Actually Bill I think that 'linear' thinkings threat to innovation comes not from the Internet but from the pressure from management experts who demand that r&d projects progress linearily from requirements to scheduling to step by step progress until the end. Most know what I mean. I agree that true innovation often comes from more of a random trial and error process (I remember the founder of my company saying "let's try it an see how bad it is").
I actually agree with the point of the original article... to a degree. As a jack of all trades master of none, my primary invention method is to seek relations and adapt/reuse old ideas to new areas. When I go to a conference I make it a point NOT to spend a lot of time in sessions where I am an "expert". Browsing articles in a journal used to be a big component. With the volume of publications coming out it is nearly impossible to browse even a single journal. I have reverted to reading online blogs in all sorts of unrelated areas, looking for snippets to prompt an investigation into a new area. In that sense the Internet (and more specifically RSS) has been very useful. However, if you are not careful it makes it all too easy to settle into a comfortable corner and never venture out in the cold.
How could you possibly think that the internet stifles innovation?! If anything it has accelerated it. There are now more people with more access to materials and information than ever before in history. If someone develops a new thermally conductive plastic compound he can now market and share that with countless others that may be developing a device that the plastic would only be a small part of. They now no longer need to spend as much time on one aspect. The internet provides access to resources that can produce prototypes in less than a week, and at costs that even hobbyists can afford. Ideas and innovation are happening as fast as people can think them. Knowledge is built on knowledge. There is no down time trying to find that perfect material or IC. As for your comment regarding store clerks not being able to make change, people have been complaining about that for decades.Tell me, did you see this, or did you hear some lame stand up routine from the 80's?. I have never seen it. Get a new line. The only bigger waste of time than this article was the time I took to respond to it.
Bill: The internet has not stifled the engineering development process, but it has offered some opportunities that are so valuable that the old methods appear weak. For example, when I need to find a semiconductor part, I pull up the search engine on Digi-Key's site. Within minutes I can find what I am looking for.
A problem with this approach is that it misses any data that is not included in the search process. In my example, any vendors who don't distribute through Digi-Key are left out. Yet, I usually get good results, with very little effort on my part, and that makes me very productive.
I think I still have ample opportunity to stumble onto new ideas. I am right now reading an EE Times article online that has nothing to do with my work. I still get paper copies of the same engineering magazines that I read before I used the internet. I do miss thumbing through data books, but I just don't see going back to the old days.