What is the true driving force behind technological innovation?

Many years ago, while searching for references to cite in a research paper that I was writing, I stumbled onto a completely unrelated academic paper that I will never forget. The paper’s basic thesis was that all technological innovation is in some way driven by porn. I kid you not.

Although I don’t quite believe the paper’s conclusion, the author did layout quite a few compelling examples. For instance, he mentioned the invention of 8mm film, which allowed people for the first time to watch movies in their own homes. He then discussed at length technical advancements such as the Super 8 format which vastly improved the picture quality. He went on to discuss how VHS further improved picture quality, added sound, and made viewing much more convenient because there was no longer a need for a projector, a screen, and a darkened room.

As I said before, I’m not buying the idea that all technological innovation is driven by porn. Although porn may very well be the driving force behind the rapid growth of the Internet in the 90s, there are many other technical innovations that have absolutely nothing to do with porn. GPS receivers, the continuously variable transmission in your car, electric bikes, and drones are all examples of technical achievements that probably weren’t inspired by porn.

Ever since reading that paper so long ago, I have occasionally pondered the question of what it is that truly inspires technical innovation. If it isn’t porn, what is it?

My guess is that you simply cannot attribute all technological innovation to a single driver, such as an innate human need to invent things. After all, there are probably plenty of people in the world who have never invented anything. Instead, I think that the inspiration for technical innovation stems from a variety of sources. Just as people are different from one another, so too are the sources of their inspiration.



I think that Hollywood films are probably one of the biggest drivers of technological innovation. Movie plots are not bound by the limits of current technology, nor are they bound by the laws of physics. Sci-fi movies have a very long history of introducing us to futuristic gadgets, many of which (like the lightsaber) become part of pop culture. Some of these Hollywood fabrications inevitably end up inspiring real-life innovation. Let me give you an example.

When I was in middle school, my parents ended up sending me to a special school that focused on math, science, and technology. One of the things that made the school so unique was that its curriculum focused heavily on problem-solving, rather than on simply requiring students to memorize useless information. As such, many of the assignments involved building things.

One of the teachers was really into pop culture and especially loved science fiction. Many of his assignments were directly inspired by Hollywood films. For example, the teacher showed us the movie Aliens and then told us to pay attention to the exosuits used at the end of the film (in the movie, the suits were called Power Loaders, and were kind of like a wearable forklift). We were then instructed to build our own exosuit prototypes. Of course, none of us had the technical know-how, nor the budget to create anything that was even remotely as capable as the one used in the movie, but most of the kids in the class came up with some pretty creative designs.

Once I graduated from middle school, I didn’t really give much more thought to the exosuit project. After all, I thought of the project as being little more than a fun diversion, assigned by a teacher who probably watched way too many movies. As I got to be a little bit older though, I began to realize that my middle school teacher wasn’t the only person in the world who had an interest in turning movie tech into real life innovation. Companies like Panasonic have been experimenting with building real-life exosuits for years.

Of course, Aliens is not the only movie franchise to use exosuits. The Iron Man suit from the Marvel movies could also be thought of as an exosuit. And just as there are people building real-life versions of the Aliens exosuits, there are many people who have built real-life (albeit less capable) versions of the Iron Man suit. Perhaps the most impressive is the 10 foot tall, functional, hydraulic Iron Man suit built by Colin Furze. Incidentally, Furze also built his own Tie Fighter.


Of course, exosuits are far from being the only tech that has been inspired by Hollywood. Just do a quick Web search on the phrase “real-life technology inspired by movies” and you will find dozens of sites discussing how tech from movies such as Back to the Future, Blade Runner, and Minority Report has crept into the real world (even if it isn’t completely identical to its Hollywood counterpart). My personal favorite example is the Star Wars inspired hoverbikes that are currently being tested by the police in Dubai.

Classic literature

Even though Hollywood has been credited with inspiring many of today’s most popular tech gadgets, the trend of drawing inspiration from fiction has been going on since long before movies were invented. History is filled with examples of technical innovation being inspired by fictional literature. The works of Jules Verne, for example, have been credited with inspiring the submarine, video conferencing, and even the Apollo command module that took humans to the moon.

Other drivers of technological innovation

It would be incredibly short-sighted to attribute all technical innovation to fiction (or to porn, for that matter). I once read a business book that said that if a business is to be successful it needs to address a basic need, help people to fulfill a passion, or solve a problem. I think that this basic concept can be extended to technical innovation. People often create new technology because it makes life easier, solves a problem, or fulfills some sort of passion. An example of a technology that fulfills a passion might be the wingsuit. It certainly isn’t something that people need for day-to-day life, but for those who have a passion for flying, wearing a wingsuit is the closest that humans can come to know what it feels like to be a bird.

I think that ego might be another driver of technological innovation. There are plenty of gadgets that aren’t really all that practical, but that are extraordinarily cool nonetheless. Whether it’s a PC with three separate graphics cards, the latest smartphone, or a high-tech sports car, people seem to love showing off their latest gadgetry.

One technological innovation equals many new technologies

While its fun to talk about high-tech gadgets that have been inspired by the movies, or gizmos that have been created solely for the purpose of being fun or cool, my guess is that the vast majority of technological innovation can be attributed to previous technological advancements. We see this all the time. A few years ago, for example, 4K TVs were the hot new thing to have. Early adopters, however, had to come to terms with the fact that there was little to no 4K content. Eventually, though, 4K Blu-ray players began to make their way onto the market. Companies like GoPro then started to manufacture 4K video cameras. Those cameras produce some rather large files, which might possibly have led hard disk manufacturers to create larger drives. The point is that a single advance in technology can lead to the creation of numerous supplementary technologies.

Featured image: Pixabay

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2 thoughts on “What is the true driving force behind technological innovation?”

  1. GPS — locate Adult book stores and stripper joints that are well hidden.
    CVT — get there faster or smoother or cheaper
    Electric bikes — get there cheaper
    Drones — Seriously? “cameras” + upper floor windows equals porn.

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