The180·The 180

Stop drinking the innovation Kool-Aid

High-tech innovation is often portrayed as being glamorous and prosperous — and governments often want a piece of that. Innovation was a pillar in the recent federal budget announced by Canada's Liberals, and this week the Trump administration announced an 'innovation' office. But technology historian Andrew Russell says it can be dangerous to treat technological innovation as an indisputable public good.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a virtual reality demonstration at the new Google Canada Development headquarters in Kitchener, Ont., on Thursday, January 14, 2016. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Innovation has been in the political limelight on both sides of the border in recent weeks.

White House Senior Adviser Jared Kushner, right, listens to President Donald Trump speak during a breakfast with business leaders in January of 2017. Trump announced Kushner will head the new Office of American Innovation. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

In Canada it's a pillar of the federal Liberal budget, and just this week the Trump administration announced Jared Kushner will oversee the Office of American Innovation at the White House.

But technology historian Andrew Russell says it can be dangerous to treat innovation as an indisputable public good, because it has become a "meaningless empty box."

If we pour all of our money into new ventures and entrepreneurships and startups, then every dollar spent on that, the theory goes, is a dollar less spent on things we already have and the things we already need — such as social services, infrastructure — so there's economic tradeoffs in privileging innovation in the new. - Andrew Russell

Russell, the Dean of SUNY Polytechnic Institute's College of Arts and Science, says in North America —a society that likes novelty and creativity—there is also a cultural cost to privileging innovation. 

Technology historian Andrew Russell argues that innovation often steals the limelight, while maintenance is really what keeps technology working. (provided)
If we shine the light only on that, then we cast into darkness the people and the kinds of work that go into maintaining the civilization that we have ... and keeps all of our social and technological, cultural and political institutions going. - Andrew Russell 

Maintainers, in Russell's view, include everyone from teachers and nurses to electricians and road workers, and are actually as crucial to technology as innovators, but get little credit or attention because their work is often viewed as boring or mundane. 

"It's mostly blue-collar work, in a lot of cases it's women or ethnic minorities or immigrants who do the work. It's usually not that well paid and it's a whole class of working and middle class people."

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is the fifth richest person in the world, according to Bloomberg, with a total net worth of $61.4 billion. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

To Russell, the value society puts on innovators — people like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg — with little acknowledgement of the maintainers is a way to read a society's values. 

It's not a pretty story. It says that we're a little bit shallow. It says that we're materialistic. To be a little bit more optimistic, it says that we're dreamers.  But dreamers are usually detached or a little bit closed off from the world they live in, so it's really their privilege that allows them to do that instead of engaging with the really tough problems that we have all across this country and in Canada as well. - Andrew Russell

As for the politicians who are eager to associate with innovators and all their glamour, Russell hopes for more from our elected representatives. 

"They're leaders. We look up to them ...and they're supposed to tell us what we should care about. They're supposed to set the moral agenda, they do set the economic and political agenda. Would it be so hard for them to celebrate working people? I don't think it would be." 


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