Forget E. coli and Yemen, the big news this weekend was Wayne Rooney’s hair transplant. At a whopping £30,000 for what turned out to be a bit of a thatched job, it was naturally the subject of some teasing. But think twice before you mock. Wayne Rooney’s hair transplant is, arguably, the key to the future of medicine, technology and civilization itself.
Let me explain. Technological advance usually works in the following way: someone has an idea for an invention, makes a very expensive prototype, and builds a few initial models at very high cost. A few wealthy ‘early adopters’ pay the huge cost, which pays the inventor’s rent for a few months and creates time and an incentive for the inventor to build better or cheaper versions of that product. Mobile phones are a good example of this: the earliest ones were absurdly expensive, bulky and primitive. The same goes for early desktop computers, laptops and cars. All began as preserves of the rich and were seen as wasteful indulgences; all are now essential to modern life.
Over time, innovations improve the product’s quality, reduce costs, or both. Mobile phones are now a fraction of the cost of 1980s phones, and can do a lot more than their predecessors ever could. The value of innovations like these is enormous, because a single innovation can never be used up like a physical good can be. A good idea can be literally priceless, because its applications are potentially infinite.
What does this have to do with Wayne Rooney’s hairpiece? Well, like the early adopters of mobile phones, Rooney has created another bit of demand for hair transplants, increasing the incentive for an innovator to come up with a cheaper or more convincing hairpiece. Ok, so hair transplants won’t save civilization, or even medicine. It’s a superficial procedure. But if cheaper hair transplants make people happier, there’s little more we can ask of them.
Other wealthy people like Rooney will spend their money on other frivolities, creating more demand for niche innovations that might seem useless right now. People with huge amounts of money to burn initially act as early adopters, creating demand for costly and difficult treatments that mere mortals could never dream of being able to afford. Needless to say, neither the NHS nor BUPA would ever pay for these early experimental treatments.
High-end demand for niche products allows these initial prototypes to make some money, giving innovators the breathing-room they need to make their products accessible to a wider consumer base. Big spenders allow many innovations that would never get off the ground to survive; what seems wasteful today might very well seem essential tomorrow. If innovation is the motor of progress then people like Wayne Rooney can be, improbably, the jump-start that that motor needs to get moving.