3.3 Beware of the hype
Clearly some examples of innovation signal important actual or potentially wide-ranging intended (and unintended) impacts and consequences. We need to treat some of the claims for the transformative power of certain examples of innovation with care. Online shopping may be relatively ‘new’ and convenient, and Facebook may have ushered in an age when people could have an almost infinite number of ‘friends’ regardless of their location or whether they have actually met. However, shopping without physically entering a shop (so called mail order or catalogue shopping), and ‘virtual’ friendships (pen pals writing letters to each other, often without having met) both existed long before the advent of the internet. Both were made possible by innovations that were ground breaking in their day. Compare also the impact of the introduction of running water, electric lighting and indoor plumbing with some more recent ‘innovations’. As Chakrabortty (2012) comments, ‘You might love your iPhone, and I might spend too much time on Twitter, but we’d both be fine if they’d never been invented.’
Wilby (2012) continues in a similar vein when he notes that:
Supermarkets are full of things that claim to be ‘new and improved’. Technologists tweak vegetables and fruits to make them last longer and look better, without regard to flavour. Bankers develop ‘products’ that, however you cut it, are still about borrowing and lending. We have digital radio and high-definition TV, though not everybody thinks either improves on what existed before.
We can debate the extent to which a new product or service is innovatory, or not, of course, with our conclusion perhaps being more dependent on perception than fact. There is one feature of our modern day consumer culture that, although a recognised feature of the innovation process since the 1950s, has, as Wilby goes on to note, become all too dominant:
For many companies, skilful marketing has replaced innovation. It’s cheaper and less risky to convince customers something is groundbreaking, even if it isn’t, than develop something truly innovatory.
Interestingly the use of the term ‘innovation’, and our willingness to attribute ground-breaking powers to it, also seems to parallel the way in which ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘entrepreneurialism’ have become idealised – almost mythical – constructs over the latter part of the 20th and into the 21st century. In both cases it often seems that we are asked to believe that if countries can be more innovative and entrepreneurial, then economies will automatically grow and societies benefit. However, we should take a moment to think more critically about some of the claims for entrepreneurialism and innovation. We might, for example, question the extent to which a commercial organisation (or its CEO/owner) taking over a service that was previously run by the state – such as a railway, prison, water company or services for unemployed people – is really being entrepreneurial or innovative in so doing.
In reality the overuse of both terms is in danger of devaluing their utility. It is for this reason that we want you to maintain a critical awareness of innovation and claims for its potential and power as you work your way through this course. We expand on the subject of assessing and evaluating technological innovation later in this course, but before we do, it is appropriate at this point to take a brief detour to introduce and discuss two related aspects of innovation that stem from the ways in which we understand and interact with technology.
Before reading further watch this short, former CEO of 3M, which covers a range of topics we have introduced so far.