Against Innovation

(photo by laszlo-photo / flickr)

If there’s anything Americans love more than expensive outdoor recreation equipment, bacon, and wars of choice, it’s innovation. Imported from the Silicon Valley/venture capital sphere, the concept has pervaded every arena of human enterprise in this country and many others besides, from poetry to politics, education to agriculture.

If you want a literary grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, know that “innovative projects are strongly encouraged”; if you want one for design, make sure to employ “innovative forms of art-making”; and don’t even think about getting funded for your stage drama unless your work is at the leading edge of “groundbreaking, innovative theater.” (A 2011 issue of the NEA’s magazine, NEA Arts, asks the burning question, “What is Innovation?”)

President Obama spoke of innovation eleven times in his 2011 State of the Union speech. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, a city overrun with innovators of all stripes and home to its own “Innovation Center,” the local schools are now subject to an “Innovation Agenda.” Twenty-nine TED Talks bear the “innovation” tag, and a Google search for “Malcolm Gladwell” and “innovation” produces 2.37 million hits. A March 8 New York Times story was headlined, without apparent irony, “An Innovation in Luxury Watches Celebrates Long-Lost Function.”

These examples would seem to suggest the emptiness of the term. The Innovation Agenda consists mainly in doing everything as it has always been done in new configurations and different buildings. TED Talks and Gladwellian theses are increasingly shorthand for intellectual vacuity. And nothing screams pointless rhetoric like a political call for innovation — especially from Obama, whose chief accomplishments, with Congress’s aid, have been cementing his predecessor’s antipathy to civil liberties and his predilection for unaccountable global war, while further institutionalizing our broken health care system by forcing everyone to buy in. (The latter might have been the best of many bad options, but it was certainly not innovative.)

Yet “innovation” is far from empty. It is a loaded word. It does a great deal of work, painting a vast landscape of meanings even as it obliterates or camouflages others. It has become an imperial force.

Part of the reason that innovation is so attractive is that it seems to work in business. It makes a lot of sense if you have a product to sell. If you’re entering a crowded market, you need to do something that others haven’t, or come up with a way to do what others have done more cheaply. If you want people to keep buying your products, you need to make them new every now and then.

Of course, this has its downsides. As the Foxconn suicides have made all too clear, the demand for product innovation is so intense that factories and workers can’t easily keep up, sometimes with terrifying results. And an exposé of an Amazon warehouse from the Allentown showed that the company’s highly innovative fulfillment operation comes at great cost to employees.

Despite these concerns, innovation has survived its extension to the world beyond product development — if such a world remains — where it maintains its panacea-like quality. Innovation provides hope of a solution where there otherwise may not be any. When President Obama calls for innovation — or its closely related cousin, “new ideas” — he is effectively masking the fact that he doesn’t have any. If he did, he would tell us.

Consider a tragic illustration from politics: the Avi Schaefer Peace Innovation Competition at Harvard University, which bestows $1,000 on a student who, in 500 words, supplies “innovative and creative solutions to solve the conflict between the Israeli [sic] and Palestinians.”

Never mind that one example on the competition flyer is “innovative uses of social media networks,” as if anything could be more banal. Here as ever, innovation itself is the solution. Once we have innovated, intractable problems will disappear, and the struggle to overcome them will dissolve.

Innovation recognizes that we face challenges now and responds with faith in the future. Maybe this is all to the good. Maybe the best escapes from our current entanglements have not yet been found. But the notion of innovating our way out of contentious debates is fishy. Our seemingly insurmountable disagreements reflect what we think of as real ethical and ideological difference. The innovation ethos says that these differences are in fact insubstantial and that there is a solution we will all agree to if only we can think of it and engineer it into existence.

In other words, tomorrow’s solution is not merely better than those we can conceive of today, but it is outside the bounds of contestation. It has no normative content; it just works, and we’ll all recognize that.

Education — a field in which innovation is not just a buzzword, but sine qua non — provides a case in point. Innovation has brought us charter schools, performance pay for teachers, de-unionization, vouchers, Teach for America and similar programs that ensure a steady flow of inexperienced educators, cash incentives for student achievement, high-stakes testing, multilingual pedagogy, and increasingly standardized curricula focused on math, reading, and science at the expense of music, visual arts, home economics, and physical education.

Most of these innovations are intended to fix an achievement gap, as measured by standardized tests, between whites and people of color, poor and rich. Yet there seems to be little recognition of the fact that the achievement gap is not the disease, but rather the symptom. The diseases are systemic racism and poverty. Those are not going to be eliminated by innovations in education. By “tinkering toward utopia” through the schools, to borrow a phrase from education-reform historians David Tyack and Larry Cuban, we are ignoring the true challenge, a challenge that Americans prefer to believe does not exist.

So here innovation is presented as a solution-in-itself, with no normative content: we’re just trying to get those numbers to even out. Not surprisingly, the most heavily promoted education innovations are corporatist in nature, favoring market-style fixes that are also presented as non-ideological, as is the market system itself.

As in education, similarly in the arts. Here innovation colonizes other values and displaces the kinds of questions we have always asked about art, questions that some of us, especially those who think about and write criticism, might foolishly have thought were essential to art itself. Conflicts over what beauty is and what should be art’s purpose get muscled out. Where one might have seen art as a tool for political expression, community engagement, or deepening spiritual commitment, the zeal for innovation says art need only be a vessel for novelty. Whatever form that novelty takes, the work will be judged quantitatively, according to its distance from what came before.

Novelty may be a useful criterion when we judge the success and failure of a creative work. But it shouldn’t be the only criterion, or even emphasized. Just as it shouldn’t be the only or primary watchword in politics and education. Perhaps the solution to the conflict in Israel and Palestine is an old one: democracy for everyone who lives there. Perhaps the solution to the achievement gap is an old one: welfare and affordable childcare, to combat the pathologies bred by poverty in the five years before kindergarten.

But we don’t want to rehash those arguments, do we? We’d prefer to think that those ethical and ideological conflicts aren’t real after all, or are only as real as our imaginations are stunted.

Will our faith in innovation be rewarded? Will the fetish for new ideas that we see in TED Talks, the Aspen Ideas Festival, the World Economic Forum ideas lab, Obama’s speeches, and the endless stream of idea-of-the-moment journalism at last prove its worth? Maybe. Or maybe it will go on doing principally what it does now: offering the false hope that we will one day conquer exhaustion, frustration, boredom, ourselves.