three cheers for frivolity! / by mrm

I came across the following intriguing theory in a New Yorker article about multi-blade razors (among other things, of course):

"Ever since the Wilkinson Sword company started mass-producing stainless-steel blades, in 1961, every man with whiskers to cut has had no trouble cutting his whiskers without cutting himself. Nevertheless, every possible variation was unleashed, pointing toward a strange but basic truth of life and marketing alike: that it is after a problem has already been solved that ever more varied and splendid solutions start to appear. I have come to think of this as the Devil's Theory of Innovation; cutthroat (or scrape-cheek) competition tends to produce mere stasis. Only complacency drives change. A baseline of comfort, not a sudden stress of desperation, is what lets innovation happen...Scarcity encourages people to hold the rites of scarcity sacred. What encourages novelty is the confidence that the new things...aren't really necessary. Frivolity is the real mother of invention."
- Adam Gopnik, "The Fifth Blade," The New Yorker, May 11, 2009

I am less interested in the defensibility of this thesis than I am in its capacity to entertain me. Which is huge. Also, doesn't this ring the Maslowian-hierarchy-of-needs bell? Alternately and additionally, how does all of this coordinate with Orson Welles' not-entirely-accurate observation in The Third Man: "You know what the fellow said—in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Fact check: cuckoo clocks come from Germany; the Borgias didn't control Italy, just parts of it, and not Florence, which typically gets credit for kick-starting the Renaissance. But it is the spirit, rather than the exact accuracy of the above quote that intrugues (sensing a pattern?). Jesus and I agree: people learn best from parables.