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Opinion

The cult of innovation

Innovation has transformed into a cultural narrative with mass following, but to what end? Asks author.

Last Modified: 02 Nov 2013 14:13
Zeynep Zileli Rabanea

Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a writer and analyst focused on culture, media and communications, currently based in Sao Paulo.
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"Jobs epitomises the values that 21st century society most applauds: creativity, originality, design, and being a fearless beacon of change," writes Zeynep Zileli Rabanea [Reuters]

We live in a world where the inability to innovate is the best indicator of failure, often leading to a company's collapse or bringing a promising career to an end. Most of us feel that we are not fast enough to keep pace and not up to date with those on the change frontier, both in our work and our complex relationship with technology.

In this age the word innovation is tossed around in almost every conversation and the concept circulates in various business and technology expressions. However, the current hype around the concept has a larger sociocultural advertence. It makes its way into our social consciousness through narratives about its heroes, like Steve Jobs, or corporate success stories, like Facebook. As a society we have come to accept creativity and innovation as the must have traits for the twenty first century leader. The fascination with innovation and innovative leaders perhaps has little to do with the real state of our technological and scientific progress as a society than with the ideology of success and leadership in postmodern society.

Innovation extravaganza

The word innovation is often confused with invention in that it is thought as the creation of a new idea, product or method. Yet, it is the improvement of an already existing product or method to the extent that it significantly changes people's lives. Steve Jobs didn't invent the mp3 player, but he completely changed the way we use mp3 players with the iPod.

We need not look further than the three films devoted to the most innovative entrepreneurial ventures of our time to see our fascination with the concept: Facebook (The Social Network), Google (The Internship) and Apple (Jobs).

Innovation can be technological, scientific, industrial, economic, organisational, or even social. What I call the cult of innovation in this article, lies within the entrepreneurial field. The hype of innovation perhaps has less to do with our super advanced iPhones, complex search engines or digital devices, than the names behind these products. We need a good narrative to be interested in innovation per se, and interesting characters like Steve Jobs, or brands like Apple, provide us exactly with that.

Since its corporate birth, Apple has dominated our understanding of innovation and Steve Jobs was universally acclaimed as the presiding genius behind all of Apple's revolutionary ventures. He was without a doubt the unbeatable champion of the innovation game. Jobs epitomises the values that 21st century society most applauds: creativity, originality, design, and being a fearless beacon of change.

We need not look further than the three films devoted to the most innovative entrepreneurial ventures of our time to see our fascination with the concept: Facebook (The Social Network), Google (The Internship) and Apple (Jobs). These companies represent a turning point in technological progress and the way in which humans interact with technology, thus their coming of age stories are relevant for many of us.

The recent biopic Jobs directed by Joshua Michael Stern and starring Ashton Kutcher as Steve Jobs is a failed effort to show Jobs' dizzying progression from an ambitious young man to becoming the ultra successful CEO of Apple. Unfortunately, the film neither illuminates the mysteries of this charismatic leader's life nor does it succeed as entertainment. A much more successful version of the innovation story, namely David Fincher's The Social Network, blew us away with engaging and fearless entrepreneurial characters in a thumping story about how a couple of 20-year old college kids came to lead a multi billion dollar company. We entertain our own capitalistic ambitions and entrepreneurial desires through these narratives showing us how the masterminds propelled their revolutionary vision.

Still, just talking about companies is boring. Apple may be one of the biggest love brands of our time, but we really only can relate to humans when it comes to idols. Steve Jobs, the man who shaped one of today's most valuable companies, was known for pushing the limits of design for achieving a user experience that was unprecedented for its time. Those of us who are lucky enough to remember the launch of the first iMacs know how revolutionary were the semi-transparent colourful computers that looked like they had just jumped out of a sci-fi movie. But it was Steve Jobs who became our hero, when he told us to "Think Different" while he stood in front of applauding crowds, celebrated for creating products that not only reinvented technology but (many would believe) also made lives better and more enjoyable. Jobs is still widely acknowledged as the "father of the digital revolution" and "master of innovation".

As society moved from the industrial revolution to the digital revolution, the rate of growth slowed down considerably in the past decades.

Now we need a setting for the great narratives of leadership and success. Silicon Valley as the hotbed of innovation leading the technological and digital revolution, provides us with that. Silicon Valley has come to epitomise the new American Dream of entrepreneurship. Thousands of startups throw themselves in the valley's shark tank with hopes of creating the new Google. And thousands fail. But people still hold on to the dream, because the stories of Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg show us that big ideas can come from individuals.

Behind the scenes, innovation makers fight to realise their projects and it often comes with a high price. Steve Jobs' experienced this first hand when his projects were often terminated by the company's board of directors due to the investors' concern about unnecessary financial spending. The long-term funding of an idea whose impact is difficult to gage at first, is a privilege that only a few big companies can afford.

Technological revolution or stagnation?

So, we all think innovation is great. We love reading bios and watching films about it, we love discussing it in classrooms and MBAs, because we all know by now that the 21st century leader is one that innovates. But when we peel all the rhetoric away what are we truly left with? Are we innovating, technologically, scientifically and empirically? Or have we just constructed a sexy new language to talk about novices?

There are some pessimists that believe we may be overestimating our rate of innovation.  Peter Thiel, the founder and CEO of Paypal, and one of the first Angel investors of Facebook, has written about the decline of science and technology in the past four decades. He believes one of the culprits is the state. In his influential 2011 essay "The End of the Future" he blames increased government regulation and the absence of investment in new frontiers of research. Thiel thinks that United States has become a risk-averse society, not investing in scientific research as it did for example during the Second World War and the Cold War for the obvious reasons of building offensive weapons.

Thiel and his colleagues at the Founders Fund, a Silicon Valley Venture Capital firm, describe the current VC scene thus: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." Thiel criticises the government for being caught up in leftist cultural politics in giving things like healthcare a priority.

If one can look past Thiel's libertarian and conservative approach, there may be some truth to his stagnation idea. As society moved from the industrial revolution to the digital revolution, the rate of growth slowed down considerably in the past decades. Tyler Cowen, in his book The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick and Will (Eventually) Feel Better also argues for a similar point. He claims that United States experienced fast growth in the past because of free land, rapid inventions due to the scientific progress of the 18th and 19th century, and education, something people didn't have access to earlier. Due to falling rates of innovation that growth has reached a plateau both in United States and other advanced economies.  

In the end, are we living in truly innovative times, or are we sidetracked by Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial success stories? How can we, standing within our socio-historical context, actually measure progress without getting it confused with the rapid changes of the digital world? We may leave those questions to the economists and historians to tackle, but for now we sure are entertained by our innovation idols and there's no doubt that entrepreneurial success stories have become our preferred genre of entertainment as well as our cultural aspiration.

Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a writer and analyst focused on culture, media and communications, currently based in Sao Paulo.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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