Saturday, December 17, 2011

Innovation Beyond Technology

I have grown weary of people repeating the apparently widespread belief that "innovation" is the solution to all our problems. I don't deny that the difficult problems facing modern-day societies require new ideas and approaches. What bothers me is that when people talk about innovation, they seem to mainly be talking about TECHNOLOGICAL innovation. It's as if the Beatles song "All You Need is Love" has been re-engineered ("re-purposed," to use the latest innovative jargon sweeping the mass vocabulary) as "All You Need is Tech," available now on Ipad, pod and Kindle. Now, again, I am not opposed to technology. This blog is not written on a blackboard nor traced in the dirt with a stick nor conveyed by carrier pigeon. I am happy to embrace technology that is useful.

What concerns me is the assumption that technological innovation is all that matters in today's world, which overlooks the fact that technological change can be for good or for ill,and that technology often comes with all kinds of hidden costs that we only recognize belatedly. Technology used with wisdom and a sincere regard for human needs and human welfare can indeed be very beneficial, but technology used thoughtlessly without regard for its consequences or only for the purpose of amassing profits can be incredibly harmful and destructive, at the individual level, at the social level, and at the planetary level. Consider nuclear energy. Splitting the atom was an enormous scientific breakthrough, but we now live in fear of nuclear war and meltdown catastrophes such as happened in Fukushima last spring. How quickly today's innovation can turn into tomorrow's nightmare, based on how human beings choose to apply these new techniques and devices. If you are reading this blog, I assume that you are a person with some kind of spiritual awareness and also some degree of social concern. I like to imagine that you are not the kind of person who takes at face value the assertion that "all you need is tech."

There are other kinds of innovation just as important. There can be social and economic innovations, changes in how we live, work and distribute money and other resources, with incredible benefits for humanity. The creation of the labor union was one such innovation, a rearrangement of the work situation for the benefit of laborers. From the viewpoint of nineteenth century industrialists, labor unions were a huge pain in the ass that got in the way of the efficient use of up-to-date technology to maximize profits. The creation of public education and public libraries were other such innovations, based on an innovative vision of public good and welfare as opposed to private ownership and profit. Giving women the right to vote was another social innovation that helped move us toward a more gender-equal world in which women could claim equal citizenship alongside men. The Civil Rights movement in America helped to clear away the shameful racial prejudices and policies that all the technological innovation of the preceding century had done nothing to address.

Much has been made of the role played by new high-tech communication methods such as computers, cell phones, Facebook and Twitter in the revolutionary uprisings across the world in recent years, from Iran in 2009 to Egypt in spring of 2011 and Occupy Wall Street in recent months. Unfortunately, this line of thinking seems to take a serious wrong turn toward overly simplistic technological determinism in suggesting that such uprisings were only possible due to such "social media," and that without Facebook, the people who rose up in revolt would have been inert and helpless. Facebook, Twitter and other high-tech paraphernalia were no doubt useful tools of communication, but there had to first be bold and serious political ideas constructed in response to widespread grievances, or all the Twittering in the world might have just involved a sharing of celebrity gossip or sports scores. Let's not forget that "social media" do not create society, and that is first and foremost human beings, human thoughts and feelings, and the human capacity for desiring justice and social change that lead to uprisings and revolutions, not the latest technological fad.

Yes, we need innovation. We badly need to change the way our economy distributes wealth and resources, or we will continue to see technological innovation used to destroy employment for the many to increase the wealth of the few. We need to be careful about how information and media are owned and managed, or we will find that our supposedly infinite multiverse of digital information and electronic media will be in the hands of a small number of companies like Apple, Amazon and Google, and we will have no recourse when they decide to increase prices, censor unwelcome viewpoints, or limit access to types of information that are either politically inconvenient or unprofitable. I would feel much better having a strong public entity like the Library of Congress as the reservoir of information and media, because it would not then be subject to the whims of investors and profiteers. But then again, I believe in the public sphere in a time when most people seem to believe that all you need is private property and that kind, benevolent corporations are more trustworthy than the evil, intrusive government.

As a college professor, I feel that the world of higher education that did so much to nurture my generation and open doors of awareness and opportunity for millions of Americans is under increasing threat from high-tech entrepreneurs and Wall Street investors who see education as their next target for corporate takeover and privatization. Share in private companies offering educational services like charter schools are booming. It seems obvious to me that such companies would love to put all public education out of business, most of all we pesky teachers, so that education can be made into a commodity that will be bought, sold, traded, downsized to squeeze our maximum profit and delivered by low cost, increasingly less highly trained labor, providing the same benefit to American society that we have seen come from the wise, innovative management of American manufacturing and real estate over the last thirty years.

And then there is the environment. A few years ago there was widespread concern about global warming and environmental degradation and serious interest in new, less polluting, innovative energy technologies like solar power. However, the old guard struck back, and how! With a massive public relations campaign to discredit so-called "environmental extremists," old-school, carbon-based energy companies, including such good friends to the earth as EXXON, BP and Koch Industries, aided and abetted by the talk radio, television stations, Twitter feeds and other media outlets owned and operated by Murdoch, FOX and others of like mind and purpose, have been able to shift a substantial chunk of American public opinion back in favor of relying on oil, gas and coal, scorning the potential of still-developing alternative energy technologies, the environment be damned! One failed solar power company, Solyndra, to which the Obama administration had provided financial assistance, is now seen as proof positive that solar power is a silly waste of time, an inept leftist plot based on shoddy science and even worse economics. Meanwhile, large swathes of the United States are being subjected to the rapacious greed of the old guard energy companies, armed with the "innovative" new technology of "fracking" (hydrofracturing), which poses a horrible risk to water supplies for large regions of the country.

When it comes to the environment and energy, we need "innovation" that goes beyond technology. We need the innovation of courage of conviction along with the innovation of caring about the earth. We need the innovation of standing up and saying, sorry, profit is not everything. Profit is not worth degrading the earth. You cannot breath profit and you cannot drink quarterly dividends. Or maybe the super-wealthy few can, the financial super-elite; surely they can afford to develop and purchase new "innovative" technologies to provide them with clean air and water in their "innovative" gated communities, with "innovative" high-tech security systems to prevent lesser mortals from scaling the walls in search of oxygen, non-toxic food and healthy drinking water.

The greatest innovation is never technology. It is the capacity of human beings to stand up,join together and fight for a better world, a better world for all, not just the privileged few. It is wisdom to see a value in the world that goes beyond dollars and euros and corporate profits. Now, you might argue that this is not really "innovation," this is ancient tradition, this is spirituality or religion. Well, perhaps in our technology-bedazzled time, this is exactly the kind of "innovation" that we need, one that can help us to pause from our headlong rush forward and reflect on and learn from the past,and consider what is truly important, not only for today and our bank balance right now, but for tomorrow and for the generations to come. We need to look for values and practices that may not have made Steve Jobs or Bill Gates billionaires, but which have sustained the earth and the human spirit and which can still speak to us today, if we have ears to hear, even if that means disengaging from our electronic devices for a few moments now and then.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...