To fix digital, learn from today’s failure of innovation — and do it better

There's a real temptation to turn our backs on technology when things go wrong. That would be a mistake. Innovations cannot be uninvented - so we need to learn from them and move forwards.

As Martin explored earlier in the week, innovation and disruption are often painted as best buddies, marching together, hand-in-hand, into the future. It’s been the perceived wisdom of the tech world for the last 15 years or so – since we crawled our way back into recovery after the collapse of the early 2000s.

And now, as story after story washes over us calling the actions of our favourite tech tools into question, some people are asking themselves: was it worth it? Digital detoxes and digital retreats seem to be the order of the day. On a personal level, fine. But technology can’t be uninvented. It moves forwards. Giving up isn’t an option. The innovation will keep coming whether we like it or not.

So, let’s fix it.

Innovation is an event, not a moral stance

Let’s be clear: neither innovation or disruption are inherently positive things. Wars are traditionally times of great innovation – but initially most of that innovation is driven towards a single aim: killing people in greater numbers. That’s innovative. That’s disruptive. It’s also horrible.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that innovation isn’t always disruptive either – many businesses thrive for years on incremental rather than disruptive innovation. Once a business or market is firmly established, it tends to run on incremental innovation until a major technological innovation brings disruptive innovation. If you look at my own business — journalism — this was exactly the story. More than a century of incremental innovation was suddenly challenged by a disruptive innovation. And one of the reasons that the industry has struggled so badly through the change is that the people who are good at managing incremental innovation are rarely good with disruptive innovation.

During periods of disruption, those who prefer stability tend to long for an established state; sometimes they see it where there is none.

The illusion of digital stability

Back in 2006, when I started working in what you might now call audience development, the editors I was working with all wanted to do things in Second Life and MySpace. The former seemed like the wave of the future, the latter like an unassailable bastion of social networking.

Those assumptions were not good.

And so, too, it is with the current unassailable giants of the world. Facebook might lose its grip, in the same way Microsoft retreated from the central plank of everyone’s computing experience. But, like Microsoft, it might yet find a powerful and compelling second act. Disruption comes in many forms, not just technological. It can be from business models, or social factors, too. Right now, we see social factors much more strongly at play, with people’s trust plummeting dramatically. No wonder, then, that Facebook have quietly shelved their smart speaker plans for the time being. People are suddenly conscious of how easily these devices could become corporate spies in our houses — something former NEXT speaker Cory Doctorow has been warning about for months:

[…] you’re installing a constantly listening presence in your home that by design listens to every word you say, and which is very likely to suffer at least one catastrophic breach that allows hackers (possibly low-level dum-dums like the ransomware creeps who took whole hospitals hostage this year, then asked for a mere $300 to give them back because they were such penny-ante grifters) to gain access to millions of these gadgets, along with machine-learning-trained models that will help them pluck blackmail material, credit card numbers, and humiliating disclosures out of the stream of speech they’re capturing.

Is there scope for a competitive attack on Facebook not through technology, but through a less exploitative business model and a greater degree of social trust? Some people are certainly considering it:


There’s been a running assumption for years that we’re edging towards a stable, established digital state of affairs. I see no evidence to support that view. I was struck by the dangers of that mindset in 2008, when the journalism business had just started to get comfortable publishing to both the web and print, suddenly found itself having to cope with the twin disruptions of social and mobile. The game had been upended just as they thought they’d got the hang of the rules.

Still Day One

My NEXT colleagues at Sinner Schrader are fond of the phrase “Still Day One”. And it works because we are still early in this digital transition. If you look back at the last major revolution on this scale — the industrial revolution — it was actually two overlapping phases that lasted in the region of 70 years. We are barely 20 years into this revolution being felt generally, and the pace of change has yet to slow.

It’s still day one. There’s loads left to do — but there are some things we need to fix, too. One of the great fallacies of modern thought is that history is one progressive arrow pointing forwards. We go through loops and cul-de-sacs. We make mistakes, and lose track of great ideas that should have been developed further.

The path we have taken over the past decade was not inevitable. The sorts of sites and tools that developed were not inevitable. We, as societies and as individuals, are quite entitled to say “This way didn’t work, let’s try another”.

Space for competitive innovation

If you really want to both create disruptive innovation and make the world better, you need to ask yourself a set of questions:

  • What’s the job to be done here? What am I providing people that will enhance their lives?
  • Are we disrupting for disruption’s sake? Or are we bringing genuine value to the equation for more than our company.
  • How can we financially sustain this business?
  • What could go wrong with this, and how do we prepare for this?

That last question is the real digital fix we need to get in place. Twitter co-founder Ev Williams has been quite explicit that one of the reasons for the tech backlash right now is that too many founders of the last wave of services were privileged American white males, who had no reason to plan for abuse, and no experience of it to guide them:

“There’s a lock on our office door and our homes at night. The internet was started without the expectation that we’d have to do that online.”

If nothing else, the stumbles of the last waves of disruptive innovation shows us there’s plenty of opportunity to innovate more. But we need to ask the right questions, and take the time to do it right. Innovation requires failure to learn from, and we’ll only truly fail if we don’t learn from this moment of crisis — and fix it.

Photo by alexander milo on Unsplash