Innovation

–Part of the short shelf-life of really-existing, shape-shifting innovation comes from the fact that innovation, like change, is very much in the eye of the beholder, assuming he or she lasts long enough through all of it.

For the 30s-something Silicon Valley entrepreneur looking east, key milestones of change include U.S. economic growth based on secure property rights, opening up of European markets, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the colossal economic development of the People’s Republic of China.

For the 30s-something entrepreneurial party member in Beijing looking west, key milestones of change include massive economic growth in China without secure property rights, the unprecedented privatization of public assets in post-Soviet Russia (a world historical event rivaling the USSR collapse), the growing isomorphism between the European Parliament and its Brussel’s bureaucracy with the National People’s Congress and the Party bureaucracy, and a Silicon Valley whose own technologies ensure their widespread pirating for future economic growth in China and elsewhere.

Either way, markets are maelstroms of innovations, those natural experiments in institutional destruction offering little or no chance of going back to before. After all, innovation evangelicals would have us believe that everything existing is already an anachronism: incipient, imminent, immanent. It’s always better to innovate as the next step ahead than improve the step just taken.

–There’s also no small irony in the fact that the advocates of innovation privilege the role of error in their drive to innovation at the same time they dismiss the real-time operational redesigns by infrastructure operators that the premature innovations have necessitated as “tinkering,” no more than patches and workarounds. They actually hack away at the history of innovation (to whose benefit?) and reify what’s left as one version only. Innovation evangelicals tell us to “embrace error,” but, again, I know of no critical infrastructure whose control room embraces failure in real time when system survival is at risk and when system maintenance constantly needs of its own version of real-time creative improvement.

To be clear, the control room’s evolutionary advantage of managing risk within a comfort zone that also enables management of uncertainty over probability or consequences  of system failure stands as an opposite to economist’s privileging of innovation arising in and out of the domain of unknown unknowns.

Even when the current Neuroscience Revolution provides a better account of our very human attraction to novelty, we will still be far short of explaining this cargo-cult worship of innovation. But this is what you get when human ingenuity is economically commodified as “innovations.” It’s bad enough that the creativity of always-ahead avant-gardism has been narrowed to always-late capitalism.

It’s long past time to bring back the “no” in innovation.

–Yet, woe to the luddites who criticize Innovation! It’s as if we’re expected to believe that increases in factor productivity are achieved primarily through technological innovation to the exclusion of the other causes. By any measure, it’s the proselytizers of technological change who are the apostates when willfully ignoring education’s very real contribution to productivity. Nor are the proselytizers consistent in their liturgy: Innovation is often touted as the driver of a competitiveness, whose cut-and-eating of labor costs is wholly untethered from the economics of tying changes in wages to changes in labor productivity.

But, not to worry, they soothe. For surely, innovation is what keeps the “thing” in Nothing.

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