The Innovation Delusion

Issue 30, Summer 2020
written by
Lee Vinsel & Andrew Russell with Jonny Gordon-Farleigh
illustration by
Matthew Brazier

Innovation, or what you call the ‘ideology of change for its own sake’, has become so pervasive that it has found its way into all parts of our culture, and not only within technology and science, but the ‘start-up mentality’ has expanded into our education system and NGOs. Historically, where do we see this shift begin and then accelerate?

LV If you look at the Google Ngram of the word ‘innovation’ – a tool that is basically searching all the text and Google Books and looking for the trends around word usage – the use of the word innovation takes off in the post-World War II era. I think part of that is economists, especially in the US, but also in Sweden and in Europe too, hypothesising that technological change is leading to economic growth. If you also look at the ‘economic growth’ Ngram too, after World War II [that term] goes off just like a rocket. It then becomes the quest of all public policy, in a lot of ways, to induce economic growth, especially in the 70s and 80s and onwards where [they were] cutting back the social safety net, as the model that is supposed to save us all. So it really takes off in the late 60s and into the 70s, and then there's a whole new wave that develops in the 90s around Silicon Valley. 

There are at least two things going on: the first one is how the ideology of growth as an engine of change starts leaking into all institutions. So even for educational institutions it's like, ‘how can we make students more innovative so that they'll go out in the economy and become entrepreneurs and create economic growth.’ So that’s the general ideology developing from the 1960s onwards. But the other thing is that Silicon Valley, as a highly innovative space, becomes the model that we're all supposed to emulate. That is a post 90s trend, I would say, and what you'll see with how it gets into NGOs and all these other kinds of institutions is that it's all about design thinking and processes we're supposed to be adopting to become more innovative. So I think there's this broader approach and then there's this Silicon Valley-centric innovation speak.

AR There's also a reaction to the 70s that fuels the status of innovation, because of stagflation – a situation in which the inflation rate is high, the economic growth rate slows, and unemployment remains steadily high. Not only on financial terms, though, but also culturally in the 70s and into the 80s; so the Boom and technology or high-tech stuff from the 80s, and certainly with the internet and all the digital stuff in the 90s and 2000s, Silicon Valley is really the poster child. The real reckoning – the cost of it all – came later, and it's still happening now with the techlash as we see. People are rethinking all the exuberance that they used when they talked about how great the internet was and Google and Facebook and all these things – that's turning now and that’s very recent.

LV In terms of mistaking the novel for progress we use the example of crack cocaine or other terrible drugs which fit narrow and precise definitions of innovation in an economic sense: crack cocaine is a new product and there's a market that displaces a traditional product; it starts low, it’s a price differential which allows it to diffuse, so it’s cheap; there’s a lot of entrepreneurship around it called drug dealing. And you can do the same thing if you take the opiates, for example. There's a lot of innovation around the marketing of opioids in the United States, even in ways that are illegal, so if that's true that these things are innovations in an economic sense then there’s clearly a distinction to be made between innovation and goodness, or something like that. I think we see in so many contexts that innovation is just assumed to be a good thing in itself when it can never be more than a means to an end. 

AR And it also ties in with the same trajectory that Lee had sketched out, in the US at least, a post-war economy where conspicuous consumption was really coming into its own. If a family had a nice car or new appliances, or continuing the question of the present, new electronics or gadgets, those are seen as proxies of success. And this is the same story about shallow materialism that actually predates World War II, but it's the same kind of thing, where we think we’re making progress as a society because everyone has an iPhone but no-one has health insurance – that's the contradiction we're trying to highlight.

In the book, you make a distinction between ‘actual’ innovation and ‘innovation-speak’’. Can you explain the difference?

LV In some ways it was a helpful distinction to put off people who were trying to act like Andy and I were luddites, or that we’re anti-‘new stuff’, which is not really the case – there are a lot of new things that are stupid, but we’re happy to have antibiotics and concrete and other things that were new at some point. So we make a distinction between ‘actual innovation’, the process of introducing new things or business models into the world, and ‘innovation speak’, [which] is this ideological history that I've been trying to outline, which is a way of talking and also thinking about technological change, business change, that has widely diffused into our culture at this point. One analogy that I've been using more is if we think about scientific theories it's very easy for us to realise that a scientific theory does not equal the world, that there's a gap there between the theory and the world, and we know that because there's a bunch of now discredited scientific theories from our past that we’ve now realised didn't hold up. And there's really good reasons to be sceptical of innovation speak because there's not a lot of evidence that the various things that have come out of it, like disruptive innovation or whatever, actually lead to more innovation. So even if you want more innovation and that's your goal, you should be very sceptical. And, meanwhile, it's also distracting you from other really important issues.

AR I think throughout the book, and probably as we go on in the conversation, there are ways that we can talk about maintenance and innovation as achieving, or being in service of, the same goals. So a lot of the programmes, or the people, or the companies that pursue innovation or that are concerned about providing care have a lot of creative elements, or elements that use recent technologies in a way that I think everyone would agree is innovative. It's not up to Lee and I to say that's bad; rather it's to really ask readers to focus on the goals that are achieved there. So not just maintenance for its own sake, not just innovation for its own sake, but really [asking] what we are trying to accomplish.

LV [This idea of innovation as a cultural narrative precisely at the point where society and economy does really slow down and fail to innovate] is a literature I follow really closely these days. The first time Andy and I bumped into it was with Robert Gordon’s book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War. Gordon had written about it in article form going back to around 2000, and the book came out in 2017. The argument there is that if you look at productivity as a measure of deep innovation in the economy – we just get better and faster at doing things – then measures of technological productivity growth slow down in around 1970. And there is this irony that at precisely the moment that they were talking more and more about innovation, there's an almost Freudian compensation for the lack of it. 

There's a bunch of different measures you can use, such as research or organisational productivity. The end of acceleration is the best way to put it and it’s not that things aren’t changing, it’s just that they’re changing at a much slower rate than they were for part of the 20th century. There is hype around digital technology, and I think this is the irony. It goes back to 1989 when a really important growth economist Robert Solow pointed out that you can see the computer age everywhere but in the growth statistics. Basically, computers were not having the great effect on productivity that you would expect and this has continued. There was a brief period in the 90s when we were adopting Microsoft Office and email, where you get a bump, but since then all this digital technology we’re adding is just not really leading to economic growth in the way that people are hyping it. And yet you have the World Economic Forum talking about the fourth Industrial Revolution and robots and AI and how we're living in this world of radical technological revolution, and it’s just like, show me the numbers [because] it's just not there.

AR People are really resistant to this in the way Lee said, and the hype is just overwhelming. I’ve had a few back-and-forths with readers who’ve said I just don't believe you, and I say, okay well here are several documents and charts studies. What about these don't you believe? And then they say well just think about my everyday experience: I can talk to my grandkids through my iPad. I get that things have changed on the surface but the whole idea of talking about grand civilisational transformation is that you would see it in a lot more places, and granted there have been changes and they've been primarily digital and they've been primarily consumer-facing and fuelled by overwhelming amounts of marketing hype that have rewarded a decent number of companies very handsomely, or their investors rather, as companies are losing a ton of money. And so the marketing campaigns say that we're living in some grand fourth Industrial Revolution or transformation is working very well to accomplish those ends, but then people will say, “OK I get it, but we’re right on the cusp”, and then they're going into genetics... 

LV Or saying, “It’s right over the horizon, just you wait 10 years, we're just that waiting and learning how to use machine learning and if you wait 10 years, it's just going to be bananas.” You can always promise something over the horizon. To be fair – and I think Andy and I are fair on this score – there's lots of ways that this stuff has affected things other than the economy – I mean, look at Trump on Twitter, or Q’Anon or whatever, or just these weird conspiracy theories that pop up. There are effects on society from the way we’re using these things that's not showing up in growth.

You refer to an astonishing study of a ‘large telecommunication firm’ that showed preventative maintenance had a ‘whopping 545% return on investment.’ From cultural myths to status systems, can you outline why you think we neglect maintenance? 

AR I think there's two elements there – one is about the business return on investment and the other is the cultural capital or status. The first point is that businesses, especially large enterprises, are well aware of the benefits of maintenance and reliability. They invest very heavily in maintenance reliability because they know the cost of failure and they've worked with their own data or they've seen data like the study that you mentioned. So when we started talking to people who make software for maintenance management, called computerised maintenance management software, we were curious [to know], where are these companies that are being successful? All you need to do is to look at their website and look at their list of clients, and it is the Fortune 500: it’s anywhere from chemicals, to pharmaceuticals, to aerospace, to commercial real estate, to telecommunications – they all understand how important it is to have significant investments in maintenance reliability. So in a way they've heard the message and they’re already doing it, and yet at the same time it’s this gap that you mentioned, about how it's almost like a well-kept secret or something; it's not the sort of thing that you see CEOs talking about when they're prancing around on stage, or something that you see press releases about from companies when they’re trying to convince us that their latest product or their latest discovery is media friendly, or the sort of thing that everyone should flock to. So it's kind of typical that we as a society are doing one thing but saying something else. We could talk a little bit more about why that is on the culture side of things, but I wanted to make sure we've got that distinction down first.

LV In a blog post we’ve laid out reasons why we think we neglect maintenance (and here we have to be careful with who that ‘we’ is). I think it's just overdetermined; some people argue that there's at least some psychological element to it, some people argue that it's more biological, others of course argue that it's more cultural, when it comes to basically putting off painful choices and privileging short-term thinking. And then there’s ‘innovation speak’, this ideology around growth that’s developed. And then you can also look at these legal changes, with shareholder value and the rise of short-term thinking when it comes to growth and quarterly reports in the corporate world. We think that there's also short-termist incentives in the political world, too. What we tried to do in that blog post more than in the book is to really say, here are eight things that are pushing in this direction and then the really tough question, and this is really just a cultural change question, is how you build incentives in other things, habits that push in the other direction.

In the US, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. power lines have caused more than 1,500 California wildfires in the past six years, including the deadliest blaze in the state's history. The state’s Public Utilities Commission, according to the New York Times, concluded that the company was more concerned with profit than with safety. Under our current neoliberal economy, will we see the return of meaningful and effective regulation?

LV I remember when Andy was writing some part of the book that dealt with the California fires, trying to make an argument about this short-termist stuff with the fires and we weren't sure that we were going to be able to pull it off. Then he sent me an article that basically outlined that they had paid out dividends, and maybe even stock buy-backs, but they’d definitely paid shareholders while not taking care of stuff. My first book on the history of the automobile is a history of regulation so I really am a regulatory state person: I think we can build incentives really clearly using the state, at least for large firms, I think that’s the way to go. I'm not neoliberal enough to pretend that the market’s going to take care of this in any way on its own.

AR I think the only way to do it is through regulation. By analogy, Lee and I both spent a number of years teaching a course called Computers in Society which is the required ethics and societal implications course for Computer Science majors in this country. We wrestled with how to get digital firms and computer firms to be more ethical in what they do, and there's a number of ways that you can do it: you can try and design more ethically; you can approach it from the grassroots and include ethics in education; you can use voluntary standards; or you can just use the force of the state and regulation. It's pretty clear what's the most effective: the other voluntary mechanisms for problems like setting the state on fire or sacrificing some vision of ethics for profit have just been proven not to work again and again and again.

LV There are interesting cases like the Boiler Code in the US, which is a kind of voluntary standard that firms fit, but when you go back and look at that history [you see that] it’s very effective, even when it was first instantiated in the late 19th century. It works and it's private. But I think the key story there is that they were threatened with regulation; they saw it coming down the pipe, that there was going to be state action, so they came up with this voluntary system. So even when you get movement just on the private side, I think a lot of the time it's because they're trying to stave off the state.

AR There's more and less direct ways of regulating this, too. You can do it through liability – a state or a nation doesn't need to write a law that says “thou shalt not do this” – there are ways, not just through laws, to make it so painful for firms to engage in this sort of behaviour that they'll just stop doing it.

LV As part of The Maintainers organisation we always like to highlight that when you put on a maintenance lens there are just so many empirical questions that we want answers for that we just don't have. I would love to see a study to see if co-ops are more responsible at maintenance, for example.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley details the story of how Elizabeth Holmes raised £9bn for an invention that promised to revolutionise blood testing. Despite concerns about lack of development and secrecy, investors and the public alike found the allure of this new ‘Steve Jobs’ irresistible. What’s your psychological account of these cults of innovation?

AR We typically move to Elon Musk when we think about this, because the body of work is more expansive. And ‘cult’ is the right word – we’re in a moment now in the US where we’re seeing cults of personality do real damage like with Trump. In terms of Elon Musk it’s not quite so severe. I think we understand why people are attracted to these sorts of figures; it’s kind of how narratives work. There’s a long history of cults of inventors that go back hundreds of years and heroic narratives and myths of great heroes are timeless, so sure, why not believe some kind of saviour who shows up on a stage or says they have the solution to all your problems and the key to realise all your dreams. That’s easy to understand; the hard part is to shake people out of it.

LV We ended the book by inviting people to ongoing conversations on – I think it’s a lot like what you have been doing with Stir, it’s about creating a kind of counter-culture and spaces for people to have conversations. A lot of the time, what Andy and I have experienced in the book and when giving talks is a sense of catharsis in the audience, where they’re thinking “finally, I’ve been having thoughts like this but never knew how to put them into words.” I think that’s the best hope, finding those conversations and encouraging them. I have given up hope on journalists and news outlets because [often] they just reproduce the hype, because it gets the clicks: people will click on the story that AI is going to steal our jobs because even though it’s scary, it’s fun scary. Between the firms putting out press releases saying they’re doing innovation, and the news outlets being too busy and strapped for resources to be looking for exciting stories, they just reproduce the hype. I’ve become pessimistic about that changing any time soon. So it becomes more about finding spaces to have these productive conversations that push against it. There’s a lot of things we could do in terms of reforming science and medicine around [the idea of failure], so that if you were going to try to publish in a journal you’re going to put yourself on the hook no matter how the results turn out; that would really change the way we look at medicine because the companies just choose the positive ones and don’t tell us about all the ones that don’t work. I think we could create rules around these things to bring failure to life. Historians and other people writing our technology have shown that there’s no accelerating technological change or heading towards a singularity, really since the 1990s. David Edgerton, the UK historian, wrote a piece in 1999 on this topic, with good evidence, and there are lots of examples to show that that narrative does not go away. The World Economic Forum, Reddit… all these places reproduce that narrative even though we’ve known for a long time that it’s not true.

AR We talk about these issues on three different scales: on the societal level of infrastructure, on the mezzo level of organisations and businesses, and on the individual level. I feel like we find the most traction in getting people to open their eyes a little bit when they’ve thought about themselves, their habits, and their own environments. There’s a thought exercise in the book asking people to look around the room and think about which technologies are old and which are new. You can go through the same thought exercise in thinking about your own health, and how we know through experience that it’s a bad idea to eat chicken wings for breakfast, or to eat all the chocolate in one go, and that exercise is good and moderation is good, and that you have to look after your possessions if you want them to last. People have a better time connecting with that, so I think the challenge is to get them to abstract those things that they know to be true to the other levels, in the other organisations that they’re in or sometimes lead, and in the societies where, granted, they have less power to shape the way their society works, but their voices do matter and they do influence the culture. So if I’m optimistic about these things it’s along those lines.

LV Take initiatives like recycling in the US, which was once a voluntary thing done by people meeting in parking lots to do it and eventually it became a huge thing, where we were taught in public schools and across America about how to recycle. When so many people feel disenfranchised and pessimistic about things, remember that those small, local actions can eventually have really big ramifications.

Your book, an antidote to Walter Isaacson’s 2014 The Innovators, offers portraits of the ‘maintainers’. Who do you celebrate in the book?

AR One of the most fascinating experiences that I had was interviewing Francia Reed who teaches nursing at SUNY Poly. At some point I was browsing the faculty directory and noticed on her webpage that she was retired from the US air force. In the book we have some extracts from the interview with her talking about where, in her different professions in different settings, she has been a maintainer, someone providing physical care for people. As a civilian it was in labour and delivery, and in the air force reserves when she was deployed to Iraq it was doing triage for wounded soldiers. The interesting twist in the book is how she fit doing similar work into different status hierarchies, being talked down to by women giving birth, but admired by the soldiers coming in because she was a higher rank. So in those roles, and in her role as an educator, the ethos that she brings is one of service, respect, and care that she’s carried in different roles throughout her life.

LV I keep thinking about a group called the Floyd Initiative for Safe Housing (FISH), a group of volunteers in a small town called Floyd, Virginia. ‘Safe housing’ refers to the fact that there’s so much unsafe housing, with a lot of trailer homes, floors and roofs collapsing on people, unsafe drinking water; so many problems, and we just don’t have good mechanisms for this in the public policy in the United States, for very complicated bureaucratic reasons. This group goes out and repairs people’s homes. It’s almost guerilla maintenance, and in some ways they are slipping the bounds of law to keep people in their homes because it’s the best thing they can do for people. I think of that group a lot as a metaphor for how communities can respond to problems around them.

Lee Vinsel is Assistant Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.

Andrew Russell is Professor of History and Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute in Utica and Albany, New York.

Issue 30, Summer 2020

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