Sunday October 30, 2016

The Myth of The Great White Innovator

Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2011.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2011. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Listen 14:08

"Innovation" is a big topic at many workplaces, as companies try to get ahead of rapid technological change. But how does innovation actually happen? It's a subject we've explored in depth on Spark.

In part, it's just plain ol' accidents. Earlier this year, author James Ward filled us in on the birth of the pencil.

But innovation is also connected to harnessing the creative thought process itself as we heard from Kevin Ashton, the guy who coined the term "Internet of Things", on a past episode of Spark.

We've looked at gender and racial bias in how people get access to the tools of innovation, like technical education, with philosopher Sarah-Jane Leslie.

What all those people have in common, is that they are challenging the mythology of innovation. And now we have another challenger.

Technology historian Patrick McCray recently wrote an essay in the journal, Aeon, called "It's not all lightbulbs," where he takes apart what he calls the "cult of the great white innovator". Instead, he paints a picture of a more -- frankly -- ordinary look at innovation in history. Ordinary, but more accurate.

Opening up our minds to how innovation works, means opening up our minds to what technology IS. It also means considering that maybe things like "innovation" or "efficiency" aren't just neutral. They're political, and they're not necessarily always positive.