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The Problem With "Innovation"

Aeon looks at the rise of tech's most cloying buzzword.

The Problem With "Innovation"

Photo: Matee Nuserm via Shutterstock

Perhaps more than any other word, "innovation" holds the curious position of being consistently eye-rolled and yet completely ubiquitous.

The term gained traction during the post-Sputnik, progress-hungry 1960s, but today its appearance (at least in books) is at an all time high, and you'll see it used ceaselessly everywhere from the tech companies of Silicon Valley to politicians on Capitol Hill.

But with all that popularity has come an onslaught of criticism claiming that in use, innovation is so loosely defined and overused that it is now a meaningless buzzword.

Or, as Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell put it in a recent article in Aeon, the idea is "vague enough to do nearly anything in its name without feeling the slightest conflict, just as long as you repeated the mantra: INNOVATION!! ENTREPRENEURSHIP!!"

For Vinsel and Russell, both professors at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, the danger of the term "innovation" isn't just overuse and rhetoric fatigue. Rather, it's the fact that it glamorizes one small aspect of technology while ignoring the work that commences after all that innovating. "Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations," they write.

In fact, placing inordinate importance on innovation—over the less glamorous idea of infrastructure—shifts the power away from the larger portion of the population that's taxed with fixing and maintaining technology and towards the über-funded "innovators" on top. The authors point to the growing class divide of San Francisco—symbolized by the Google and Apple buses that cart people from wealthy neighborhoods to their lush Silicon Valley campuses while the rest of the population uses public transport—as one example of the social implications of prioritizing one over the other.

In Vinsel and Russell's words:

Focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilization is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice – perhaps somewhere around one per cent – of this workforce. If gadgets are to be profitable, corporations need people to manufacture, sell, and distribute them.

Prioritizing innovation over infrastructure can be seen in design as well. Take Apple, for example: the company reveals thinner and more beautiful laptops every year, while functionality problems like fraying power cables and illegible type go unfixed. Meanwhile, on a larger level, America's aging transit systems, roads, gas lines, and other vital structures are falling into disrepair while novel transportation concepts are developed and construction for swanky new buildings commence.

Infrastructure is understandably not the most glamorous or alluring topic. The term conjures up images of punch-card workers filing into the factory in droves a la the opening scene of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Meanwhile, "innovation" gives us the more palatable narrative of a couple of guys starting billion-dollar companies in their garages. But for both the design and the tech world, inventing novel new concepts shouldn't come at the expense of the other aspects of technology that operate outside of innovation's shadow.

The full article is well worth the read. You can find ithere.

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