In a thoughtful article in Aeon, professors from Steven’s Institute argue that innovation has been fetishized to the detriment of modern society, politics and business.
Innovation — What is It Good For?
Robert Gordon’s important new book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, tackles the economic “productivity paradox”. In earlier era’s of technical change, productivity improvements made much more dramatic gains than in today’s digital era. If our new pervasive, digital technologies are so great, and so valuable, how come productivity barely moves?
“This preoccupation with novelty is unfortunate because it fails to account for technologies in widespread use, and it obscures how many of the things around us are quite old. In his book, Shock of the Old (2007), the historian David Edgerton examines technology-in-use. He finds that common objects, like the electric fan and many parts of the automobile, have been virtually unchanged for a century or more.”
If we stop focusing on “innovation”, we begin again to recognize the essential role of basic non-digital infrastructures, which are of immense social importance.
“Focusing on infrastructure — old, existing things rather than novel ones– reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Inventors and innovators are a small slice – perhaps somewhere around one per cent – of this workforce.”
“The central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, most of which falls far outside the realm of innovation.”
Most of actually work at maintaining our physical, digital and emotional infrastructure: “Brief reflection demonstrates that the vast majority of human labour, from laundry and trash removal to janitorial work and food preparation, is of this type: upkeep.”
“There is an urgent need to reckon more squarely and honestly with our machines and ourselves. Ultimately, emphasising maintenance involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends. In formal economic terms, ‘innovation’ involves the diffusion of new things and practices. The term is completely agnostic about whether these things and practices are good.”
“Crack cocaine [or more recently, Fentynol] was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue. Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Perhaps this point is cynical, but it draws our attention to a perverse reality: contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.”
“Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, and to what end?”
- Competition is not increasing, concentration is;
- Entrepreneurialism is not increasing, speculation is;
- Globalisation grows, and so does bigotry;
- Privacy is non-existent except for the fabulously wealthy.
- Income inequality continues to accelerate.
Still, the wealth created by digital giants is undeniable, so every country, state and city wants to become the next Silicon Valley. This theme of locality and technology industry hot spots “reached its apotheosis in Richard Florida’s 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, which argued that regions succeeded by becoming the kinds of places that granola-crunching, mountain-bike-riding, computer-coding creative types wanted to live in. The book used the word ‘innovation’ more than 90 times and heavily idealised Silicon Valley.”
“Neo-Schumpeterian thought sometimes led to a mountain of dubious scholarship and magical thinking, most notably, Clayton M Christensen’s 1997 tome, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business. Now mostly discredited, Christensen’s work exerted tremendous influence, with its emphasis on ‘disruptive’ technologies that undermined whole industries to make fortunes. The ambition to disrupt in pursuit of innovation transcended politics, enlisting liberals and conservatives alike. Conservative politicians could gut government and cut taxes in the name of spurring entrepreneurship, while liberals could create new programmes aimed at fostering research.”
“Maybe the best example of how far this innovation fetishism goes is the fact that 4 largest IT companies (Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook) combined are worth more than 10 largest energy companies plus 10 largest food companies that supply large majority of our energy and food needs. They are worth more 10 largest mining and material companies plus 10 largest industrial conglomerates that produce most of things we use. Our economic system disproportionally rewards speculations into “innovation” and ignores things that makes our lives objectively better.”
And if you haven’t heard, tech leaders are raising their children without the “innovations” that made them rich.
How Much Change for Change’s Sake can People Stand?
Modern business communications and marketing reuse certain terms so relentlessly in so many different contexts than any specific meaning is hammered to a thin, vague foil. To whit: “innovation”, “disruption”, “digital”, “sharing”, etc., the list goes on.
“The trajectory of ‘innovation’ from core, valued practice to slogan of dystopian societies, is not entirely surprising, at a certain level. There is a formulaic feel: a term gains popularity because it resonates with the zeitgeist, reaches buzzword status, then suffers from overexposure and cooptation. Right now, the formula has brought society to a question: after ‘innovation’ has been exposed as hucksterism, is there a better way to characterise relationships between society and technology?”
We’re at a weird moment in history when all our innovation and disruption has normalized leaders that behave like selfish, greedy assholes — both in business and our politics. At some point, placing value on the common good has to make a comeback to avoid massive social upheaval. It’s not clear to me that the concept of a “common good” or “commonwealth” even exists anymore. As in the ’30s, it may be time for a movement that saves capitalism from itself once again.