August 21, 2004 · Tim Wu
Technologists are divided in some ways, but united by a common faith. Stated simply, we worship innovation. Openist, deregulationist, libertarian, or cyber-anarchist all take innovation as deliverance. Our battles are mostly internecine warfare, fights about how best to achieve that common goal.
But how often do we ask ourselves: Why? What is the �end� importance of innovation? Is it more than just liking new stuff? How, if at all, does innovation connect with, say, human happiness?
There are certainly some answers to this last question. Joseph Schumpeter, patron saint to the church, gives among the most important. His idea is that constant innovation, and not price competition is what drives growth under capitalism. While thinking capitalism doomed, he nonetheless recognized as its virtue the �process of industrial mutation … that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” So if we believe that economic growth is what makes societies happy, promoting innovation can be this way linked to human ends.
Another view runs like this: we are happier if we have reason to believe that the future will be better than the past. Stated simply, ongoing innovation makes us feel that way. When you read about a possible cure for cancer or that cell phone numbers are now portable, you think, one maybe day we�ll be free of disease, premature death, and cell phone extortion. And that feels nice.
Whether people really are happier now than in Ancient Rome or the Han Dynasty is somewhat irrelevant to this belief. We just want to feel like there is some ideal future out there, which we are slowly drifting toward, even if it is not necessarily attainable in this life.
A third, maybe the most obvious answer, is that the stuff invented, like hair-dryers or the electric toothbrush, makes our lives easier and simpler, and hence happier. That’s convincing, particularly in the field of toiletries, and particularly if you’ve spent any time in the developing world.
But what is still missing — what none of these answers do is ask how valuable innovation is compared with other priorities. At its worst, innovationists can beccome obssessed with change for change’s sake, and addicted to the thrill of the new. Which would be fine, except for these days technology policy and public policy have merged. And Wired magazine is hardly Cicerco. A teenage fascination with new stuff isn’t necessarily so great when the happiness of the many are at issue.
Consider a question that professor Brett Fischman asks his class about the internet, the central monument for innovationists: �What actually makes the Internet valuable to society?�
This question stopped me for awhile. Measured in social value, surely some of the oldest applications, like email, relatively untouched by innovation, produce most of the network’s present social value. Sure, I think VoIP over powerlines would be pretty cool (thanks Adam Thierer). But compared to finding old friends, staying in touch, and everything else that email does, there is no serious comparison. Logic like this suggests that faith in innovation is a faith out of touch with human ends. Perhaps making what is obviously useful � like email � reach more people is more important than constantly reinventing, redestroying, or finally writing the perfect debugger.
I do think the criticisms can be rebutted. Email, after all, was an invention, and required the right environment for it to come about. Innovationists don’t always think about nothing else. But those who share a faith in the importance of innovation should be sure that what we fight hardest for is not just the abstract beauty of new technologies, but ideals that actually have some connection to human ends.