By John Chandler
In last fall’s technology issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows reported the findings of a panel of experts assembled to describe the 50 greatest breakthroughs since the wheel. These historians, entrepreneurs and tech strategists came up with a made-for-arguing list in hopes of detecting clues and trends for the next breakthroughs in innovation. If we were able to see grand patterns in the evolution of progress itself, what innovations might be on the horizon?
It is a fascinating and worthwhile question, and one that is apparently more alive in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Despite public hand-wringing over the decline of American education, research funding and overall eroding investment in innovation, the forecast for U.S. innovation is sunny and ambitions are high. One noteworthy innovator, Elon Musk (Tesla), when asked for the biggest feasible hope of his lifetime, replied, “Sustainable human settlements on Mars.” Okay ….
The list was fascinating to me in how elegantly simple, foundational and commonplace most progress breakthroughs seemed — for instance, cement (#37), the nail (#47) and screw (#31), the abacus (#43), paper (#6) and optical lenses (#5). The predictable modern high-tech innovations such as the Internet (#9), personal computer (#16) and telephone (#24) ranked behind more foundational ones such as, uh, electricity (#2). And all breakthroughs depended on previous innovations which simply kept us alive long enough to figure out the finer things. So never underestimate the power of penicillin (#3), vaccination (#8), refrigeration (#13) or sanitation systems (#12)!
The other finding Fallows highlighted was that the bulk of the top 50 breakthroughs were not so much driven by superstar individuals but were “achievements of groups of people who built on one another’s efforts, sometimes over spans of many years.” While “popular culture often lionizes the stars of discovery and innovation” (think Steve Jobs today and the Wright brothers of yesteryear), most breakthroughs can be traced to how such individuals “persuade large groups to work toward a common end.”
Listen up, church! If Fallows was right — and I think he was — then world-changing breakthroughs are not so much the product of a heroic leader, but of dedicated groups of people putting their shoulders against a common task over time for the cause of cumulative achievement. A congregation doesn’t need a celebrity pastor as much as it needs unity in its diversity toward addressing a common cause.
Never underestimate the progress that is possible when a committed group of disciples get on the same page and go after their calling. The gates of hell will not prevail against it.