Is Innovation Overvalued?

Aeon: “As the pursuit of innovation has inspired technologists and capitalists, it has also provoked critics who suspect that the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.”

“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 … common objects, like the electric fan and many parts of the automobile, have been virtually unchanged for a century or more. 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 … 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 … most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice … The most unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour are also the most ordinary: those who repair and maintain technologies that already exist, that were ‘innovated’ long ago.”

“Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there?”


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