“95 Theses on Innovation” by Lee Vinsel

Lee Vinsel is an Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

On his post “95 Theses on Innovation” he analyses and reflects about the definition, history, economy, fear, politics, inequality and future of Innovation.

 

“99 Theses on Innovation” by Lee Vinsel

Innovation

1.     Innovation is the central ideology of our age. Its core assumption is that technological change is the key to both economic growth and quality of life.

2.     Use of the word “innovation” began rising soon after World War II and hasn’t stopped since. A key turning point came in the late 1970s when the term “innovation policy” took off. Innovation became a resource that could be fostered, grown, created, molded, instrumentalized. In other words, you can instrumentalize instrumentalization. Innovation-speak took off at an even faster rate beginning in the early 1990s. We hear the word today more than any time in history.

3.     There is nothing wrong with the idea of innovation in itself. We know that technological change is an important source of economic development. The problem lies in how we have reshaped our society in the name of innovation. We have corrupted ourselves.

4.     Sober analysts of innovation, like William J. Abernathy, Nathan Rosenberg, and David Mowery, tell us that incremental innovation has always been the primary generator of economic growth. But our society has, unwisely, become obsessed with revolutionary, or “disruptive,” technological change.

5.     The epitome of this focus on radical technical change is Clayton Christensen, a professor at Harvard Business School who has written a series of works on “disruptive innovation.” Disruptive innovation occurs when a new technology or service massively undermines an existing industry, sometimes leading to complete collapse. Christensen’s works and those of his imitators emphasized the importance of disruptive innovation for the economic and technological history.

6.     But recent studies have found that Christensen’s theory is profoundly flawed. Of 77 cases that he used to “prove” his point, only 9 cases actually fit the criteria of his own theory. Disruptive innovation is neither as frequent, nor as important as Christensen led people to believe in the many books he sold and the many talks he gave around the world.

7.     Christensen and his disciples dealt in snake oil for the innovation age. By drawing our attention to falsehoods and things that rarely actually matter, they damaged our culture.

8.     Are you an “innovation thought leader”? You’d make a great Chief Innovation Officer.

9.     The overemphasis on revolutionary technological change has led to a series of false prophets and empty promises. From gene therapy to biotechnology to nanotechnology—waves of jargon and technobabble have washed over us with little payoff.

10.  Given the prevalence of such empty promises, one of our chief tasks must be sounding out false idols. When we sound out contemporary techno-chatter, as Friedrich Nietzsche once put it, we often “hear as a reply that famous hollow sound which speaks of bloated entrails.” You know that “Big Data” is one thundering, odoriferous bout of flatulence.

11.  (If you want to have a little fun, go to a page of a granting agency, like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health; plug an overhyped, underperforming region of research, like nanotechnology, into the search bar; and watch the hits roll in. LOL! LOL!)

12.  Scholars have shed a lot of ink complaining about “neoliberalism,” an economic and political philosophy that came to power with the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Neoliberalism focuses on increasing free markets and decreasing the scope of government via deregulation, privatization, lower taxes, and similar policies. Yet, innovation is the more basic ideology in contemporary society. Left or right, politicians believe that our goal should be to increase innovation in whatever way we can, often to the neglect of other things.

13.  The Innovation Drinking Game: Once a professor joked to his students that they should use one of Obama’s State of the Union Addresses to play a drinking game, wherein they would take a sip every time the President said “innovation.” That night, he watched the speech. Part of the way into it, as the word innovation flew from the President’s mouth again and again and again, the professor was suddenly overcome with fear. What if his students had taken him seriously? What if they decided to use shots of hard liquor in their game instead of merely sipping something less alcoholic? He had anxious visions of his students getting alcohol poisoning from playing The Innovation Drinking Game and being fingered for their demise. So long tenure!

Fear

14.  The religious and political traditions that supposedly undergird American culture hold that we have a moral duty to reject fear. (“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life.”—Matthew 6:25; “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”–FDR) Yet, innovation-speak is a language of fear. The Age of Innovation is an Age of Anxiety.

15.  “Innovation policy” arose in the late 1970s amidst concerns about American industrial decline and falling productivity and, especially, the threat of economic competition from Japan. (The many books on Japanese production systems published during the 1980s and 1990s can be read as a collective keening.) The National Cooperative Research Act of 1984, which fostered innovation through the development of government-industry-academic research consortia and protected participating firms from antitrust law, was meant to imitate Japan’s long-existing research consortia.

16.  Japan’s economy faltered by the early 1990s, but we always need to fear an external other. Within a few years, night terrors about China had replaced bad Japan dreams.

17.  In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences published a report, titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which argued that the American economy was falling behind in terms of global competitiveness. (Eek! China!) The report especially emphasized the nation’s need to produce more engineers and scientists through university training. Yet, the scientific organizations, university presidents, and corporate executives who wrote the report stood to benefit directly from the policies recommended in it.

18.  The report was led by Norman Augustine, a former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer at Lockheed Martin. In many ways, the report reflected Augustine’s and Lockheed Martin’s interests. But are Augustine’s interests the general public’s interests? After all, as a major defense contractor, Lockheed Martin’s whole business model depends on our fearfulness.

19.  Moreover, some have argued that powerful organizations, like Lockheed Martin, push for more engineers and scientists because increasing the supply will decrease wages. An overproduction of scientists and engineers will mean that they are more beholden than ever to corporations.

20.  Fear extends from the bottom to the top. Anecdotally, economists and business school-types argue that corporate executives read and obsessed over Clayton Christensen’s writings on disruptive innovation not because they wanted to be disrupters but because they so feared being disrupted, that is, having their businesses and industries overthrown.

21.   “Are you feeling disrupted?!?! For three easy payments of $19.99 . . . “

22.  “What we’re really telling people is that if they do not acquire nameless skills of a technological character, they will not have employment. It will be shipped out of the country. So basically it’s a language of coercion that implies to people that their lives are fragile, that is charged with that kind of unspecified fear that makes people . . . it’s meant to make people feel that they can’t get their feet on the ground”—Marilynne Robinson, “A Conversation in Iowa.”

23.  Since the financial crisis of 2008, frightened parents have come to the conclusion that the point of college is to get a good, high-paying job. Large segments of our culture have shifted in this way. In 1971, over 60% of incoming freshmen believed that “developing a meaningful life philosophy” was an important goal. Today, that number has dropped to a little over 40%. In 1971, under 40% on incoming freshmen believed that “being very well off financially” was important. Now that number stands at over 80%. Our society has become more materialistic during the Innovation Age.

24.  Is your kid an innovator? He or she better be or risk being left behind. You know, the best road to innovation is a good education. Hey, you better pay for those expensive test prep classes. Hey, you should probably make sure your kid knows how to code. Hold on. Your kid doesn’t know how to code already?! JESUS CHRIST! You reach for pills to balance the nerves.

25.  News outlets constantly run stories on prevalent diseases that share a major cause: stress.

26.  “Now we are less interested in equipping and refining thought, more interested in creating and mastering technologies that will yield measurable enhancements of material well-being—for those who create and master them, at least. Now we are less interested in the exploration of the glorious mind, more engrossed in the drama of staying ahead of whatever it is we think is pursuing us. Or perhaps we are just bent on evading the specter entropy. In any case, the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency, many of us preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.”—Marilynne Robinson, “Humanism”

27.  What if we rejected fear, chilled the fuck out, and decided to care for one another?

Transformation

28.  We have transformed important cultural institutions in the name of innovation, and, in the process, we have perverted them.

29.  Innovation is a holistic vision of transformation that includes everything from macro-level visions of economy and society, mid-level ideas about reforming institutions and organizations, and micro-level ideas about reshaping individual human beings.

30.  At the macro-level: In response to the Great Depression, economists created the first meaningful measures of the economy, like Gross Domestic Product. By the late 1950s, however, economists had a puzzle on their hands. Traditional factors, like land, labor, and capital, were unable to express economic growth. In 1957, Robert Solow put forward the theory that the missing factor was technological change. Later studies supported the idea, and over the next thirty years, economists and others vastly advanced our knowledge of how technological change works and how it affects the economy.

31.  On the mid-level: There are whole libraries dedicated to reforming institutions and organizations for the sake of innovation. The scale of transformations at this level varies widely, from whole regions and cities to individual firms and universities.

32.  When Silicon Valley became the place to watch and to be and books started being published on its seemingly magical rise, other places tried to imitate its success via tax policy and subsidization.  An entire scholarly literature arose on “regional innovation systems” or “innovation clusters” or “innovation districts.”

33.  Walk through the business self-help book section in a store or library. Try to find a book that doesn’t contain the word innovation.

34.  Another example of organizational transformation: with its founding in 1950, the primary mission of the National Science Foundation was to fund research that fell outside of industry’s interests, that the drive for profits would leave untouched. Yet, since the 1970s, the NSF has increasingly faced pressure to fund exploitable research, research that will lead to entrepreneurship and innovation. Similarly, the National Institutes for Health now requires those applying for grants to specify how their research contributes to innovation.

35.  Yet, the cultural institution that has been most changed in the name of innovation is the university.

36.  Scholars often divide industrial civilization into a series of technological revolutions. The First Industrial Revolution was centered in England and focused on steam technology, the production of cotton goods, and the rise of the factory system. The Second Industrial Revolution was based primarily in Germany and the United States and it included a wide variety of technologies and new industrial sectors, including the steel, railroad, electricity, chemical, telegraph, telephone, and automobile industries. The Third Industrial Revolution involves many nations and focuses on electronics, computers, the Internet, and digital technologies more generally.

37.  The Second Industrial Revolution was the most impressive technological revolution in human history, and it was built upon the back of a number of organizational changes (innovations?), such as the creation of engineering schools. Yet, social norms required some distance between universities and corporation and the continuation of a traditional model of education. Engineering students, for instance, were still required to take general education classes so that they would be well-rounded. And notions like “pure science” created a barrier between universities and industries: to be a scientist who worked for industry was often to forsake an academic career.

38.  In the innovation age, we have remade universities in the corporate image.

39.  The most famous example of this remaking is the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Before this law, you could not patent inventions that arose from federal funding. The reasoning behind this ban made sense: why should you stand to benefit individually from research supported by the public’s tax dollars? But Bayh-Dole changed this rule in the name of fostering entrepreneurship and innovation. Universities became factories for churning out new business ventures. In some academic departments, if you don’t have a startup or two, you are a total square.

40.  Universities changed policies around patenting and the licensing of scientific instruments to become more business-like. (Let your mind take a trip through Philip Mirowski’s dark truthful vision, Science-Mart.)

41.  An entire ecosystem within universities emerged around federal funding. Many researchers have come to live the stressful life where their job position is supported almost entirely by grants. If they don’t bring in grants, they aren’t paid a full salary. In research universities throughout the nation, the most important metric is how much “sponsored research” money a faculty member is bringing through the door.

42.  One of the primary forces increasing the price of college education is the creation of a new class of administrators and executives. Many of these people are charged with the task of turning universities into innovation machines.

43.  On the micro-level: Innovation is a national and partly natural resource: it is rooted in human creativity, which is rooted in cognition, which is rooted in biology and the workings of the brain. The innovation-minded believe that we should remake the national population in the name of fostering technological change. The primary doctrine of faith for this effort is called “STEM Education.” (STEM=Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math)

44.  STEM advocates argue that we should push technical education into lower and lower school grades, that is, onto younger and younger children. Recently, for instance, New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio, announced a plan to offer computer science in all city’s middle and high schools. The intentions are good, but the outcomes are unclear and may be their own kind of hell. The point after all is to render students useful to corporations. As Gabrielle Fialkoff, Director of New York City’s Office of Strategic Partnerships, told reporters, “I think there is acknowledgment that we our students should be better trained for these jobs.”

45.  One of the saddest expressions of innovation madness is so-called STEAM education. Because the arts and humanities have been left out of the STEM equation, advocates argue that the liberal arts generate wealth. They share YouTube videos of Steve Jobs declaring, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough—it’s technology married with the liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” At this point, advocates for the arts and humanities always look like they are about to feint. “See,” they say, “See. Steve fucking Jobs!!” The “me too, me too!” logic of STEAM talk is pathetic. It forsakes what is best about general education.

46.  The organizational corollaries to STEAM banter are all of the academic units dedicated to “creativity studies” that have opened up around the world. Such units focus on problems at the art/creativity-corporate interface. As Buffalo State’s International Center for Studies in Creativity puts it, “Creativity, creative problem solving, and change leadership play a major role in today’s workplace. Professional success is linked to the ability to master creativity, to operate as a problem solver, to innovate and to lead change.”

47.  Are you a change leader?

48.  The better argument for the arts, humanities, and basic science research (including space exploration) is this one: our society has become obsessed with becoming wealthy—via innovation—but it has forgotten what it means to be rich. A richsociety values beauty, pure wonder, and the contemplation of life’s meaning.

49.  The root of our problem is that we treat innovation as a basic value, like courage, love, charity, and diligence. In reality, innovation is simply the process by which new things enter wide circulation in the world. Innovation has nothing to say about whether these new things are beneficial or harmful.

50.  One of the great innovations of the 1980s was crack cocaine. It was a new product that hit the market. And people REALLY wanted it!! What’s more, it opened up new business ventures all over the country. Risk-taking! Entrepreneurship!

51.  In the context of innovation, we must revisit the economist William Baumol’s classic essay, “Entrepreneurship: Productive, Unproductive, and Destructive.” Large swaths of innovative activity have little to do with improving our world.

Inequality

52.  The innovation age has been an age of increasing inequality.

53.  This correlation isn’t mere coincidence.

54.  Many of the so-called neoliberal policies, like privatization, deregulation, and the lowering of taxes (e.g. “trickle-down economics), that have exacerbated inequality in the United States were, in fact, carried out in the name of entrepreneurship and innovation. Increased capital for the wealthy was to generate new ventures and, ultimately, “job creation.” But here we are: with stagnant wages and what many see as a declining middle-class.

55.  The economist Joseph Schumpeter, the herald of innovation, was a brilliant and sensitive scholar. Schumpeter famously described capitalism’s habit of overturning the old and ushering in the new as “the gale of creative destruction.” But so often in the United States, creative destruction is used to justify American-style unemployment. Industry shuts down; workers are left with little hope. (Consider all of the information and computing technology innovations that have allowed American companies to move manufacturing jobs to other nations.)

56.  Moreover, many innovation policies, like the public funding of research and the creation of business incubators and the like, probably just give resources to people who are relatively well off.

57.  The rise of innovation policy takes place against a larger backdrop and a longer trajectory of social stagnation in the United States. The Civil Rights Movement and the Great Society’s “war on poverty” both crashed upon the shoals of the late-1960s. The lesson appeared to be that social policy was largely a failure. Social problems could not be legislated or administered out of existence. Even quasi-liberals, like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, argued that the Great Society constituted a Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding. The neoliberal intellectual position—embodied in the teachings of writers like Friedrich von Hayek—that economy and society were simply too large and complex to be understood and steered became near dogma.

58.  In the Age of Innovation, the only hope we hold out to the poor is education reform. If we can give impoverished students technical skills, they can find a place within the industrial system. (Hey, maybe we should give each child born into the world a laptop. Hold on. Someone already thought of that.) More profound social changes are hardly even mentioned anymore.

59.  This technical-skills-as-savior motif is common throughout our culture. For example, over the last decade, we have witnessed the rise of the so-called maker movement, a combination of do-it-yourself and hacker subcultures. The maker movement primarily consists of white men patting themselves on the back for being creative. But sometimes the makers have broader fantasies, including opening up maker hubs in centers of poverty. As a leader of a maker center in Nairobi told a reporter, “The crux of the problem is poverty and so something needs to done to address this directly. I hope to do this through the maker education. With these skills, the youth will certainly have a better chance at life.”

60.  Books and articles have conducted several autopsies on a recent debacle: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg spent $100 million dollars trying to improve the school system in Newark, New Jersey. Many aspects of the effort were disastrous, and the rest of the results were mixed at best. Through the effort, Zuckerberg “learned about the need for community involvement.” In other words, he learned something that has been a truism in social reform efforts for at least thirty years. Zuckerberg and his fellow Silicon Valley denizens have almost no solutions for problems that have haunted industrial civilization for the last hundred years. (In many cases, we are talking about multi-generational poverty that has gone back to the time of slavery and beyond.)

61.  Echoes of an old nursery rhyme: Mark Zuckerberg, his hype machine, and all of his money could not solve the problems of the Newark public school system.

62.  Here’s an irony for you: One of the most innovative sectors in the last thirty years has been the rise of the private prison industry.

63.  By locking up a lot of black men, we have enriched white prison executives and given jobs to rural white workers.

64.  Silicon Valley is a brutally unequal place. Most localities have an educational bell curve: the majority of residents have some middling level of education, while smaller amounts have either very little education or heaping piles of it. Silicon Valley has an inverted educational bell curve. There are many highly educated people, and many uneducated ones, and almost no one in between. The uneducated tend lawns, care for children, and make skinny lattes for the educated. In other words, the uneducated are servants; the educated are masters.

65.  Much of the hype coming out of Silicon Valley ignores inequality entirely. In 1970, the songwriter and poet, Gil Scott Heron, released the song, “Whitey on the Moon.” Heron decried how—in the midst of the space race with the USSR—policymakers had prioritized putting white men on the moon over caring about longstanding issues, like urban poverty. “A rat done bit my sister, Nel, but whitey’s on the moon.” Today, rich white boy techno gurus, like Elon Musk, fantasize about going to mars, ignoring the impoverished immigrants in their backyards.

The Invisible Visible Hand of Government

66.  Beginning in the mid-1960s, the US federal government used regulations to generate innovation in laggard industries around important social priorities, like safety and pollution control. Since Ronald Reagan’s neoliberal revolution, such regulation has fallen into disfavor, which is not to say that new regulation has disappeared completely. Presidents, including George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama, have created new important regulatory regimes, but they have preferred other methods.

67.  One of those preferred methods has been using federal money to support research, including through the formation of academic-government-industry research consortia. One example is the federally-funded US Advanced Battery Consortium, which was created to help automakers meet the State of California’s mandate for Zero Emission Vehicles. The consortium did research for years, but once California’s push for Zero Emissions Vehicles (read, electric cars) was struck down, automakers used the research little, if at all. They certainly did not fundamentally alter the national population of automobiles in the name of decreasing emissions.

68.  In other words, research consortia have not been nearly as effective as generating socially-beneficial technological change as regulation has. (For example, the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1970 effectively lowered some automotive emissions by over ninety percent.) Without regulatory pressure, industry has little incentive to move knowledge produced through these research ventures into actual products.

69.  We could move towards a post-fossil fuel world if we put our mind to it, if we actually gave a shit.

70.  In general, today’s technological elite obscure the role that government has played in innovation. Scholars, like Mariana Mazzucato and Patrick McCray, have shown, for example, how many of Apple’s products depended on federally-funded research, especially research produced by the US military and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

71.  This mindset reaches its highest point when techies argue that Silicon Valley should secede from the United States because they have it all figured out, because they cannot be bothered to deal with all that has been built before. Talk of secession demonstrates a wild historical ignorance: Silicon Valley would not have become what it is without the needs and demands of the US military.

72.  Obama was right to say, “You didn’t build that.”

73.  In between Twitch viewings, trips to Reddit, and frantic porn consumption, young white men have converged around the philosophy of libertarianism, the belief that government should get out of the way in the name of liberty and free market capitalism. Sometimes this worldview takes the form of “cyberlibertarianism,” the belief that computers, the Internet, and digital technology of all sorts both arose out of freedom and bring freedom wherever they go.

74.  BitCoin, a “cryptocurrency,” is the ultimate cyberlibertarian fantasy, in which government can even be removed from the basic functioning of money.

75.  In 2014, the writers Sam Frank went to California and interviewed cyberlibertarian types there—many of whom were obsessed with topics like artificial intelligence and vastly increasing the length of human life. The geeks Frank interviewed were disciples of a number of gurus around these topics, including Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and head of the companies Palantir Technologies and Mithril Capital Management. Frank found that Thiel and his ilk “take it on faith that corporate capitalism, unchecked just a bit longer, will bring about an era of widespread abundance. Progress, Thiel thinks, is threatened mostly by the political power of what he calls the ‘unthinking demos.’”

76.  The paragon of this mode of thought is Ray Kurzweil, a technologist who has increasingly come to focus on the “singularity,” a moment, which Kurzweil prophecies will happen around 2045, when machines will surpass human intelligence, creating a near omniscient power that will solve most of our problems. Indeed, since Kurzweil believes we will be able to download our consciousness onto computers by that time, most human problems—the existential issues that have always been with humanity—will simply evaporate. Because the singularity is near—so clearly a secularized version of the Christian apocalypse—and because unfettered capitalism is bringing it into being, there is no need for government.

77.  Kurzweil contributed a number of important inventions early in his career. He also takes somewhere between 100 and 250 vitamins and supplements a day. For sure, he will sell you vitamins and other “longevity products” at his homepage, http://www.rayandterry.com. From that site: “Science is quickly developing the technologies needed to radically extend the quality human lifespan. Meanwhile, we need to stay healthy long enough to take advantage of these scientific breakthroughs.” Ray Kurzweil, Vitamin Entrepreneur!!

78.  There are exactly two possible reasons why Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin hired Kurzweil: A) They are ceaselessly smoking Elon-Musk-on-Mars grade dope beyond our wildest imaginations. B) It’s a cynical ploy to seem cutting-edge and appeal to nerds. (In reality, Kurzweil’s appointment at the company should remind us that foolishness rises to the very top. Google, too, will end.)

Maintenance

79.  Our society overvalues novelty and neglects taking care of what we have. We can build a thing—say, a road or a bridge—but once built, do we have the will to service and repair it?

80.  At its broadest level, maintenance includes all those activities aimed at keeping things going. It is everything that allows us to continue on.

81.  Other thinkers have taken this broad perspective before. For instance, when Karl Marx was formulating his theory of labor-power, he wrote, “The value of labor is equal to the value of the subsistence goods necessary for the maintenance and reproduction of labor.” Now consider the costs of maintaining and reproducing everything else.

82.  Our culture degrades those involved with maintenance and repair. Innovation is for the great ones. Taking care of what already exists is for losers, burnouts, slackers.

83.  Education is about social reproduction—in this view, a form of maintenance. Yet, think about how American culture values grade and high school teachers and how little we pay them. Recall all of the vile sayings we have about such people. “Those who can’t, teach.”

84.  Similarly, the current fight over fast food workers’ wages is, in part, an argument for the dignity of being a maintainer.

85.  In his book, Technology’s Storytellers, and other works, the Jesuit priest John Staudenmaier argues that our stories about technology are deeply interwoven with what he calls “technological style,” or the relationship between a designer’s mindset and values and a constructed artifact or system. Of technological style, Staudenmaier writes, “Because a technological design reflects the motives of its designers, historians of technology look to the values, biases, motives, and worldview of the designers when asking why a given technology turned out as it did. Every technology, then, embodies some distinct set of values. To the extent that a technology becomes successful within its society, its inherent values will be reinforced.”

86.  The official technological style of our culture is embodied in TED Talks and digital technology—envision pornography produced by Apple: cool hues, white and silver, everything soft lit, people in hoodies, precisely the mise-en-scène of films like Ex Machina.

87.  But if we look deeper, we see that our real technological style is dilapidation.

88.  Our technological values are best embodied by collapsing buildings, rotting bridges, and abandoned, trash-strewn lots. It is the physical and infrastructural outcome of “creative destruction.” Throughout the nation, de-industrialized, Rust Belt cities molder.

89.  If you want to see who we are, go to Detroit.

90.  Every year the American Society of Civil Engineering publishes a report card on American infrastructure, and every year American infrastructure receives low marks. For sure, this professional society has incentives to play up infrastructural problems. If maintenance and repair spending go up, civil engineers have more work. (Imagine if an organization called something like the Dental Hygienists of America published a report finding that the single most important factor for making a good first impression was shiny, white teeth.) But we can also see the truth of the ASCE’s report cards. Everything around us is in shambles. A great infrastructural building boom extended from the New Deal through at least through the 1950s. But now these old creations look tired. Rode hard, put away wet.

91.  Scholars who study infrastructure often say that it is “invisible.” From one perspective, such claims are melodramatic claptrap. “How can this bridge be invisible? I’m looking right at it.” But invisible is also a moral term having to do with what we avoid, what we are too embarrassed to fix our sight on. For instance, we could say that the homeless are invisible. When we pass them, we look away. Infrastructure and the poor belong to a massive shadow nation that haunts our country, a nation called “Our Shame.”

92.  Our devaluing of maintenance and our neglecting of infrastructure find their ironic exemplars in “conservative” politicians, like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Since the writings of Edmund Burke, the goal of conservatism has been conserving our values, taking care of all that we have inherited. (The image is that we should give the dead a seat at the metaphorical table of deliberation.) But Christie neglects even the conservative tradition. To his mind, conservatism simply means “don’t raise taxes.” You can see Christie’s pudgy face in each of the state’s innumerable potholes.

The Future

93.  We will know that our society has turned a corner when our leaders become embarrassed to stand at the pulpit and sermonize about innovation. The audience already knows these words are hollow. But as usual, our leaders are deaf.

94.  Perhaps we already see this change underway. Smart speakers know that if they say “innovation” their listeners will burn red with embarrassment and guffaw behind their backs.

95.  The fall of innovation-speak will be a chance to reorient our society around values that actually matter. Will we seize this opportunity? Or will we allow corporate executives and other elites to seduce us with another wave of shiny, sparkling nonsense? The most radical thought is that there are principles beyond usefulness, beyond utility.

 

You can follow his work at http://leevinsel.com/

 

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