[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…