For nearly four decades, Langdon Winner has been one of the most widely cited and influential STS scholars, not only in the US and among Anglophone audiences, but across the world. His work has remained centered around one theme during this time: seeking means of politically directing the influence large technical systems have on human communities and our environments. Always the champion of democratic control of technologies, Winner’s provocative scholarship and teaching challenge us to investigate and intervene in technical matters as a necessity for increasing popular participation and social justice more broadly.
In this talk, Winner suggests that the predominant “God Term” in contemporary society is “innovation.” He explores the detriments of a culture that refuses to scrutinize the normative and political values that are veiled by this term.
My contribution this afternoon, unlike some of the others, will be too attack your religion. Don’t worry though. I’m not going to declare war on any of the world’s major spiritual or religious traditions, those practiced in churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples. But for many of you the religion I’m going to attack may be dearer to your heart and more closely entwined with your longings and quest for transcendence.
Its rituals are practiced around the globe in new temples and new cathedrals.
Philosophers and scholars of rhetoric point to the significance of what they call “god terms”: concepts that have a certain “inherent potency.” God terms sweep up whole periods of history as nations and cultures strive to reach a higher state.
For example, during the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century a prominent “god term” was “Revolution”. Always popular in the United States is another god term, “Frontier”. Over many decades this term, this concept, has been continually redefined. Where the Frontier was, what its significance was, changed over time. But in the American experience there was always a “New Frontier” toward which we were striving.
Today’s favorite god term, today’s new religion, identifies an object of worship in universities, think tanks, corporations, on Wall Street and in the dreams of our social elites. The concept is widely associated with creativity, ingenuity, success, wealth, fame, personal virtue, national prosperity and cultural vitality. These are all good things. They are, I would say, for many people the source of our deepest spiritual aspirations and the object of our highest spiritual longings.
Now it’s time for the revelation. Can you guess its name?
What is the name of this new god term?
That’s right! INNOVATION! Behold new religion of our time!
(The Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah” plays briefly.)
If Handel had been writing today, the choir would not have sung “Hallelujah.” No, they would be singing: “Innovation! Innovation!” I’m sure of it.
The term comes from the Latin innovare, which means “to renew.” Hence, it’s an inherently, overwhelmingly positive concept, which is one reason why so many are attracted to it.
I share with you the belief that innovation is good, well worth pursuing. One of my favorite innovators is Miles Davis – a man who invented and brought to perfection not one but several styles for playing jazz. He was notable for this trajectory in his work, moving to the point of perfection and then always going further — on to the next idea! In that way Miles was a truly great innovator.
Thus, we associate innovation with the unconventional, the exploratory, the bold, the restless, the boundary breaking, the risk taking — never satisfied with mediocrity.
In today’s universities, including this one, we have centers, departments, programs, and research projects that identify “innovation” as their central purpose. You know this. You live this.
For example on the Rensselaer Campus we have the Center for Industrial Innovation. I myself work in two related programs: “Design, Innovation and Society,” “Product Design and Innovation.” You see, I also practice this religion. I am an Innovationist. I fully confess.
But I said my purpose today was to attack this new religion. And as they say in Brooklyn, “So what’s not to like?”
Well, many things, but I’m going to emphasize just two today, aspects of “innovation” that raise some serious questions.
One concern is that “innovation” has become a code word for projects that are often flagrantly conventional — making products, systems and services aimed at the most wealthy, the most over-served consumers and organizations on the planet. If you think about what actually counts as “innovation” in the world today, these are the items most valued, most celebrated.
To offer an example, here we have the Audi self-parking car.
Very often “innovations” take something that’s old and tired out and try to make it appear new and fascinating. In the case of the Audi, let’s say you’re at a convention in Las Vegas and find yourself in an underground parking structure. You’ve gotten into a tight squeeze. What you can do is get out of the car, push a button and the car will park itself. This is a typical “innovation,” the kind of “breakthrough” widely acclaimed today.
In many cases innovations appear to us not as single objects, but as whole genres, elaborate projects with countless manifestations. Right now many people are getting excited about “The internet of things”. This is a major thrust of innovation, but it seems that by itself, this genre is still not exciting enough. Moving forward we also have people now talking about “The internet of caring things”. In a society that seems to care less and less, we’ll have things that care about us more and more.
Of course, you could also just watch and observe what you’re drinking, but that would not be especially innovative. And above all, we want to be “innovative.”
I find it impressive to see such ingenuity and devotion lavished upon projects like these. Yet, I have to wonder — I think we all should wonder — in which era are we living such that we pursue objects of veneration like these?
Will this be the known as the “Era of Apps and Abbs”? It seems to me fairly likely. I woke up the other day (this was my Charleston Heston moment), and I said to myself, “Oh, no! I’m living on The Planet of the Apps!”
Part of my argument would be that innovation today takes up the mantle of developments that happened 80 years ago. This is the great tradition of marketing, design and advertising pioneered in 1930’s:
consumerism as a solution to the crisis of overproduction;
strategies of planned obsolescence;
yearly model changes;
clever design formats such as the streamlined vacuum cleaner (which of course reduces air friction as you’re vacuuming).
These are themes and product lines right out of the 1930’s. Here you see a picture of a satisfied consumer.
In our time these desires and obsessions are reproduced in a wide variety of new settings. A worried nation cries out (I’m sure you’ve heard this), “It’s already been six months! Where is the new iPhone!”
We’re impatient for the kinds of developments and expectations that were deeply engrained in our culture about 70-80 years ago. And I would argue that what we call “innovation” is still fully within this stream. In the probably apocryphal words of the religious figure Saint Stephen the Innovator: “Where the need is least, there ye shall find them.”Again: What’s not to like?
The second point I want to explore about is far more serious. Thinking outside the box, thinking as an innovator, leads us to believe there’s lots of time for needed changes to occur. The penchant for “innovation” insists that the best solutions are to be found in new knowledge, not old, currently available knowledge – in new devices that are out there in the distance. This is what we believe. This is now the subject of our deepest longings.
Faced with a world of urgent problems, it’s time to ask the question, “Is innovation the best we’ve got?” And for many people I think the answer is “yes.”
Here are some relevant concerns.
Will we innovate ourselves out of the glaring gaps in income and wealth that afflict the US and many other world societies? Is that something that innovation will do for us?
Will we innovate ourselves away from utter dependence upon fossil fuels, energy sources upon which modern civilization rests?
Will we innovate in ways that remove rapidly moving threat global warming poses to our civilization and countless biological species?
These are questions about major problems that face the world today, and I would say the answer to all the them is: “Not likely”. Nevertheless, we persist in the belief that this is the best tack, the ideal strategy. Yes, many of us do.
While innovative technologies could play a role, more strongly needed is now is resolve to take action on the matters that have the greatest urgency today – to do that directly and quickly as matters of ethics, politics and policy.
Yet we can see the failure of resolve, the failure to act, again and again, in our society – particularly in Washington D.C., for God’s sake. For example, a massive “fail” appeared in the pathetic “breakthrough” at the Copenhagen 2009 conference where the world’s leaders came together to discuss climate change and came up with nothing. And they really have not come up with much ever since.
In brief, ”innovation” is often the name for a strategy premised on evasion and delay. That’s the grandiose label, the “brand” for this strategy.
A popular incantation runs something like this: “With wonderful innovations in renewable energy produced over several decades, world societies will reduce the burning of fossil fuels, curtail CO2 emissions, and bring climate change under control.” If you read the subtext on a great many presentations, books and articles, that is the underlying argument. Innovation will be our salvation.
But the real message underlying it all is perfectly clear. “Don’t act now! Just wait!” Direct, decisive action might involve imposing a steep carbon tax and driving those carbon emissions down right now, starting tomorrow morning. But in our time a great many are inclined to say, “Just wait. Innovate and look to the future.”
This is our religion. And it reflects a familiar posture in religious traditions — expecting a miracle somewhere off in the future. In that light the question becomes, “Do we have time?”
Here I’ve listed some of the findings of a recent UN climate change report. During the last month or so almost daily in the New York Times you find reports, studies and research findings, international and national, that say, “We’re running out of time!” The scientists are telling us that we have perhaps a decade to drive those carbon emissions down or the consequences will be horrible and the cost of addressing them later will be absolutely prohibitive.
At last we’re faced with a truly embarrassing question: “Is our actual practice innovation or evasion?” If spoken quickly, the words have a similar pronunciation. I teach in the program of Product, Design and Innovation. But speaking a little more quickly it might sound like Product, Design and Evasion. We have the Global Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, but it might be the Global Center for Entrepreneurship and Evasion, which might actually be nearer to the truth.
I want to end this brief talk with a modest proposal, something positive and helpful. (Looking around the room, I see that not all of you are convinced.) But one step that I believe would be helpful at this point would be to establish a prize, like the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Nobel Prize in Physics, and give it every year for notable accomplishments in “Innovation.”
The Nero Prize would be given for “the year’s most absurd innovation.” I’ll offer some examples in just a moment. But it’s worth noting that Nero definitely did not fiddle because the violin had not yet been invented in his time. If he played anything at all, it was probably the lyre. Nevertheless, the fellow seems to have been great innovator because he evidently found a way to make marble burn quickly.
Now I read the same popular innovation sites you do: Lifehacker, Mashable, Gizmodo and so forth. If you look at those pages, its clear that the award for this year’s Nero Prize is going to be intense. There are a great many highly qualified applicants and nominees.
Here’s one among them: Google Glass.
The version I like best is the one that would be embedded in a contact lens. But if you think for a moment about this nominee for the Nero, there are certain privacy concerns that arise. The glasses let you video record people without their permission and often without their knowledge. That’s worrisome. So another nominee in the running for the Nero Prize this year is the Anti-Google Glass Defense System.
I happen to know the inventor of this device, but I’m not at liberty to mention his name.
In sum, my message is that thinking outside the box IS the new box. Going back to the religious theme, it seems to me that one can even identify a major problem here. In medieval Christianity there was much writing and speculation about “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Here we have the Hieronymus Bosch painting that depicts all seven, including “Superbia” or “Pride,” what the ancient Greeks called “hubris.”My ultimate question this afternoon would be: “Does this new religion – the religion of innovation — involve, crucially, the sin of pride?”
Pride is an inflated sense of one’s standing or accomplishments. Can one look squarely at prospects for world civilization in the decades ahead and smile with pride? I think not.
In conclusion, yes, it’s good to pursue your dreams, realize your creativity and to innovate using your best talents and abilities. I want you to encourage you to travel along that path
But beyond that, even above that — remember your responsibilities to humanity and our planet.