The role of human (and animal) spirits in economic growth
People involved in science and technology like to think that their decisions about what to back and what not to back are wholly rational. But experience shows otherwise. Given that no one can be certain which technologies or ideas will thrive, emotions play a critical role.
Significant technologies only spread when they awaken desires-enough to persuade researchers to devote their lives, investors to invest, governments to subsidize, consumers to spend. To do so it's not enough that they are useful (surprisingly many technologies are not very useful in their early days). They also have to be meaningful, to capture imaginations.
The flood of money into the internet in the late 1990s, and then into clean technology and biotechnology in the 2000s are both examples. Investors and entrepreneurs were captivated by an idea and a mood as well as by the spreadsheets (and many lost a lot of money because the numbers turned out to be fiction).
The implication is that some technologies will thrive because they tap into hope - and so elicit the finance and commitment that helps them to advance.
I wrote about this in my book: some areas of technological advance may chime with deeper desires, while others don't. So the movement toward "transhumanism", or synthetic biology, arguably does tap these desires. Transhumanism raises immensely challenging questions of equity and morality: but it responds to an aspiration for life. The same is true of brain science: the rapidly burgeoning knowledge of how the brain works intersects with peoples' desire to be happier, smarter, and better company, and is likely to drive a flood of new products and services, many of which will be just as ethically complex as those associated with transhumanism. By contrast other areas of technological advance may founder because they're insufficiently exciting.
Keynes ascribed a lot of economic dynamics to what he called animal spirits - and this was the title of an excellent recent book by Robert Schiller. What he meant were irrational hopes and fears about the overall direction of the market. Perhaps we should also talk about the role of human spirits in the more micro choices involved in innovation. These are very different from the animal spirits of the market (though they overlap in bubbles of exuberant enthusiasm). Mostly they are characteristically human traits: curiosity, excitement, optimism - and the ability to picture how things could be different (which we're told, albeit on limited evidence, is one of the things that differentiates humans from animals).
There's no doubt that they matter. We know that entrepreneurs are more likely to succeed if they're optimistic. Some hype may be essential in creating the momentum for great technologies to grow. But surprisingly little research has been done on the affective side of innovation: how much people come to love the technologies themselves and the intellectual challenge of new fields of knowledge; and how much they are motivated by what the technologies can achieve. Could we, for example, design heat maps for emerging innovations - tracking the emotions they elicit to help us predict which ones will thrive? I'm sure good work has been done on this - any pointers would be appreciated.