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  • Mark 12:41 pm on March 25, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , innovation, novelty,   

    Cybernetics and the dual-edged sword of disciplinarity 

    It’s difficult to read Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain and not be swept up in his infectious enthusiasm for the British cyberneticians. They were the fun wing of an approach which “emerged from nowhere as far as established fields and career paths were concerned” with the “cyberneticians and their projects were outsiders to established fields of endeavor” (55). Cybernetics had no social basis, as he terms it, something which was a strength in many ways. The radically open character of its intellectual inquiry clearly had a foundation in modes of academic sociality, such as the Ratio dining club described on pg 58:

    Ratio was interinstitutional, as one might say. It did not simply elide disciplinary boundaries within the university; it brought together representatives from different sorts of institutions: people from the universities, but also medical men and physiologists based in hospitals and research institutes, including Walter and Ashby, and workers in government laboratories.

    But this strength came hand-in-hand with the weakness of cybernetics, as Pickering describes on pg 59-60:

    Academic disciplines are very good at holding neophytes to specific disciplinary agendas, and it was both a strength and a weakness of cybernetics that it could not do this—a strength, inasmuch as cybernetics retained an undisciplined and open-ended vitality, an ability to sprout off in all sorts of new directions, that the established disciplines often lack; a weakness, as an inability both to impose standards on research and to establish career paths for new cyberneticians left enthusiasts to improvise careers much as did the founders.

    In this sense, we can see disciplines as a dual-edged sword. They are effective carries of tradition, ensuring insights, ideas and methods get reproduced from one generation to the next. But they do this at the cost of disciplining, with the perpetual risk that creativity and innovation are foreclosed by an adherence to inherited standards.

    Is it possible to overcome this by developing nomadic movements within the conservative structure of disciplines? I’m prone to seeing the bias towards novelty within the contemporary scholarly ecosystem as a fundamentally negative thing, as much as I’m well suited to it in many ways. But an optimistic reading of it cold be that it mitigates the stultifying potential inherent in disciplinarity and ensures there is room for creativity which might not otherwise be there.

  • Mark 1:38 pm on October 13, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Vested interests in ‘openness’ 

    To talk of ‘openness’ conveys a sense of lightness, gesturing towards a world without self-interested boundaries. In a world dichotomised in terms of open/closed, barriers are seen as obstacles to be surmounted in order that we might have free exchange. Overcoming these obstacles becomes a moral project, imbued with a sense of historical change: barriers are fleeting constructions, inevitably eroded by the force of openness. As the futurist Peter Schwartz once put it:

    Open, good. Closed, bad. Tattoo it on your forehead. Apply it to technology standards, to business strategies, to philosophies of life. It’s the winning concept for individuals, for nations, for the global community in the years ahead.

    These categories are embedded in narrative forms, facilitating certain roles (e.g. the disrupter of closed industries) which elevate business activity to a heroic plane, as Audrey Watters conveys on loc 184 of The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology: 

    “The Silicon Valley Narrative,” as I call it, is the story that the technology industry tells about the world—not only the world-as-is but the world-as-Silicon-Valley-wants-it-to-be. This narrative has several commonly used tropes. It often features a hero: the technology entrepreneur. Smart. Independent. Bold. Risk-taking. White. Male. “The Silicon Valley narrative” invokes themes like “innovation” and “disruption.” It privileges the new; everything else that can be deemed “old” is viewed as obsolete. Things are perpetually in need of an upgrade. It contends that its workings are meritocratic: anyone who hustles can make it. “The Silicon Valley Narrative” has no memory, no history, although it can invent or invoke one to suit its purposes. (“ The factory model of education” is one such invented history that I’ve written about before.) “The Silicon Valley narrative” fosters a distrust of institutions—the government, the university. It is neoliberal. It hates paying taxes. “The Silicon Valley narrative” draws from the work of Ayn Rand; it privileges the individual at all costs; it calls this “personalization.”

    My instinct as a qualitative researcher is to immerse myself in these stories, seeking to appreciate how they operate to make sense of one’s own actions. But the reason this is so pressing is that the action they serve to elevate is so often problematic, as Franklin Foer points out on pg 89-90 of his A World Without Mind. They have a vested interest in ‘openness’:

    There’s no doubt that they believe in their own righteousness, but they also practice corporate gamesmanship, with all the established tricks: lobbying, purchasing support in think tanks and universities, quietly donating money to advocacy groups that promote their interests. The journalist Robert Levine has written, “Google has as much interest in free online media as General Motors does in cheap gasoline. 13 That’s why the company spends millions of dollars lobbying to weaken copyright.” Google and Facebook penalize companies that don’t share their vision of intellectual property. When newspapers and magazines require subscriptions to access their pieces, Google and Facebook tend to bury them; articles protected by stringent paywalls almost never have the popularity that algorithms reward with prominence. Google, according to documents that have surfaced in lawsuits against the company, is blunt about using its power to bend the media business to its model. Jonathan Rosenberg, the vice president of product management, told company brass in 2006 that Google must “pressure premium content providers to change their model to free.” 14 It’s a perfectly rational stance. The big tech companies become far more valuable if they serve as a gateway to free knowledge, if they provide a portal to an open and comprehensive collection of material.

  • Mark 8:02 am on July 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    “So you thought about it one day and started the next morning?” 

    This is a question which Zeynep Tufekci recalls in her Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, posed to a group of young Turkish activists about 140journos, a crowdsourced citizen journalism project which they started. As she writes on pg 37:

    In Turkey, like much of the Mediterranean, there is a tradition of slow, conversational drinking that is the opposite of a loud, hurried bar scene. Such conversational drinking often leads to discussions of politics. The stereotype of these all-night drinking locales in Turkey is that everyone has a plan to “save the nation” after the first glass of raki, a strong aniseed-based drink that is considered the national liquor (it is nearly identical to ouzo, the Greek national drink). In a previous era, an all-night drinking and talking session on the sorry state of news and the extent of censorship might have ended merely in a hangover the next day. Even if it might have gone further—for example, the people might have decided to try to start a journal or a newspaper—a lot of work, resources, and luck would have been required. However, unlike citizens in a previous era for whom frustration with mass-media bias had engendered little more than sour feelings the next day or an uncertain, lengthy, journey, these young men—only four of them—immediately conceived 140journos, a crowdsourced, citizen journalism network on Twitter.

    The low costs involved facilitate a particular culture of project work, comfortable with sometimes vague aspirations and working out the details on the fly. But while Tufekci’s interest in this concerns activism, I wonder about the effects in other spheres. What about higher education for instance? What Dave Beer describes as ‘punk sociology’ shares much of the mentality which Tufekci describes. 

  • Mark 10:51 am on February 20, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    The Silicon Valley Narrative 

    Another extract from Audrey Watters, this time from The Curse of the Monsters of Educational Technology, who analysis of the rhetoric of disruption has fast become one of my favourite examples of digital cultural critique. From loc 184:

    “The Silicon Valley Narrative,” as I call it, is the story that the technology industry tells about the world—not only the world-as-is but the world-as-Silicon-Valley-wants-it-to-be. This narrative has several commonly used tropes. It often features a hero: the technology entrepreneur. Smart. Independent. Bold. Risk-taking. White. Male. “The Silicon Valley narrative” invokes themes like “innovation” and “disruption.” It privileges the new; everything else that can be deemed “old” is viewed as obsolete. Things are perpetually in need of an upgrade. It contends that its workings are meritocratic: anyone who hustles can make it. “The Silicon Valley Narrative” has no memory, no history, although it can invent or invoke one to suit its purposes. (“ The factory model of education” is one such invented history that I’ve written about before.) “The Silicon Valley narrative” fosters a distrust of institutions—the government, the university. It is neoliberal. It hates paying taxes. “The Silicon Valley narrative” draws from the work of Ayn Rand; it privileges the individual at all costs; it calls this “personalization.”

  • Mark 9:01 am on January 30, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , innovation, , , , ,   

    “Open, good. Closed, bad. Tattoo it on your forehead”: Placing the technology sector in social and economic history 

    I’m currently reading Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God, a remarkably prescient book published in 2000 which has a lot of insight into contemporary cultures of technological evangelism. The book is concerned with what Frank sees as a transition in American life from a form of populism predicated on cultural reaction to one grounded in the worship of the market. It’s possible I’m primed to see this analysis as prescient because I’m working my way backwards through his books and One Market Under God contains the seeds of an analysis that he developed over the next sixteen years.

    Nonetheless, I think we can learn much about our present circumstances by looking back to this transitional point in the roaring 90s which saw the origin of the rightward turn of social democratic parties, mass digitalisation and the first Silicon Valley gold-rush. What I’m increasingly preoccupied by is how these events were intimately connected. In other words: how do we place the ascendancy of the technology sector in social and economic history? To my surprise, Thomas Frank’s book actually addresses this question more straight-forwardly than any other I can think of apart from Platform Capitalism, though of course many accounts address these issues without systematically investigating them.

    Despite the 1990s being hailed as an era of democratisation driven by a booming economy, Frank insists that we recognise that “The booming stock market of the nineties did not democratize wealth; it concentrated wealth” (loc 1973). But this chimera of continually ascending stock prices, grounded in the rampant speculation of the dot com boom, helped license an ideological transition that Frank describes on loc 2027:

    both parties came around to this curious notion, imagining that we had somehow wandered into a sort of free-market magic kingdom, where ever-ascending stock prices could be relied upon to solve just about any social problem. Now we could have it all: We could slash away at the welfare state, hobble the unions, downsize the workforce, send the factories to Mexico—and no one would get hurt!

    The ideological work involved in maintaining we had entered a new era of perpetual growth, beyond boom and bust, relied upon the mystique of the internet. It heralded the dawn of a new world, the end of old certainties and a constant horizon of possibility to be invoked in the face of those exhibiting an anachronistic scepticism. From loc 1659:

    And yet, since the moment the Internet was noticed by the mainstream media in 1995, it has filled a single and exclusive position in political economy: a sort of cosmic affirmation of the principles of market populism. “Think of the Internet as an economic-freedom metaphor for our time,” wrote bull-market economist Lawrence Kudlow in August 1999.45 “The Internet empowers ordinary people and disempowers government.” And we were only too glad to do as Kudlow instructed us, to think of it in precisely this way. In fact, so closely did the Internet and market populism become linked in the public mind that whenever a pundit or journalist mentioned the Web, one braced oneself for some windy pontification about flexibility, or the infinite mobility of capital, or the total and unappealable obsolescence of labor, government, and any other enemy of the free-market enterprise.

    Somewhat more prosaically, the companies of Silicon Valley became emblems of a new anti-elitism, with the old formalities of corporate life being replaced by a hierarchical ethos that lionised the entrepreneur for their authentic living, often expressed in ‘working hard and living hard’. The practice of paying stock options in lieu of wages became a cypher for shareholder democracy, an idea which was seized upon as legitimating what were in reality vicious attacks upon the security of labour. However as Frank points out on loc 2063, the reality of this in Silicon Valley was presented misleadingly as a sign of a brave new workplace culture rather than a familiar self-interest:

    It may have been fun to imagine what these enchanted options could do in the service of economic democracy, but in point of fact their powers were almost always directed the other way. Options did not bring about some sort of “New Economy” egalitarianism; they were one of the greatest causes of the ever widening income gap. It was options that inflated the take-home pay of CEOs to a staggering 475 times what their average line-worker made; it was options that made downsizing, outsourcing, and union-busting so profitable. When options were given out to employees—a common enough practice in Silicon Valley by decade’s end—they often came in lieu of wages, thus permitting firms to conceal their payroll expenses and artificially inflate the price of their shares, pumping the bubble still further.17 Options were a tool of wealth concentration, a bridge straight to the nineteenth century.

    What seems hugely important to me here is the recognition that the vast concentration of wealth that took place in the 1990s was deeply tied up, structurally and culturally, with the first wave of mass digitalisation brought about by the dot com bubble. The nature of that entanglement still isn’t as clear to me as I would like, but I’m increasingly confident in my claim that the analysis of digitalisation needs to be an integral part of the analysis of capitalism from the 1970s onwards.

    As important as economic history is though, it’s crucial that we also understand the cultural dimensions to this process. What I really like about Thomas Frank is his commitment to taking business bullshit seriously. From loc 1787:

    It is worth examining the way business talk about itself, the fantasies it spins, the role it writes for itself in our lives. It is important to pay attention when CEOs tell the world they would rather surf than pray, show up at work in Speedos rather than suits, hang out in Goa rather than Newport, listen to Stone Temple Pilots rather than Sibelius. It is not important, however, in the way they imagine it is, and for many Americans it is understandably difficult to care very much whether the guy who owns their company is a defender of family values or a rave kid. But culture isn’t set off from life in a realm all its own, and the culture of business in particular has massive consequences for the way the rest of us live.

    Our contemporary discourse of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ was nurtured in the business commentary of the late 1990s. By examining its origins, we can see the political context of this way of thinking and speaking about technology much more transparently than is the case if we examine contemporary instances of it. To close with a quote from Peter Schwartz, quoted on loc 1321:

    Open, good. Closed, bad. Tattoo it on your forehead. Apply it to technology standards, to business strategies, to philosophies of life. It’s the winning concept for individuals, for nations, for the global community in the years ahead.

    • Martha Bell 8:09 pm on January 31, 2017 Permalink

      Great post.

  • Mark 9:32 am on January 17, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    ‘Disruption’ as the last refuge of the Third Way 

    A couple of months ago, The New Statesman carried an interview with Tony Blair for the first time in a long time. Leaving aside how haunted the man looked in the portrait accompanying it, what stood out to me about it was how readily he had incorporated techno-speak into the language of the third way. Here are some examples:

    One advantage of today’s social media is that you can build networks. Movements can begin at scale and build speed quickly. You’re not going to relate the answers to the challenges that we face by a Twitter exchange, so what I’m interested in doing is asking: what are the types of ideas that we should be taking forward? How do we provide a service to people who are in the front line of politics, so that we can provide some thinking and some ideas? The thing that’s really tragic about politics today is that the best ideas about politics aren’t in politics. I find the ideas are much more interesting in the technology sector, much more interesting ideas about how you change the world.-

    I know we talk about this as a new thing, but many of us grew up with Enoch Powell. I mean, you remember the “rivers of blood” [speech], and black people were welcomed into the country and weren’t expelled, and that Britain was going to fall apart as a nation. I mean, these people are always on the wrong side of history, they always are, because that’s not the way the world is today. The world’s going to integrate more. It may integrate fast or slow, but it will integrate. Because technology, travel, migration, trade are bringing the world closer together. If you take a step back and you look at the broad sweep of history, this is actually a great time for humanity in many ways. You’ve had more people out of poverty than ever before in human history.-

    I think what the Leave campaign created was a really interesting machine. You should learn from that. One of the things you have got to be able to do in modern politics is to build that platform of connections and networks. On the other hand, never ever forget that it starts with the right policies.

    Open v closed is a really important debate today, because in a curious way the populism of the left and the populism of the right – at a certain point they meet each other. They tend to be isolationist. OK, the left is more anti-business, the right is more anti-immigrant, but they tend to be protectionist and they have an attitude to the process of globalisation that says this is a policy that is given by government and we can stop it and should stop it. Whereas my view about globalisation is that it’s a force essentially driven by people, by technological change, by the way the world has opened up. You’re not going to reverse that. The question is: how do we make that just and fair? That is the big question of our times. The centre left does not provide an answer to that, and we can and should.

    This reflects something I’ve been noticing for some time: the similarity of 90s globalisation discourse to contemporary technology discourse. In fact, in many cases you can replace the word ‘globalisation’, from these 90s accounts, with ‘technology’ and there’s no semantic loss whatsoever. This is why we need to be deeply sceptical about, for instance, the automation debate. There’s clearly a real change underway, but it’s framed in a manner which sees the unfolding of technology as an inexorable process, one which offers the possibility of adaptation or displacement. What Morozov calls solutionism (“The belief that all difficulties have benign solutions, often of a technocratic nature”) can be seen as a particular kind of cultural response to this view of technology.

    Amongst political actors, we should understand this rhetoric as emerging against a long-term trend towards depoliticisation. It discursively unites the ‘centre ground’ of career politicians, members of what George Osborne calls ‘the guild’, concerned with winning power in order to manage the unfolding of technological change. Amongst economic actors, we should understand this rhetoric as a way of legitimising one’s own work, deployed to win venture capital and to narrate the increasingly hegemonic character of the technology sector within capitalism as a whole. In the interaction between politics and economics, we should see this as a class project, as Thomas Frank argues in his Listen Liberal. From loc 2918-2934:

    By that time, the place once filled by finance in the Democratic imagination had begun giving way to Silicon Valley, a different “creative-class” industry with billions to give in campaign contributions. Changes in the administration’s personnel paralleled the money story: at the beginning of the Obama years, the government’s revolving doors had all connected to Wall Street; within a few years, the people spinning them were either coming from or heading toward the West Coast. In 2014, David Plouffe, the architect of Obama’s inspiring first presidential campaign, began to work his political magic for Uber. Jay Carney, the president’s former press secretary, hired on at Amazon the following year. Larry Summers, for his part, became an adviser for an outfit called OpenGov. Back in Washington, meanwhile, the president established a special federal unit that used Silicon Valley techniques and personnel to revolutionize the government’s web presence; starstruck tech journalists call it “Obama’s stealth startup.”

    My argument is that we need to see the rhetoric of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ in systemic terms. We need to historicise these cultural forms and link their claims to the core questions of sociology inquiry. We need to update our theories of social change to better take account of socio-technical ‘innovation’. For instance, if we accept the construct of ‘late modernity’, are we seeing a radicalisation of it or are we in the process of transcending it? Should we dispense with ‘modernity’ talk altogether, however qualified, instead moving to talk of ‘platform capitalism’ or ‘digital capitalism’? These are key questions for social theory and ones which I’m increasingly gripped by.

    A useful way to approach these is to scale down from the system level and look at particular spheres of life in which innovation talk is at its most pronounced. I’m currently reading a book of keynotes by the education writer Audrey Watters which reflects on these issues in terms of educational technology. One of her foremost concerns is the tendency of educational technology start-ups to exhibit a studied ignorance of the history of educational technology. Each putative innovation is presented as ungrounded, emerging from outside education to disrupt a fundamentally broken system, with only the recalcitrance of educators standing in its way:

    And okay, in fairness, these folks are not historians. They’re computer scientists, artificial intelligence experts, software engineers. They’re entrepreneurs. But their lack of knowledge about the history of education and the history of education technology matters. It matters because it supports a prevailing narrative about innovation – where innovation comes from (according to this narrative, it comes from private industry, and not from public institutions; from Silicon Valley, that is, not from elsewhere in the world) and when it comes (there’s this fiercely myopic fixation on the future). The lack of knowledge about history matters too because it reflects and even enables a powerful strain in American ideology and in the ideology of the technology industry: that the past is irrelevant, that the past is a monolithic block of brokenness –unchanged and unchanging until it’s disrupted by technological innovation, or by the promise of technological innovation, by the future itself. (loc 326)

    However, as she argues, this isn’t simply a forgetting of the history of education or the history of educational technology. Rather “It’s a rewriting of history, whether you see it as activist or accidental” (loc 351) and one which serves private interests. When history is reluctantly allowed on stage, it is inevitably couched in narrowly technological terms. Reflecting on the failure of the largely forgotten AllLearn initiative, opened in 2001 and closed in 2006, the economist Richard Levin, ascribed the problem to a lack of bandwidth:

    It was too early. Bandwidth wasn’t adequate to support the video. But we gained a lot of experience of how to create courses, and then we used it starting in 2007 to create very high quality videos, now supported by adequate bandwidth in many parts of the world, with the Open Yale courses. We’ve released over 40 of them, and they gained a wide audience. (loc 471)

    The reality is that broadband penetration had only increased by 8% between the end of AllLearn and the time of this interview. It was also the case that AllLearn sought to distribute materials via CD, as well as allowing users to switch off streaming video content that might be overly-testing for their internet connections. Given he was now speaking as Coursera’s CEO, presiding over a comparable initiative which had failed under his stewardship as Chair, we could perhaps see this as simply self-serving. Not unlike the erasure from history of past educational technology initiatives by start-up founders eagerly touting the ‘next big thing’. But I think Watters is right that this reflects something deeper about contemporary ideologies of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’.

    Could we build up a systemic account of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ by looking at the particular discursive strategies used across a number of domains, as well as the material implications of their use. What would these other domains be?

  • Mark 5:59 pm on January 12, 2017 Permalink | Reply
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    Some thoughts on platform capitalism, cash hoarding, innovation and ideology 

    There’s an excellent discussion in Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism of the immense cash reserves that technology companies have built up in recent years. As he notes, the headline figures don’t tell the whole story because these reserves don’t take into account the other debts and liabilities of these corporations. But the broader financial context is one in which, due to low corporate yields, it’s cheaper to take on new debt rather than bringing these cash reserves back on shore and having them be subject to corporation tax.


    From loc 442

    Recognising these points seems extremely important to understanding this corporate behaviour. Much of the ambition of the book is to see technology companies in terms of a broader post-crisis political economy and this is why the caveats on the headline figures of cash reserves are so crucial. These behaviours do not emerge sui generis from the technology sector but rather reflect corporations acting rationally within a more expansive context.

    The public perception of the corporations in question, as well as the shiny and attention-grabbing investments they make with these cash reserves, create a tendency to evaluate them in their own terms. But these behaviours reflect economic mechanisms which are not unique to the technology sector. As Srnicek notes, “the use of corporate debt by these companies therefore needs to be set in the context of a tax avoidance strategy” (loc 442). These two conditions are crucial to these behaviour: (a) low corporate yields and the capacity to take on debt afforded by them (b) off-shoring of wealth and large scale avoidance of corporation tax. Both conditions are central to our post-crisis political economy rather than being sectoral phenomena.

    Understanding this macro-economic context helps avoid the aforementioned trend of seeing the technology sector in sui generis terms. Yes, it’s new and shiny, but these are still corporations within a capitalist system, albeit one currently undergoing systemic change. To understand these changes, what Srnicek calls ‘platform capitalism’ and what I tend to think of as ‘digital capitalism’, requires that we cut through the thickets of bullshit which are being promulgated about the ‘digital age’. He writes on loc 536:

    Since the 2008 crisis, has there been a similar shift? The dominant narrative in the advanced capitalist countries has been one of change. In particular, there has been a renewed focus on the rise of technology: automation, the sharing economy, endless stories about the ‘Uber for X’, and, since around 2010, proclamations about the internet of things. These changes have received labels such as ‘paradigm shift’ from McKinsey1 and ‘fourth industrial revolution’ from the executive chairman of the World Economic Forum and, in more ridiculous formulations, have been compared in importance to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. 2 We have witnessed a massive proliferation of new terms: the gig economy, the sharing economy, the on-demand economy, the next industrial revolution, the surveillance economy, the app economy, the attention economy, and so on. The task of this chapter is to examine these changes.

    Understanding cash hoarding is central to moving beyond this breathless discursive explosion because it’s what facilitates many of the shiniest investments which appear to be at frontier of the ‘digital revolution’. It also facilitates the early acquisition of potential competitors, bringing them into the fold and often liberating them of their technology long before they might come to rival the platform giant. Cash hoarding protects from project uncertainty, facilitating open-ended investments in developments that lack a quantifiable market. But all the these factors which operate at the level of innovation need to be seen in terms of a political economy within which this corporate ‘autonomy’ becomes feasible and widespread.

    It would be a mistake however to dismiss talk of ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ as epiphenomenal. Firstly, real innovations are underway, albeit ones which are pervasively mischaracterised as the linear unfolding of technological mastery rather than an uneven and lop-sided progress driven by the weird dynamics of the tech sector, distorted by the aforementioned vortex created by the new platform overlords. Secondly, innovation talk has become all pervasive within organisations, performing an important culture role that can’t be adequately understood if we simply subsume it under the category of ‘ideology’:

    A search of annual and quarterly reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows companies mentioned some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times last year, which was a 64% increase from five years before that.

    More than 250 books with “innovation” in the title have been published in the last three months, most of them dealing with business, according to a search of Amazon.com.


    Technology concerns aren’t necessarily the worst offenders. AppleInc. and Google Inc. mentioned innovation 22 times and 14 times, respectively, in their most recent annual reports. But they were matched by Procter & Gamble Co. (22 times), Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.(21 times) and Campbell Soup Co. (18 times).


    The pervasive discourse of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ helps mystify fundamental changes in capitalism, propped up by even more pervasive ideas of open/closed, fast/slow and modern/traditional. But it also does important work at a meso-social level, not least of all within higher education:

    Equally, in a world where academics are obliged to offer up each piece of work to be evaluated as internationally significant, world leading etc., they will seek to signal such a rating discursively. A study by Vinkers et al. in the British Medical Journal uncovered a new tendency towards hyperbole in scientific reports. They found the absolute frequency of positive words increased from 2.0% (1974-80) to 17.5% (2014), which amounts to a relative increase of 880% over four decades. 25 individual positive words contributed to the increase, particularly the words “robust,” “novel,” “innovative,” and “unprecedented,” which increased in relative frequency up to 15 000%”). The authors comment upon an apparent evolution in scientific writing to ‘look on the bright side of life’.


    We need to cut through this rhetoric, understanding its cumulative macro-cultural effects while also recognising the performative work it does across organisations and civil society. Doing so will inevitably be a complex exercise but it’s an important one. Doing this goes hand-in-hand with an account of digitalisation at the level of political economy rather than simply technology. This is what I take Srnicek to be doing on loc 568:

    Data are not immaterial, as any glance at the energy consumption of data centres will quickly prove (and the internet as a whole is responsible for about 9.2 per cent of the world’s electricity consumption). 6 We should also be wary of thinking that data collection and analysis are frictionless or automated processes. Most data must be cleaned and organised into standardised formats in order to be usable. Likewise, generating the proper algorithms can involve the manual entry of learning sets into a system. Altogether, this means that the collection of data today is dependent on a vast infrastructure to sense, record, and analyse. 7 What is recorded? Simply put, we should consider data to be the raw material that must be extracted, and the activities of users to be the natural source of this raw material. 8 Just like oil, data are a material to be extracted, refined, and used in a variety of ways. The more data one has, the more uses one can make of them. Data were a resource that had been available for some time and used to lesser degrees in previous business models (particularly in coordinating the global logistics of lean production). In the twenty-first century, however, the technology needed for turning simple activities into recorded data became increasingly cheap; and the move to digital-based communications made recording exceedingly simple. Massive new expanses of potential data were opened up, and new industries arose to extract these data and to use them so as to optimise production processes, give insight into consumer preferences, control workers, provide the foundation for new products and services (e.g. Google Maps, self-driving cars, Siri), and sell to advertisers.

    But what I find odd about this is it how it adopts the trope of ‘data as new oil’ without critically examining its embedding in the aforementioned rhetoric of disruption and innovation. I’m not yet sure if this is a disagreement with Srnicek’s argument or simply a request for further analysis. But I’m thus far finding the book thought provoking and highly recommend it.

  • Mark 4:14 pm on May 29, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , competitive individualism, , innovation, , , , , ,   

    Varoufakis on contemporary capitalism’s preposterous reversal of the truth 

    This isn’t a new idea but I’ve rarely encountered it expressed so concisely:

    The idea that individuals create wealth and that all governments do is come along and tax them is what Varoufakis calls “a preposterous reversal of the truth”.

    “There is an amazing myth in our enterprise culture that wealth is created individually and then appropriated by the state to be distributed.

    “We are conceptualising what is happening in society as if we are an archipelago of Robinson Crusoes, everybody on an island, creating our own thing individually and then a boat comes along and collects it and redistributes it. It’s not true. We are not individual producers, we produce things collectively.”

    He points to an iPhone.

    “This machine, inside of it, contains technologies that were created collectively. Not only through collaboration but a lot of public funding. Every single technology in there was created by government grant.”


    • Dave Ashelman 2:17 pm on May 30, 2016 Permalink

      There is a great book by Mariana Mazzucato (2015) entitled “The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths.” She’s an Italian Marxist Economist who makes the same case, both with the iPhone and other innovations. Her larger (and compelling) argument is that there has been no true innovation without state involvement and investment. It’s a good read.

    • Mark 2:19 pm on May 30, 2016 Permalink

      look forward to it, I bought it on Kindle a while ago but haven’t got round to it yet

  • Mark 9:22 am on January 24, 2016 Permalink
    Tags: , , innovation,   

    on ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ 

    Even though I believe the concepts of ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ refer to sociologically significant phenomena, I cringe slightly whenever I hear someone use the terms. Particularly in the case of the latter, a whole theory of social change at the meso level is implicit within it: it’s deeply ideological and we need to unpack it, rather than reinforce it by invoking the concept of ‘disruption’.

    Part of the problem here is analytically distinguishing between the trends these concepts invoke and the discursive resources they provide for managers to give an account of their organisation. On this note, the following infographic was interesting to come across, even if the appropriate resolution leaves it so small as to be difficult to read:


    A search of annual and quarterly reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission shows companies mentioned some form of the word “innovation” 33,528 times last year, which was a 64% increase from five years before that.

    More than 250 books with “innovation” in the title have been published in the last three months, most of them dealing with business, according to a search of Amazon.com.


    As a descriptive term, used to refer to what Eric Schmidt defines as items that are both surprising and offer new functionality (How Google Works loc 2909), I have no problem with the notion of ‘innovation’. The difficulty comes in how it’s drawn upon as a matter of reflex to aggrandise things that are lacking on one count and/or the other. Interestingly, this isn’t something confined to technology firms:

    Technology concerns aren’t necessarily the worst offenders. AppleInc. and Google Inc. mentioned innovation 22 times and 14 times, respectively, in their most recent annual reports. But they were matched by Procter & Gamble Co. (22 times), Scotts Miracle-Gro Co.(21 times) and Campbell Soup Co. (18 times).


    And inevitably, where there is bullshit, there is an army of consultants whose fortunes are tied to upholding the percieved intellectual legitimacy of this bullshit in order that they can continue to peddle it:

    The innovation trend has given birth to an attendant consulting industry, and Fortune 100 companies pay innovation consultants $300,000 to $1 million for work on a single project, which can amount to $1 million to $10 million a year, estimates Booz & Co. innovation strategy consultant Alex Kandybin.

    In addition, four in 10 executives say their company now has a chief innovation officer, according to a recent study of the phenomenon released last month by Capgemini Consulting.


    But as the WSJ article goes on to note, of the 4 in 10 global corporations which now have a chief innovation officer, “an online survey of 260 global executives and 25 in-depth interviews, suggest that such titles may be mainly ‘for appearances.'” The slippage between the two uses of the term has material consequences: invoking ‘innovation’ to account for what we are already doing in more positive terms leads to an apparatus of innovation emerging within the organisation. In other words, ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ talk aren’t just window dressing, in the sense that the entrenchment of this discourse has intra-organisational implications. Note: I’m not saying these changes have any capacity to produce disruption or innovation in the descriptive sense, only that these are real changes rather than mere talk.

  • Mark 6:02 pm on September 4, 2015 Permalink
    Tags: , , innovation, , state, ,   

    the origins of digital capitalism  

    From The New Prophets of Capital by Nicole Aschoff, loc 730-744:

    At the same time, society’s greatest inventions and innovations of the past two hundred years— rockets to the moon, penicillin, computers, the internet— were not bestowed upon us by lone entrepreneurs and firms operating in free markets under conditions of healthy competition. They were the work of institutions: CERN and the Department of Defense created the internet, while Bell Labs— a subdivision of AT&T, freed from market competition by federally granted monopoly rights— generated transistors, radar, information theory, “quality control,” and dozens of other innovations central to our epoch. 25 Nearly every advance in science, technology, and mathematics emerged from people working together at universities supported by government funding. Creativity and innovation come from many places. Companies produce influential innovations, but so do other institutions that operate outside the confines of the profit motive, competitive markets, and the bottom line.

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