Proponents of innovation will suggest that failing fast, rapid prototyping, and a bias toward action are good things. However, presented as ends in themselves, these qualities do not speak to any broader aims or ethics.
Tom Kelley asserts that rapid prototyping, generating as many ideas as possible, and solving observable problems and inefficiencies are effective ways to generate ideas which may lead to successful innovation. And Clayton Christensen’s popular “disruptive innovation” theory has also led to much discussion and attempted application in both public and private sectors, further fortifying the notion of “innovation” as a desirable activity. Another factor that has led to the popularity of innovation as a concept is the growth of agile development in project management methodologies and design based research in public and private enterprises.
The term innovation is derived from Latin words for newness or renewal. In pre-renaissance Europe, calling someone an “innovator” was actually a form of an insult as it suggested someone was associated with heretical radicalism. The term gained popularity as a desirable quality during the industrial revolution as it increasingly referred to technical innovation. Analyzing the frequency of the term “innovation” in books and literature (using Google’s corpus analysis tool “Ngram”) reveals that the term remained relatively static in the early part of the 20th century until post World War II when it saw a sharp increase of frequency in books and literature.
The adjective form of the word, “innovative” was barely present in the literature until it also rose rapidly in the mid to late 20th Century.
The rise in the interest in innovation could be related to war and conflict. World War II introduced the atomic bomb and the beginning of nuclear proliferation. This led to a global scramble to produce advancements in science that might lead to more sophisticated weaponry. The competitive spirit was not driven by altruistic motivations of human progress, but instead was inspired by weaponry, war, and paranoia. In fact, the early infrastructure of the Internet was rumored to have been created as a defensive maneuver against communist threats. According to some, the United States needed to have a decentralized communication infrastructure in case an adversarial power (such as Cuba) was able to destroy (via missile) the central mainframe of our military communication network. This led to the creation of ARPANET, the primitive infrastructure that was foundational to the modern Internet. So one could argue the cold war and global conflict contributed to innovation as a public good.
The invention of the Internet and the World Wide Web may be a key contributor that helped lead to the rise in popularity of innovation. The Internet has in some ways democratized the means of content production, allowing both amateurs and professionals alike effectively disseminate products, services, and ideas, reaching global audiences in real time. The ability for anyone to advertise, sell, and buy goods and services as well as to communicate across the globe is unprecedented in human history. This capacity for distribution also introduces new threats to incumbent industries. New models introduce new competition. As file sharing epitomized the peer-based democracy of the nascent web, so too did it reveal the capacity of large corporate coalitions (of for example, the film, music, gaming, and software industries) to strike back in the form of litigation, propaganda, and eventually, new business models. Today, new tensions play out as net neutrality is perennially challenged by dying cable giants, monopoly ISP's and sprawling video platforms.
Robertson classified innovation as being continuous or discontinuous. By continuous Robertson means the degree to which an innovation may build upon existing conventions. This is related to Rogers’ notion of “compatibility” which he describes as in terms of how an innovation is consistent with existing values, experiences, and needs of adopters. Most innovations could arguably fall into this "continuous" category. Zizek describes the difference between Ptolemaic change and Copernican revolution where Ptolemists attempted to retrofit new discoveries into their incorrect model of the universe. Revolutionary change requires a more drastic abandonment of "existing values." The question is whether innovations are considered holistically in terms of ethical impact, potentially at a global scale. For instance, Apple's iPod could be regarded as innovative, but if it exacerbated exploitative practices related to precious metal mining, then the iPod could also be considered destructive or harmful.
One criticism of Robertson’s and Christensen’s models for innovation is that they are framed in market and economic contexts. Profit is de facto good. Satisfied customers is a de facto good. It is unclear the degree to which these theories may be generalizable to sociological or sociocultural frameworks, especially when considering broader ethical implications. Constant change and novelty may not be a marker of progress. From a techno-critical perspective, there may be consequences of constant innovation related to the environment, democratic participation, bureaucratization, globalization, mental health, etc. that are not researched critically enough due to a positive bias for innovation. Appliance developers may not consider the impact that manufacturing has on overseas labor practices or precious metal mining. Technical advancements always have ethical ramifications.
Lastly, one must question whether innovation is a real phenomenon, or whether all new inventions are in fact incrementally derivative. For example, the printing press is regarded as one of the most significant innovations in the past millennium, yet it is actually an appropriative combination of existing inventions: namely, moveable type and the cider press, or wine press (makes one wonder where divine inspiration came from). To what extent is a derivative combination of inventions considered an innovation as opposed to appropriated or simply modified? Innovation research is still in its infancy. There are a multitude of topics and questions that can advance our understanding of innovation beyond simply how to do it more effectively.
Wednesday, July 19, 2017
I have several stacks of books on my desk right now, organized by category. They are:
- Books about discourse analysis (including linguistic analysis and critical discourse analysis)
- Critical theory (Habarmas, Horkheimer, etc.) and some of the philosophy that underpins it (Hegel, Marx, some phenomenologists) and books that are critical of scientism (I'm including Popper in this category)
- Books about the purpose and aims of higher education
- Books about instructional technology/educational technology (especially its history, i.e., Saettler, etc.)
Next to the desk is the pile of books that are not as germane to my research, but are tangentially related. They include some of the more abstract post-modernism (Baudrillard, for example), and books about pedagogical approaches that are more grounded in "traditional" psychology. Douglas Hofstadter is in that pile. Sartre is in that pile.
Sometimes I read a few pages, then go watch TV for the rest of the night and feel guilty.