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Innovation To What End?

This fascination society has with innovation is a funny thing. There is no need for it, and yet here we are. Always be disrupting. Move fast and break things.

You might be forgiven for thinking that it is some intrinsic part of capitalism: that we always need to have new things for the money machines to keep going around. In fact it is not. Growth capitalism—the idea that we always need more things—and consumer capitalism—the idea that you should always aspire to own more things—are definitely long-standing features of the modern hypercapitalism that developed in the second half of the twentieth century and that holds the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and other states in its thrall today.

In earlier times, money-makers were willing to settle for other sources of growth: mercantilism and colonialism. No need to go to all that trouble to invent new commodities if you can just discover and exploit new sources elsewhere. No need to make work more efficient if you can pick up new workers by the boatload in one country and force them to work for subsistence (or less) in another.

No, innovation was originally a dirty socialist trick. How liberating would it be if the work of sixty hours could be done in forty, or twenty, or five? If the work of a hundred teams of ten workers each could be replaced by the work of five cyberneticians and eight robotics engineers?

By getting better at work, the socialists could reduce the number of people needed to do the work, and the time for which they had to do it. By taking the lessons in manufacturing and machinery learned by the British capitalists in the steam revolution, they could turn steam to the benefit of the people. Thus we have Trotsky castigating the Stalinist regime in The Revolution Betrayed for only raising industrial production by 8.5% in 1932, “instead of the 36% indicated by the year’s plan”. Congratulating the worker for bringing the USSR to the number one producer of tractors and sugar in the world, and decrying Stalin for failing to see the value of the (cancelled) Dnieperstroy hydroelectric station.

So focused were the Soviets on innovation and industrial productivity that the idea became an object of parody. In his allegorical novel Animal Farm, George Orwell describes Boxer the horse, happy and proud to work for the regime but ultimately to overdo it and work himself to death. Boxer was based on Soviet workers called Stakhanovists, workers who regularly put in overtime or otherwise exerted themselves to surpass their quotas and “fulfil the five year plan in four years!”

Orwell was, by the way, anti-totalitarian but no anti-socialist. In fact he saw socialism as good politics, but often saw socialists as its least capable promotors. “To sum up,” he concludes The Road to Wigan Pier, a reflection on working-class life in the North West of England, “There is no chance of righting the conditions I described in the earlier chapters of this book, or of saving England from Fascism, unless we can bring an effective Socialist party into existence.”

But this would require intelligent propaganda. “Less about mechanical progress, tractors, the Dnieper dam and the latest salmon-canning factory in Moscow”; all those things Trotsky and Stalin had been arguing over.

OK, so innovation is a socialist issue. What has that got to do with computers? Well, the history of the computer is the history of the Cold War. Soon after the conflict known here as the Second World War and in the USSR as the Great Patriotic War was over, and the three buddies Churchill, Stalin, and Eisenhower had divided up the remains of Europe and the Pacific theatre, the Allied Powers decided that only profit-loving allies could be in the club.

Gone from the official histories was the importance of the German rout at the Battle of Stalingrad (for which streets all over Europe are still named today); in was Britain Stands Alone. Last week’s BFF was this week’s public enemy #1.

Luckily, all those computers we had been making would come in handy in the new conflict. The USSR had been using the same Lorenz encryption system as the Nazis: no need to tell them that Bletchley Park had developed the Colossus machines which could crack their code. The ENIAC was no longer working out how to lob nukes at Berlin, but what about Moscow?

It became important to beat the reds, and to beat them at any game going. The Olympic games and the space race are two obvious proxy battlegrounds. Economics was a fairly easy win: when one side has a currency and the other a government-approved scrip, any currency-based metrics are going to be easily gamed to favour the marketeers.

What is going to be trickier, however, is beating the socialists at their own game: productivity. How do you out-do the salmon-canning, Dnieper-damming, “from each according to their ability” ideologues at the game of getting more out of each than their abilities? How do you out-industrialise a nation that went from a peasant-farming backwater in 1905 to the winner of the technological war in 1945?

Thus was innovation – already, without a doubt, present in the pre-war but post-industrial revolution western civilisation – pushed into the centre of everybody’s economic and industrial policies, and turned all the way up to 11.

And what has it got us? You can now order any product made by stroking a pocket glass and have it next day or even quicker. What are you doing with all that time that is freed up?

Certainly not leisure. The average hours worked per week in developed countries has certainly dropped since the industrial revolution but remained roughly constant since 1980. Tracking all that work in Jira has not led to doing less of it.

But if you are working more, it is not helping. Productivity has stagnated since computers were introduced. We are not canning more salmon per labour-hour than we did before we could save meeting minutes to Confluence.

All we are getting for all this innovation is the “opportunity” to innovate some more.

Cover photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash.

Continue reading Douglas Crockford or go back to Issue 036: Innovation. Did you like this article? Consider subscribing to our newsletter or contributing to the sustainability of this magazine. Thanks!
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