Measured Innovation

Innovation is relative, and can only be evaluated from a temporal perspective—one has to choose the scale of comparison. In Silicon Valley, where revolution is an everyday event, there is an inverse relation between the triviality of the product and the size of the investment it attracts. It’s probably not wrong to say that there is an entropy of innovation—more and more talent and money chases ever smaller increments of change. Every new internet marketing strategy is supposed to “change the world,” but despite the rhetoric, Facebook can hardly be compared to Shockley and his collaborators’ invention of the transistor, and in fact there has been little in the way of substantive innovation since the fifties. An iPhone is a trackpad combined with a touch screen, the latter common in ATMs, the former on laptops, and that kind of recombination of the already known is the paradigmatic contemporary strategy. And of course it takes a team to discover the obvious. The two private research labs most responsible for the new products and technologies, Xerox PARC and Bell Labs, are not as freewheeling as they used to be. The current owners of Bell Labs have announced that they are dropping basic science to “focus on more immediately marketable areas.” One wonders what Silicon Valley VCs are doing, besides congratulating themselves. They are definitely not “creating” so-called wealth, they are creaming off surplus capital generated in America’s industrial past, and providing precious little to replace the lost industries and jobs. Apple and Avatar will not save the American economy; the only thing that could would be a massive infrastructure investment, impossible now the Iraq war and bank bailouts have bankrupted the state.

Despite all the “outside the box” rhetoric, the technology industries depend on incremental, measured innovation within a market regime that is never questioned. Technology does not offer any perspective on the surrounding context, never mind force it to change, but this is exactly what the avant-garde of art attempted to do, and partially accomplished. It is art itself that is responsible for the utopian notion that any human activity can be “creative,” whatever that is supposed to mean, but our society is not set up for universal creativity, and never will be. For most people creativity probably means more control over their work, and it is sometimes claimed that the digital industries have provided that, but don’t be fooled, all they have brought is longer hours and more screen facing drudgery.

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