Over the past few years I’ve witnessed the rise of a new kind of fanaticism, a new ideology that has taken hold within the tech industry and has begun to seep into other industries, sectors and government as technology increasingly important role. It defines itself through an undying and unquestioning devotion to the concept of innovation. It has reached a level in many areas where it has become more that just a function of a business, but an ideology – an ism.
Innovationism looks past the history of failed innovations, incremental improvements and plain old luck, to cherry pick a creation story that exists entirely of lightbulb moments and messianic inventors and prophets. It is the new manifestation of the intelligent design story. The individuals involved come complete with omnipotent powers of insight, but there’s a wilful ignorance of their human failings and the simple fact that for every success there was a score of failures. Pointing this out to a devotee of Innovationism is tantamount to heresy and is met with howls of derision and abuse from the bro culture that regards TechCrunch as the Holy Book. It is through the lens of religion, and its side kick of fanaticism, that we can finally gain an understanding of what is going on within the Church of Silicon Valley.
The Kodak Moment
The story of Kodak’s failure to recognise and reposition it’s film business in response to emerging digital technology is legendary. Mythical even. The Kodak story is how we’ve been sold the concept of “disruptive innovation” and how innovation itself is justified. It helps transform it from a buzz word into an ideology. This Innovationism uses the Kodak story as a way of simplifying a complex business and economic environment with 20/20 hindsight into a simple message – Innovate or Die.
I See History
When I look at the Kodak story I see history. An environment and time made into an artefact that we can dissect and make sense of. History is how we can move forward, but it’s equally true that it’s why we stay rooted to the spot, doomed to repeat events again and again. What allows us to move forward isn’t history itself, but recognising the moments and conditions of inflection – learning and identifying when and what to change – and providing an alternative at the right time. These three things (recognition, alternative and timing) need to be done in concert in order to affect change. This is why history so often repeats – we can’t coordinate those required actions.
Innovationism bypasses that logic. It doesn’t seek to know or understand, it seeks only to innovate. Innovation is the means and the end. By their logic we must innovate or die, so that we can innovate and die. By dying we can live forever. Those that seek innovation are doomed to repeat history simply because they are not on a path to change it. Intersect it, maybe, but change it, no.
The lesson from the Kodak story is not the power of disruptive innovation, nor is it the inevitability of technology to swallow up a business. The lesson lies in being able to recognise the points of inflection that could have changed the outcome. An understanding of the environment and conditions that led to key decisions being made.
We are dealing with an ideology that has distorted the function of innovation. That has bastardised it to suit the needs of it’s masters and support their world views, baked in biases and dangerous beliefs. It reinforces their privilege and distorted view of the world that needs another app or phone update rather than address the climate catastrophe their products are contributing to.
Innovation on it’s own is not the problem – it’s this particular manifestation. The move from a function that helps to facilitate change into an ideology. It has bought with it a destructive nature that is having a massive effect on peoples lives. From Uber drivers through to Facebook’s new army of content moderators – lives are being profoundly affected by those loyal to the dogma. And like those in power in other areas before them – the church, the aristocracy, the politburo – they remain unaffected. They benefit greatly from the adherence and growth of this ideology. It’s what funds the billions of dollars into the accounts of Bezos and Gates before him. It’s what widens the gap between rich and poor, divides cities and classes and people into ever smaller marginalised groups.
History doesn’t need to repeat. We have been here before. The church, the state, the aristocracy. All have risen, but all have fallen too. It’s becoming easy to recognise the problem. The time is right for change. We just need an alternative. It might be time to innovate.