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Sunday, August 25, 2013

The 5 Darker Sides of Innovation Worship

"One of the myths of the Enlightenment is that what we mean by progress is intimately bound to the presumed disinterestedness and political neutrality of Science. Science is said to be liberatory to the extent that is hermetically sealed from the chaos of political struggles and the conflicts of everyday social relations. Hitler’s scientists were to be unencumbered by the uses to which their discoveries and inventions were put." - Stanley Aronowitz, "Setting the Record Straight: Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Critics"
Innovation is a wonderful thing. But like every business mantra that becomes a buzzword and then jargon, it gets used without serious thinking as to the costs and consequences, especially on the average person who may not be able to "ride the wave" and "master the system." Such as:

1. Applying "MBA Metrics" to "Hacker Culture":  In "The Secret to Unleashing Genius" Forbes tries to rank companies according to their "innovation premium" (or innovation equity). Their definition of this: Start with "what the market thinks the company is worth," subtract "actual money coming in," and wind up with an intangible clump of value. Not surprisingly this is exactly the same fuzzy logic people use to define brand equity (the value of a brand). Difficulty understanding innovation -- what it is, how it works, why it's valuable -- has led to a debate at Google, where the famous "20% time" to experiment has been restricted and essentially added to the normal workday, according to some of its engineers. (Google officially disagrees, but you can read the debate here.)

2. The New Caste System: The same article talks about Amazon as a prototypical innovative company that has "radically decentralized the work of coming up with new products or services so that the majority of employees feel like it is expected of them." That is all fine and good except the flipside is an anti-union approach that Amazon justifies as interfering with its ability to run the business. Not incidentally for a company that prides itself on innovation, the "innovators" are content while the "non-innovators" complain of unfair treatment. True society becomes less and less possible in a world characterized by the "Digital Divide," where the have-nots lose access not just to technology but fundamental participation in society (through money itself).

3. Who Put A Robot In My Chair?  In 1994 Stanley Aronowitz's The Jobless Future pointed to the devastating impact that technology would have on the average person, i.e. to destroy jobs:  "All of the contradictory tendencies involved in the restructuring of global capital and computer-mediated work seem to lead to the same conclusion for workers of all collars that is, unemployment, underemployment, decreasingly skilled work, and relatively lower wages. (Book review, The Jobless Future, Michael Stack) In Amazon's world, the low-level worker is actually being phased out: "Last year, the company spent $775 million to buy a manufacturer of robots that it plans to eventually deploy in its warehouses." What is going to happen to all the people who lose their jobs because of technology? Where will they live, how will they eat, and who will feed, clothe, and educate them?

4. Shortchanging Education To Serve The System: A subsequent work by Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory (2001) pointed to the shifting role of the university. Instead of promoting critical thinking by exposing students to a wide array of coursework outside a particular field, the college experience is a "training" environment where students learn to memorize and spit back rather than to think. In today's world, students can teach themselves to code, but this is limiting in so many ways. Engaging critically with what is generally known as "The Canon" -- the classical works of history, philosophy literature, social sciences, and so on -- spurs innovation at a larger level. It helps you think in terms of the bigger picture. Is the project worth doing, if you look at the mission critically? Is it serving shareholder value or stakeholder value, and is that the right way to go? Is the organization itself helping or hurting society? Sure it's fine and good if you can get a job freelancing "right now," but do we really want our children to settle for being well-paid drones in a system?

5. Orwellian-speak: In thinking about the role of unions, a key factor for Amazon has to be cost savings. Yet responding to union concerns in Germany, they say the opposite: “This really isn’t about higher wages...It isn’t a cost question for us. It’s about what our relationship is with our people.” One of the fundamental issues associated with automating people out of a job, is what people will do once their job has been eliminated. There is no pretty way to talk about this issue, but people can handle a mature debate. What they cannot handle is being fed poison and then told it's chocolate syrup.

* As always, all opinions are my own. (On the quote, I support the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace, freedom and security as the Jewish homeland and the right of the Palestinian people to nationhood with the same human rights and dignities.)