Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What Kind of Innovation Do We Need?

The Atlantic's website is featuring a section on innovation. I would like to subscribe only to certain parts of that website, but that doesn't seem to be possible, so I'm getting this innovation stuff too.

I grew up during the fifties and sixties, so I was as wide-eyed about innovation and space and transistors and computers and cars and neat stuff as any math-crazy young girl of that period. It was a good time, and new stuff was coming thick and fast.

That period put the shine on the word innovation. Innovation really did make our lives better. People made money on innovation, and they have continued to do so since then. Innovation has even reached out into our financial markets, helping to crater them, and still the word shines.

It means making something new, of course, but it has become our modern version of what the Victorians were pleased to call progress and what is now called the Whig version of progress. Ever onward and upward.

The Atlantic series is focused on new gadgets, the iPhone squared or cubed, and all the ways they will make things better, just like the flying cars that the 1950s expected for us today.* It's delightful, of course, to think about new gadgets, but most of us don't know how to use all of what we've got now, nor do we need to. Watching television on a hand-held device is not a giant step for humankind.

Part of this Whig version of innovation is the myth of the single (male) inventor. It was good to see Vaclav Smil debunk this today. The Atlantic series has been unrelentingly male. They are, of course, our innovators, if by innovator you mean guys who fit this stereotype of the heroic guy working alone to perfect the lightbulb or iPhone. Which, Smil points out, is hardly ever in fact the case.

When the series started, it occurred to me that we need innovation very badly indeed, and the good words sprayed around by a national magazine in the way that national magazines do when telling us what a great series they're going to run, when I skimmed them, looked like the series might address the innovation I thought we need.

The innovation I was thinking about was the innovation needed to deal with the too-high unemployment rate, the dead-end politics being pursued by too many in Congress, the undue influence of money in politics, and the renewal of the country's infrastructure. The crisis in the European Union, the slide of Russia back toward centuries-old attitudes that have kept Russia from reaching its potential, the religious extremism of Israel and Iran. Those lists are not exhaustive.

How do we think up new things, particularly in human relations, in the systems we use for governance, the repetitive behaviors and intransigences, the ignoring of the obvious? The same way we think up iPhones or new designs of milk-bottle caps? It may be, but there has been no attempt to consider this in the Atlantic. Almost certainly these problems will need the cooperative, incremental approach that Smil describes, not a hero swooping in with One Good Idea.

In fact, isn't that the model that the Republican candidates used far too many times in their debate on Saturday to look at foreign policy? Bomb Iran before it gets a nuclear weapon. Zero-base foreign aid. Back to torture. Oversimplified, independent of realities, each candidate a hero.

The easy road is the one the Atlantic has taken. Innovation good, get many clicks. A more thoughtful approach to the innovation we need probably wouldn't have had as many cool photos, as many search-engine-friendly words. Too bad.
* I make broad generalizations about the Atlantic series which may or may not be true. They are my impressions from skipping past most of the articles in my Google Reader. I don't have the stomach to go to the series and count up articles of various types.

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