In the United States, and to a lesser extent around the world, we’ve been glorifying innovation for the past century or more. But if we want to create a balanced society, which can sustain itself while continuing to progress, it’s time we come to terms with the reality of innovation, and stop neglecting the other components of a productive, progressive society.
Why we glorify innovation
First, I want to explore why we value innovation so much.
There’s the idea that innovation is inherently superior to maintenance or straightforward progression. For example, a new vacuum cleaner with a longer attachment system isn’t a real innovation, but a robotic vacuum cleaner that cleans your floors autonomously is.
Innovation has the power to change our lives for the better, making things more convenient and cost-effective, and some of the devices we’ve seen emerge from our prioritization of innovation—such as smartphones and emerging self-driving vehicles—would seem to verify that.
Innovation in a capitalistic society also has the potential to breed billionaires. You can work your whole life in an established path and maybe make enough money to retire, or you can innovate something that saves thousands of hours a year, and retire wealthy while you’re still young. And since we tend to equate money with value, we tend to think of innovators as inherently more valuable to our society as everyone else.
Clearly, there are reasons why we favor innovation, and I don’t oppose them. What I do oppose is the glorification of innovation, and treating it as more important than other components of a meaningful society.
Why we need to stop
There are dangers to prioritizing innovation above all else, and it’s important to point them out.
We’ve trained multiple generations of people to believe that their best bet for a career is to invent something new, to create an idea, or to start their own business. Yet this can be destructive, considering the high failure rate of startups. Entrepreneurs and idea generators who don’t have much experience may spend their whole lives trying to come up with a billion-dollar idea, only to fail in the process (since billion-dollar or even million-dollar ideas are so rare).
As if that weren’t enough, we also have generations of people who look down on jobs that don’t require creativity or innovation. As a result, we have a massive shortage of employees in skilled trades, and a lack of people available to handle some very necessary tasks.
On a related note, our obsession with innovation leads us to devalue or deprioritize maintenance, which is necessary to keep our world running. It’s far more appealing to invest money in a new tech startup that has the potential to change the world than it is to invest in repairing a bridge, or making upgrades to a highway system.
Of course, there are many reasons why our infrastructure is in poor shape, but our prioritization of innovation rather than maintenance of existing infrastructure plays a significant role in it.
Our relentless demand for innovation also encourages the development of economic phenomena that don’t always work in our favor. As an example, consider planned obsolescence, the idea that tech companies specifically design their products to expire or become less valuable upon the emergence of a newer, better version of that product.
You could argue that this might happen no matter what; after all, companies are expected to behave in a way that maximizes their own interests, and selling new products is always better than simply repairing old ones. However, it’s our ongoing demand for new products that allows this cycle to continue unabated.
In a similar vein, we’re seeing the rollout of countless “inventions” that are inferior copies of technologies that already exist, or combinations of technologies that nobody asked for. Millions of entrepreneurs are clamoring for our attention, and innovating merely for innovations’ sake, rather than taking their time developing truly revolutionary technology. For example, how many apps have you seen to be advertised as the “Uber for _____,” rather than apps that, like Uber, completely revolutionized some mundane or expensive task for consumers?
No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, chances are you recognize that there’s a problematic inequality issue that’s only been getting worse. The average CEO in the United States makes more in a single day than the average worker makes in a year.
A person who invents an app that allows people to buy and sell services may make billions of dollars, while the people buying and selling on the platform struggle to make ends meet. Obviously, good ideas and hard work deserve to be rewarded, but our lust for innovation is making this discrepancy even more imbalanced; perhaps tempered expectations and a fairer system could leave innovators making a hundred times what other workers make, rather than three hundred times.
There are also some unforeseeable consequences to innovating in an area we don’t truly understand. For example, we’ve made massive progress in developing technology that can detect cancer early; as a result, the rate of cancer diagnosis has increased significantly, while the fatality rate of cancer has remained more or less the same.
In other words, we’re forcing consumers to spend more money and likely be more stressed as the result of a diagnosis, without significantly improving their chances of survival. This doesn’t mean we should stifle innovation, but it does mean we should progress more deliberately, and with a better understanding of what we’re releasing upon the world.
Fortunately, we’re beginning to see progress in this area already, with areas of research like CRISPR and gene editing facing heavy scrutiny before being approved for wide-scale use.
What to do instead
So what can we do instead of worshiping innovation? For starters, we can pay more attention to the maintainers in our society, prioritizing projects that keep us invested in the assets and devices we already have. We can also temper our expectations when it comes to new gadgets and breakthroughs, judiciously evaluating whether it’s really worth getting excited about whatever the latest new toy is.
I’m not saying we should abandon innovation—just that we should be treating it with more respect and more patience. Otherwise, the problems associated with glorifying innovation are only going to get worse.