Innovators are killing us: Instead of reinventing housing or transit, they bring us companies like Airbnb and Uber

Innovation leaves structures intact, developing new processes to monetize the dysfunctional systems we already have

Published July 11, 2015 9:00PM (EDT)

The innovator has always been part savior, part confidence man. “In a multitude of men there are many who, supposing themselves wiser than others, endeavour to innovate, and divers Innovators innovate divers wayes, which is a meer distraction, and civill ware,” Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651. In 1837, a Catholic priest in Vermont devoted 320 pages to denouncing a Protestant cleric he referred to scornfully throughout as “the Innovator.” At the turn of the last century, a Denver processed cheese executive told a reporter: “If you don’t innovate every day and have a great understanding of your customers, then you don’t grow.” Meanwhile, a 21st-century scholar delivering a post-mortem on a shuttered college said that universities’ main task now is not to teach or to research -- these are so last century -- but to create “space to innovate.” (Innovate what, and for whom? Don’t ask.)

What links the priest, the philosopher of power, and these 21st-century shillers of discount cheese and higher education? On the surface, not much. But the strange phrase “innovate every day,” without an object, like an epiphany, retains the magic of the visionary. What was once a pejorative for heresy and malicious self-interest -- Hobbes used “innovator” as a synonym for “plotter” and “charlatan” -- is now our finest modern virtue, a term that unites the solitary, prickly creativity we’ve learned to associate with artists with a basically benevolent understanding of the profit motive. “Innovate” has long been used in business contexts to refer to a discrete embellishment of a product, but conventionally it required an object; you innovated on something else. “Innovation” is most popular today as a stand-alone concept, a kind of managerial spirit that permeates nearly every institutional setting, from nonprofits and newspapers to schools and summer camps. This meaning began to appear commonly in the 1970s and exploded in the 1990s. (The adjective “innovative,” on the other hand, barely existed 30 years ago.) Now we “innovate,” or we “foster innovation,” an open-ended usage with a utopian ring: As a starry-eyed astronomer told the New Yorker in 1970, “The long-term challenge for innovation lies off this planet. We'll be off the solar system in less than a thousand years. I think curiosity will become overwhelming. Would you like to see our computer?”

(Its early conquest of mainstream culture can perhaps be measured by innovation’s appearance in Reader's Digest, which in 1976 advised that a healthy marriage needs “regular infusions” of innovation. Again, don’t ask.)

What the popularity of innovation mostly reflects today is both fear of perpetual crisis and faith in the private sector as its only solution. The cults of personality sustained around corporate leaders, especially in the tech world, show how “innovation” has never lost its association with prophecy -- and indeed, with hucksterism. Only the scriptures have changed. The Apple CEO Steve Jobs, writes his biographer, “stands as the ultimate icon of inventiveness, imagination, and sustained innovation” -- three different words, it would seem, for the same thing, an alliterative redundancy that disguises the hollowness of the core concept. And most would-be prophets gain an audience from the ranks of the hopeless and desperate. So it is with us: A veritable army of “brand strategists” and consultants stand at the ready to counsel anxious employees and nervous graduates how to “be more innovative.” If “disruption” offers an apocalyptic view of historical change, as Jill Lepore has argued, innovation is its sunnier, though no less anxious, counterpart. With its inward-looking moralism, innovation also appeals to an evangelical strain in American culture, in which the country is both chosen by Providence and perpetually backsliding.  In 1980, an author in Newsweek lamented what he saw as the widespread fear among his compatriots “that it's all over for us, that the age of innovation has ended.” Or as one of the mightiest idols in the Innovator pantheon, Peter Thiel, said more recently: “innovation in America is somewhere between dire straits and dead.”

Innovation, therefore, is a strangely contradictory concept, simultaneously grandiose and modest, saccharine and pessimistic. The prophetic meaning embedded deep in its etymology allows “innovation” to stand in for nearly any kind of positive transformation, doing for the 21st century what “progress” once did for the 19th and 20th. On the other hand, its fetish for technology signals a retreat from the transformative visions of 19th- to mid-20th century “progress,” in all their various forms and with all their terrible faults. As scholar Paul Erickson has pointed out, innovation transforms processes and leaves structures intact. Thus, instead of reinventing housing or transit, “innovators” mostly develop new processes to monetize the dysfunctional housing and transit we already have, via companies like Airbnb and Uber.  It’s one thing, therefore, to celebrate novelty indiscriminately -- as if meth labs and credit-default swaps are not innovative -- but what if the new isn’t even very new at all? When Alec Ross, Hillary Clinton’s former “Senior Advisor for Innovation,” says that “If Paul Revere were alive today, he wouldn’t have taken a midnight ride from Boston to Lexington, he would have just used #Twitter,” all this tells me is that Twitter is basically no different than a fast horse.

The discourse of innovation celebrates creativity, but just as another form of capital; it aims for the mystery of spiritual life, but summons only its reverence for authority; and it lionizes collaboration, but only for profit. In other words: Beware false prophets.

By John Patrick Leary

John Patrick Leary teaches in the English Department at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is the author of the forthcoming book "A Cultural History of Underdevelopment: Latin America in the U.S. Imagination" and the blog Keywords for the Age of Austerity, a primer for the vocabulary of inequality ( Follow him on Twitter at @johnpatleary.

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