By Lee Vinsel & Andrew Russell
Evidence has emerged that regions of intense innovation also have systemic problems with inequality. In 2013, protests erupted in San Francisco over the gentrification and social stratification symbolised by Google buses and other private commuter buses. These shuttles brought high-tech employees from hip, pricey urban homes to their lush suburban campuses, without exposing them to the inconvenience of public transportation or to the vast populations of the poor and homeless who also call Silicon Valley their home. The dramatic, unnecessary suffering exposed by such juxtapositions of economic inequality seems to be a feature, not a bug of highly innovative regions.
The trajectory of ‘innovation’ from core, valued practice to slogan of dystopian societies, is not entirely surprising, at a certain level. There is a formulaic feel: a term gains popularity because it resonates with the zeitgeist, reaches buzzword status, then suffers from overexposure and cooptation. Right now, the formula has brought society to a question: after ‘innovation’ has been exposed as hucksterism, is there a better way to characterise relationships between society and technology?
There are three basic ways to answer that question. First, it 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.
Second, by dropping innovation, we can recognise the essential role of basic infrastructures. ‘Infrastructure’ is a most unglamorous term, the type of word that would have vanished from our lexicon long ago if it didn’t point to something of immense social importance. Remarkably, in 2015 ‘infrastructure’ came to the fore of conversations in many walks of American life. In the wake of a fatal Amtrak crash near Philadelphia, President Obama wrestled with Congress to pass an infrastructure bill that Republicans had been blocking, but finally approved in December 2015. ‘Infrastructure’ also became the focus of scholarly communities in history and anthropology, even appearing 78 times on the programme of the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Artists, journalists, and even comedians joined the fray, most memorably with John Oliver’s hilarious sketch starring Edward Norton and Steve Buscemi in a trailer for an imaginary blockbuster on the dullest of subjects. By early 2016, the New York Review of Books brought the ‘earnest and passive word’ to the attention of its readers, with a depressing essay titled ‘A Country Breaking Down’.
The best of these conversations about infrastructure move away from narrow technical matters to engage deeper moral implications. Infrastructure failures – train crashes, bridge failures, urban flooding, and so on – are manifestations of and allegories for America’s dysfunctional political system, its frayed social safety net, and its enduring fascination with flashy, shiny, trivial things. But, especially in some corners of the academic world, a focus on the material structures of everyday life can take a bizarre turn, as exemplified in work that grants ‘agency’ to material things or wraps commodity fetishism in the language of high cultural theory, slick marketing, and design. For example, Bloomsbury’s ‘Object Lessons’ series features biographies of and philosophical reflections on human-built things, like the golf ball. What a shame it would be if American society matured to the point where the shallowness of the innovation concept became clear, but the most prominent response was an equally superficial fascination with golf balls, refrigerators, and remote controls.
Third, focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going. Despite recurring fantasies about the end of work or the automation of everything, the central fact of our industrial civilisation is labour, and most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice – perhaps somewhere around one per cent – of this workforce. If gadgets are to be profitable, corporations need people to manufacture, sell, and distribute them. Another important facet of technological labour comes when people actually use a product. In some cases, the image of the ‘user’ could be an individual like you, sitting at your computer, but in other cases, end users are institutions – companies, governments, or universities that struggle to make technologies work in ways that their inventors and makers never envisioned.
Picture: USCapitol (Capitol Dome Restoration April 2015) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons