Innovation’s price is Future Shock — and we’re paying it now

Here’s my heretical question: is innovation always good?

Last week, Martin set out to define innovation, which is a much needed revisitation of a dreadful buzzword. It’s like to follow that up with a little light heresy.

Here’s my heretical question: is innovation always good?

And the answer depends on the timescale. In the long-term, major innovations tend to be good. From the printing press, to the internal combustion engine, profound changes in the way we communicate and interact lead to periods of instability followed by the eventual benefits of the new technology.

But you can’t avoid that instability. In the short term, it’s a natural consequence of the innovation and the societal change it brings.

The good innovation delusion

We’ve been deluding ourselves that we can avoid it this time. We’re deep in a state of neophilia, in love with the idea of innovation. Compared to 25-odd years ago, when people were still dismissing the internet as a fad, and mocking websites, it’s out of control. Barely a press release spews forth from some corporate PR department without the word “innovative” being blasted across it. I innovate, you innovate, they innovate, we innovate.

The message is simple: innovation is good and so is anyone who innovates. And so innovate we must. We create innovation hubs, and innovation departments, and innovation conferences, and hire innovation consultants.

And all is well in technology, for innovation is good.

But is that really the case?

Given the sheer relentless stream of innovation coming our way, why isn’t the world a sparking idyll, a perfect utopia of technological progress? Why, given all this innovation, are we polarised, data strip-mined and in a severe democratic deficit?

Innovating consequences

Pretty much all the innovation we’re celebrating right now is incremental or process innovation. It’s not something radical and transformative, but a working through of the consequences of the lat major disruptive innovation.

It’s arguable that the last really major disruptive innovation was the internet – and it enabled the next disruptive innovation: the web. And the two of them were predicated on the personal computer.

Everything that’s happened since has been a logical consequence of those innovations. All that innovate is, in reality, those originating innovations bedding in.

Here’s my bet: whatever the next really disruptive innovation is, you won’t see it splashed across the front-pages of the tech press, or discussed on the evening news.

What we know as the internet was developed through the 70s and 80s, and only really found mainstream success in the late 90s, decades later. Innovation comes at you… slowly.

So, if you’re really looking for the next big disruptive innovation, don’t look for blockchain or autonomous vehicles. Those are both consequences of the last disruptive innovations. Blockchain is a clever implementation of the internet. Autonomous vehicles are “what if we turned the car into a computer?”. While both have the potential to have huge impact on our society, they are rooted in what has already occurred.

The next innovation is happening in a lab somewhere. It will be decades before we care about it, and the majority of us will dismiss it as irrelevant at first. But people will take that innovation, and build on it, develop it and, eventually, productise it. And the world will change again.

But not yet. And thank God for that. We’re nowhere near ready.

The Inevitable Future Shock

In truth, we might be decades away from the next, really big major innovation. I rather hope that we are. We’re clearly still grappling with the consequences of the current wave of innovation, and a new surge could have an overwhelming effect on our societies – shattering them in an over-whelming torrent of future shock.

For all the benefits technology has brought us — and they are manifold — we’re still dealing with shattered democracies, a polluted information ecosystem and a generation growing up with a new level of crippling social anxiety mediated through their devices.

Don’t be too keen on finding the next disruptive innovation. We still need some time to figure out how to deal with the last lot…

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