Neal Stephenson has written an important essay, Innovation Starvation, which I discovered via Ron Burnett. In it he grapples with the decline in world-changing inventions, and focuses particularly on the potential role of science fiction as an inspiration for breakthrough thinking. As for explaining the decline, the heart of his analysis seems to be this:

Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.

What if that person in the corner hadn’t been able to do a Google search? It might have required weeks of library research to uncover evidence that the idea wasn’t entirely new—and after a long and toilsome slog through many books, tracking down many references, some relevant, some not. When the precedent was finally unearthed, it might not have seemed like such a direct precedent after all. There might be reasons why it would be worth taking a second crack at the idea, perhaps hybridizing it with innovations from other fields. Hence the virtues of Galapagan isolation.

With these words, Stephenson makes a great case for thinking carefully about when, how and why we rely on Google. It’s not a long walk from this argument to Nick Carr’s concern for how Google may be weakening our brains. Good worries, these — if we take them as the beginning rather than the end of the conversation.

Let’s take Stephenson’s example. So there you are, in the middle of a meeting, and you’ve just had a really great idea. Now what?

Stephenson predicts that the first thing you do is Google to see who else has had the same brainwave. And maybe he’s right. Let’s say you do Google your idea, and you find that someone has already tried your idea. Does it necessarily follow that you’ll either give up, because someone else has failed — or give up, because someone else has already succeeded?

On the contrary: that pre-existing knowledge could actually help you to refine, develop or drive your own idea further. Maybe you’ll see that a previous effort failed for reasons that current technology can now resolve (a circumstance that happens frequently, according to a recent CBC interview with Tyler Hamilton). Maybe you’ll discover it’s patented, but the patent-holder is just one LinkedIn connection away, and could become your next collaborator. Maybe you’ll find out that it’s been blogged and tweeted and Facebooked incessantly, and that huge fan base is just waiting for someone like you to come along and take this project in a more promising direction.

Or maybe you’ll Google your idea and you’ll discover that incredibly, improbably, nobody has built this yet! I can’t tell you how many of our web projects have begun with us thinking that surely somebody has already created a tool for personal support networks or participation research or cutting red tape. Then Google proved us wrong, and an idea that seemed too obvious to pursue turned out to be a blue ocean.

Then again, it’s possible that you’ll Google your idea and discover it’s already failed, or already been patented.  It could all unfold exactly like Stephenson says.  We could already be living in a world where people habitually Google their ideas, and habitually get discouraged.

But maybe we’re going to grow up. Maybe we’re going to learn that somebody else getting there first doesn’t mean we have to give up  — and maybe those tenacious few are those best-suited for leadership. Or maybe when our first idea gets crushed, and then our second, and then our third — well, maybe we’ll just get inspired by all these brilliant people who thought like us, and recognize that if we keep thinking, we’ll find our own magic opportunity. Maybe we’ll discover how to live in a world with Google, and still nourish our capacity for innovation.

And it won’t surprise me if one way we do that is by learning not to Google. We could discover that when we’re basking in the fresh glow of inspiration, Google isn’t the place to uncover its potential (or lack thereof). We could figure out the moments that call for expansive thinking, and the moments that require due diligence. And we could find the tools, and the work processes, and the ways of being that help us live effectively in a world of infinite information.

That process of discovering new ways to live with our online knowledge base…well, you might call it innovation.