce may actually have evolved to perfection in design and manufacture and that it's futile to strive for improvement. It's that spirit of new-is-better that has led to such technological accomplishments as flour blended with non-fattening sawdust; the genetically engineered, thick-skinned, machine-harvestable tomato; and chemically induced beer foam. These are examples of what the experts mean by "innovation," which, as distinct from invention, covers the course from the first glimmering of a bright idea on through the process of research, production and, finally, marketing. And it's an indiscriminate adulation of innovation -- as a presumed antidote to all kinds of failings of present-day American society -- that runs through the White House's proposals to boost industrial innovation.
One difficulty with this government certification of newness as a good in itself is that it fails to recognize that some items have matured to the point where they are just fine as they are -- and that any attempt to improve on them will fail or result in changes that make them worse.
In Britain, where beer is paid serious attention, innovations out of modern chemistry visited so many misfortunes on the nation's brew that a nationwide revolt ensued. The big innovation in beer-brewing in Britain now is the resumption of 19th-century brewing techniques.
There are plenty of other examples of products and techniques reaching technological maturity that were only mucked up by later attempts at innovation. At the turn of the century, this country's railroad system had attained a degree of technological sophistication that we'd all be happy to see restored; that's something to think about while encapsulated in a broken-down Metroliner. The streetcar systems that once served American cities so efficiently and economically were innovated into oblivion. The current surge of interest in wood-burning stoves provides no occasion for innovation; what's needed is rediscovery.
With technological dynamism enshrined as an essential of a successful economy, what's easy to overlook is that while "new" and "better" often go together, there are many times when they don't. The reason for this -- contrary to everything that's been drummed into us -- is that some things eventually get to be as good as they can be and there's no reason to look any further. Evidence of this is all around us, in such commonplace items as tables, chairs, eating utensils and cooking pots, each of which is the mature product of long-evolving technologies. The comeback of the cast-iron stewing pot, which made its debut in prehistory, is not at all impeded by plastic-coated space-age competitors.
When it comes to replacing satisfactory products with ones that are superior, but needlessly so, the innovation movement really hits its stride. The most striking and successful example today is the electronic wristwatch, which, for all its technological sophistication, simply tells you the time -- a function that was nicely attended to ages before the dawn of solid-state physics.
The bright place on the innovation scene is that the United States possesses a vast and diversified research enterprise that can really produce. What's lacking in the president's plan of Industrial Innovation Initiatives is any sense of values concerning what it ought to produce.