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My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall
Street Journal is about the innovation that leads to the cheapening
of technologies, as opposed to the invention that leads to new
Cheapeners deserve as much credit as inventors.
Last week a Minneapolis firm called TenKsolar announced that it
reckons it can soon cut the cost of rooftop solar power in sunny
locations to as little as eight cents a kilowatt-hour-which is
almost competitive with conventional electricity. It borrows an
idea from computer memory technology to wire up solar panels in a
new pattern so that the current can take many different paths
through the cells in the array. The result is that the output of
the panel is no longer limited to the output of the
worst-performing cell. Until now, a shadow passing over one cell
would cut the output of the whole panel.
This mundane innovation will not in itself transform the
prospects of solar cells, but it's a glimpse of the kind of small
steps that, while winning no Nobel Prizes, are needed to bring the
cost of solar power down to the point where it can be a cost-saving
boon to, rather than a subsidized drain on, economic activity. That
"cheapening" is vital.
A feature of innovation is that the greatest impact of a new
idea comes not when the light bulb goes on over the geek's head,
but when the resulting technology eventually becomes cheap enough
for many people to use-perhaps decades later. The first plane at
Kitty Hawk had zero impact on the world economy, but budget
airlines have a huge impact; the first computer was a curiosity,
but cheap laptops changed the world.
With some technologies, the cheapening happens almost
immediately. The Post-it note springs to mind. With others, the
cheapening takes a surprisingly long time: Lasers remained the
preserve of labs for five decades before suddenly showing up in
consumer goods. With some technologies, like helicopters, the
cheapening has never happened at all.
Most of us consider the original idea rare and noble, the later
cheapening inevitable and dull. Who would imagine today that
Napoleon III of France reserved his newfangled aluminum cutlery for
only his most honored guests, leaving commoner folk to eat with
We also disrespect the people who achieve the cheapening. The
robber barons of the late 19th century generally made their
fortunes by drastically cheapening new technologies, grabbing
market share by undercutting rivals-and ending up with terrible
reputations. Cornelius Vanderbilt cut the price of rail freight
90%, Andrew Carnegie slashed steel prices 75% and John D.
Rockefeller cut oil prices 80% between 1870 and 1900. Malcom
McLean, Sam Walton and Michael Dell did roughly the same for
container shipping, discount retailing and home computing a century
later, and were also unloved for it.
Yet it's the cheapening that raises the world's living
standards. And cheapening is often mighty hard work.
As Kevin Kelly argues in his book "What Technology Wants," once
an idea is ripe, simultaneous invention of the same thing by
different people is so common that it is almost the rule. This
implies that inventors are more dispensable than cheapeners: If
Thomas Edison had not existed, electricity would still have been
invented. It's harder to argue that had Sam Walton not existed,
discount retailing would have grown as fast.
The length of the usual gap between invention and cheapening
implies that some of today's expensive technologies will eventually
flower into prosperity-enhancing time-savers. All they need is a
good cheapener to work on them.
Solar power may be one of these technologies, and others may be
high-temperature superconductors, discovered in the 1980s, but yet
to have much economic impact; biotechnology, still mostly helping
research rather than therapy; and space travel, still far too
expensive to be of any commercial interest. They await their