“a particular innovation feel…”

Reality shared CC by nualabugeye

[Malcolm] Gladwell was quickly picked up by Bill Leigh, whose Leigh Bureau handles many of the journalist-lecturers of the aughts wave. Asked what bookers require from his journalist clients, Bill Leigh simply says, “The takeaway. What they’re getting is that everyone hears the same thing in the same way.” The writers, in turn, get a paying focus group for their book-in-progress. Leigh remembers talking to his client, the writer Steven Johnson, about how to package his next project. “He wanted to take his book sales to the next level,” says Leigh. “Out of those conversations came his decision to slant his material with a particular innovation feel to it.” That book was titled Where Big Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. His new one is called Future Perfect. — Boris Kachka, “Proust Wasn’t a Neuroscientist. Neither was Jonah Lehrer.”

The excerpt above neatly captures my ambivalence about the word “innovation”. The word has become saturated with tired techno-utopian promises that seem increasingly out of step with a world that is crumbling around us. Too often it spins tales that serve as “balm for the neoliberal soul, a cynical veneer of supposed intellectualism to leaven the effects of the market.”  Kachka’s article captures the almost poignant innovation/inspiration trap that Lehrer found himself trafficking: “He was scrambling up the slippery slope to the TED-talk elite: authors and scientists for whom the book or the experiment is just part of a multimedia branding strategy. He was on a conveyor belt of blog posts, features, lectures, and inspirational books, serving an entrepreneurial public hungry for futurist fables, easy fixes, and scientific marvels in a world that often feels tangled, stagnant, and frustratingly familiar. He was less interested in wisdom than in seeming convincingly wise.”

I was referred to this article, and Johnson’s reach for that “particular innovation feel” by Steven Poole’s harsh but not ungrounded critique “Invasion of the cyber hustlers”.

Also… Whitney Erin Boesel, “Dear Technoutopianism”:

It’s been a while though, technoutopianism. I’m not a teenager anymore. I’ve changed, but in so many ways you haven’t—and I see you more clearly now. Fred Turner’s right about you, and so are Barbrook and Cameron: you’re selfish. You never really wanted what was best for me, or for any of the rest of us; you wanted deregulation and radical individualism, wanted us out of your way so you could take the whole world—the Whole Earth—for your playground. Hawai’i is for lovers, and your shiny silver future was only for a network of the already privileged and powerful. You got a taste of “the Long Boom”; we got “likes” and LOLcats.

…I’m tired, technoutopianism. I’m tired of your sexy, shiny surface and your utter lack of substance. I’m tired of life in the network economy, tired of all my supposed “freedom.” I’m tired of the land of “pioneers and gold-diggers.” I believe in the cyborg, but I don’t believe ‘life’ and ‘technology’ are as interchangeable as Kevin Kelly might think they are. I’m with J.J. King: there’s something about connectionism that I can’t connect with, either. I’m tired of being “disrupted, subverted, and dispersed across social space.” I’m taking my vinyl records and my MIDI-toned mp3s and my decentralized self, and I’m going home.

Of course, innovation need not necessarily involve technology. And even technological innovation need not perpetuate techno-utopianism. Oliver Kellhammer’s work in “Botanical Interventions” comes to mind. The tinkering impulses behind, say, Grant Potter’s “Adjacent Possible”  feels like something tough to capture and to monetize. Though the recent evolution of the “maker” idea might suggest otherwise

Recommended listening: The Extranenvironmentalist Podcast, episode 44 – “Evolving Innovation”.

16 thoughts on ““a particular innovation feel…”

  1. Is it connectivism thats the problem, or effectively that integral services to modern society are now, for the first time, completely privately made and run?

    TED is a weird series of private uni seminars, but not a public good

  2. Thanks for the links — I’ll check them out. The tricky thing about innovation in a increasingly interconnected world is that.. well, it is just plain hard for one to be innovative each and every day consistently, not to mention months or years on end. Burnout is inevitable. For me, innovation comes in un-predicatable spurts like the final good squirts of ketchup or maple syrup out of a plastic bottle. It’s only innovative after it’s happened. Can’t plan innovation on the schedule, let alone schedule innovation to occur in a space designated as such. Unless of course you have the privilege of living in a vacuum or spending some length of time in a farmer’s silo, in a time capsule, or even in a deep coma. It’s the time of away from others, reflection time that is, where my energy gets renewed to hatch out new projects and schemes. I myself would like to take a break (as in mini-sabbatical) from my job where I attempt to be mildly innovative and helpful to others. I ask for 3 months next summer to retreat to the far north of Québec chez les Inuits to write a book. Guy Kawasawki’s APE has got me thinking this is possible… http://www.guykawasaki.com/ape/ I can’t do this being online all day at work. Ever. The connectedness and distraction of my face-to-face and online duties, while exciting for the most part, combine to distribute and sap my innovative thoughts before I can fully develop and write/type them up. Maybe the quest to innovate needs to metamorphose into a TED talk?

  3. The connection of innovation to “neoliberalism balm” reminded me of a post from Martin Weller a few months ago with a similar theme around the use of the phrase education is broken. One of the points Martin makes in the post is that we need to closely examine the source of the “education is broken” narrative to understand who gains from driving that narrative forward. The same can easily be asked about the “innovation” narrative. Who gains from driving the innovation narrative, and how is the conversation around it being framed?

  4. Dammit, Brian. You’ve given the game away. I was ready to milk the whole ‘innovation’ thing for quite some time.

    Seriously though, it’s not so surprising that those of us working in universities are feeling the weight and expectation of innovation. There was a time (c.1940-1990), when higher education really did produce innovation, mostly (not always) through large sums of defence funding. Whitney’s reference to Barbrook is a good one, if you’ve not yet read it, although Barbrook’s book ‘Imaginary Futures’ (PDF) is a much fuller account of how we’re constantly being sold a future that never arrives.

    I’m currently researching the role of universities in the development of hacker culture and it never ceases to amaze me how much effort and public money was pumped into university research during that 50 year period of WWII and the Cold War (public funding for research in the US tripled and at times quintupled). It’s really helping me contextualise the expectation of innovation that still hangs over higher education and it’s easy for academics to continue to play to it, too, even though, as you say, the world is crumbling around us.

    There were not just technological innovations either. Innovation in funding models (the first VC firm, AR&D, was a partnership between Harvard and MIT), innovation in research practices (the war effort forced thousands of researchers in different disciplines to collaborate – MIT’s Rad Lab was expected to have 50 staff when it was set up in 1940 and ended the war with 3900 staff, including 1200 scientists), and innovation in ‘technology transfer’ arrangments (e.g. Bayh-Dole Act), all contributed to a period where universities were charged with furnishing ” both the new scientific knowledge and the trained research workers” for the Endless Frontier. Some say that what we got, was the ‘military-industrial-academic complex‘.

    When people talk of innovation, show them images of war.

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