In today’s society, pursuing innovation is a cure for many ills, and sometimes a end in itself. In the concluding week of my innovation course, we looked at a couple of themes of dissent against the cult of innovation: that innovation is a hegemonic practice (Lilly Irani) and that innovation is has many downsides and there are other options (Russell and Vinsel).
Firstly, Lily Irani talks about how innovation is not really about creativity and invention, but rather about society recognising or even granting value to an invention, deeming it as innovation because it conforms to society’s ideals of what innovation is and who innovators are and what innovation is desirable (Irani). It has nothing to do with real creativity, novelty and invention.
Secondly, Russell and Vinsel talk about how the focus on new inventions, new infrastructure and new products is a cult of innovation, and this reverence or adoration of innovation renders invisible the work that needs to happen to keep all these innovations running, and the world as we know it functional (Russell and Vinsel).
In the first module of my course, we read Godin who explained how notions of innovation as good or bad have changed over time (Godin). Johnson was one wrapped up in a cult of innovation, where innovation is pursued as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. As Godin and Berkun explain, today innovation is always perceived as good, even though there are winners and losers with every new innovation. Russell and Vinsel talk about this same cult of innovation, and how by focusing on maintenance, society could make ethical decisions about which innovations we should keep, once we know their consequences. We should assess their benefits and costs and assign resources appropriately.
Russell and Vinsel explain how techno-optimism and the obsession with building new things (“innovating”) means that maintenance costs are seriously under-estimated and are under-funded. The work of the maintainer goes unrecognised, undervalued or not valued at all. Maintainers are often women and people of color, people in uniforms who are instantly recognisable (like a caste) and also as Dunbar-Hester explained, those with masculine skills. Ironically, these days in the “knowledge economy”, manual labor and service skills are also undervalued because they use traditional knowledge, physical skills, and are not making something new. This is similar to Haring’s discussion of ham radio technological culture and how electronics has been deemed to be a masculine pursuit, but it is interesting to note the fine point that these would be the white, middle class tinkerers and geeks rather than plumbers and builders and service people.
Irani refers to Russell and Vinsel in her book, and how innovation is overvalued, and maintenance is undervalued and invisible. She also points out that instead of technology investment as the only form of innovation, there are many other ways to ways to invest, such as film, textile design, music as innovations. But the main point of her book is that drawing the line between proper innovation and mimicry, inauthentic or even copies is a social and political act, just as we read about in Shenzen with shanzai.
Irani shows how Indian craftspeople, like the makers in Shenzen, are told to be creative but within the boundaries of what the dominant parties see as their role and their preconceived notions of their Indianness and Identity. To me, this is very much used as a hegemonic practice by the dominant party, using communication to ensure that the subordinates change in an orderly fashion and do not revolt. As Irani asks, “what powers are served by the call to innovate?”. The powers of the capitalist economy, the free market and consumerism, and the Global North?
Berkun, Scott. The Myths of Innovation. First edition., O’Reilly, 2007.
Christina Dunbar-Hester. Hacking Diversity. Princeton University Press, 2019.
Godin, Benoît. “Innovation: A Conceptual History of an Anonymous Concept.” Edward Elgar Publishing, vol. 25, no. 32, 2017, p. 36.
Haring, Kristen. Ham Radio’s Technical Culture. The MIT Press, 2006. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.7551/mitpress/3405.001.0001.
Irani, Lilly. Chasing Innovation Making Entrepreneurial Citizens in Modern India. eScholarship, 2019.
Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From. TED Talks. http://www.ted.com, https://www.ted.com/talks/steven_johnson_where_good_ideas_come_from. Accessed 22 Feb. 2020.
Russell, and Vinsel. Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Innovation? 2019. http://www.wbur.org, https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2019/09/12/innovation-maintenance-innovators-delusion-andrew-russell-lee-vinsel.
—. Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Innovation? | On Point. 2019, https://www.wbur.org/onpoint/2019/09/12/innovation-maintenance-innovators-delusion-andrew-russell-lee-vinsel.