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'Innovation' must die / that infrastructure might live

3 min read

Via Deb Chachra, an excellent essay by Andrew Russell on the overlooked issue of the age: maintaining the infrastructural metasystem we've got (as opposed to fantasising about the infrastructure we'd build if physics and socioeconomics didn't matter).

I commend the whole piece to you, assuming you're even vaguely interested in my own field of research; it speaks the great policy-unspeakable of infrastructure, namely the fragility of the legacy systems upon which the cutting edge is always-already functionally dependent, and the thinning and effacement of the (often low-paid, low-rights) labour that keeps it running.

I'm going to pick out one of its subthemes for closer inspection, however, as it echoes an argument which has been emerging from my own research: that somewhere along the line, we came to the damaging conclusion that 'innovation' is best defined as 'something that technology entrepreneurs (might) do (provided they're appropriately incentivised)'. Take it away, Russell: is crucial to understand that technology is not innovation. Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. This preoccupation with novelty is unfortunate because it fails to account for technologies in widespread use, and it obscures how many of the things around us are quite old. In his book, Shock of the Old (2007), the historian David Edgerton examines technology-in-use. He finds that common objects, like the electric fan and many parts of the automobile, have been virtually unchanged for a century or more. When we take this broader perspective, we can tell different stories with drastically different geographical, chronological, and sociological emphases. The stalest innovation stories focus on well-to-do white guys sitting in garages in a small region of California, but human beings in the Global South live with technologies too. Which ones? Where do they come from? How are they produced, used, repaired? Yes, novel objects preoccupy the privileged, and can generate huge profits. But the most remarkable tales of cunning, effort, and care that people direct toward technologies exist far beyond the same old anecdotes about invention and innovation.

Innovation is people doing things. Seriously, that's it. Sure, they may end up doing those things in ways that are enabled by technologies and infrastructures, and some of those technologies and infrastructures may indeed have emerged first and foremost from entrepreneurial activity rather than collective sociopolitical action (though, uh, probably not as many as you'd like to think?)... but people innovate all the time in places where infrastructures and/or the appropriate interfaces through which to explot them are absent or beyond their reach. Superflux are relentless in their advocacy of jugaad, and with good reason: it's how the majority of human challenges have been solved, and likely always will be. No MBA required.

But back to Russell for a final sharp poke at the semantic bubble of 'innovation':

... emphasising maintenance involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends. In formal economic terms, ‘innovation’ involves the diffusion of new things and practices. The term is completely agnostic about whether these things and practices are good. Crack cocaine, for example, was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue. Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Perhaps this point is cynical, but it draws our attention to a perverse reality: contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.