Downsides of Innovation Mania
(Revised and expanded July 4th, 2018. Happy Independence from Consumerism Day!)
You probably sense as I do that normality isn’t what it used to be, even a few years ago. I’m talking not about Trump or politics but of the magnificent panoply of digital technologies we are immersed if not drowning in. The speed at which technologists are shoving stuff at us has bugged me for quite some time. Understanding innovation mania has caused me to spend years puzzling out what’s driving the complexification of nearly everything and how the new ways we are obliged to adopt might transform concepts of what human nature is.
Why, I wonder, is everything possible being digitized as quickly as possible? I hate to use the phrase, but might there be some “intelligent design” that drives humans to churn out technology, faster and faster? More importantly, whom or what are we serving with our clever innovations, especially those that render what once was tangible into bits?
Most of us can’t help but notice how we’re being cocooned by technology in an ephemeral matrix we can only partially observe that now and then we worry about. Truth is, our species’ enslavement to tools has been happening since well before the discovery of electrons, perhaps since the domestication of fire. Many among us like to invent things, and for some it’s a fetish as much as it is an preoccupation. Given its antiquity, the urge to doll up our environment and connect to one another can’t totally be blamed on monopoly capitalism or go-for-broke R&D, although those are highly instrumental in complicating our world by giving us more infrastructure, gadgets, choices, and hence desires for things that may not be all that useful, healthful, or reliable. And even if we never wanted them, we come to need them.
Someday soon, for example, the inexorable course of innovation will surely force me to buy and use (to the tune of $1K a year) a smartphone, a gadget I have no interest in mastering. And I’ll probably have to buy into a blockchain or two, whatever that is. I’m similarly victimized by trends when I try to buy plain old yogurt; now it’s all Greek to me. Trends are like that: they churn our lifestyle to make us desire new stuff.
Serious technology angst overtook me around the turn of the millennium. At the time, I was deeply complicit in high tech, churning out a weekly email blast that showcased IT trends identified by analysts from the knowledge factory where I was a scrivener. Most of what I wrote was constrained to presenting trends of the trade — form factors, capabilities, markets, projected unit costs, anticipated adoption, ROI, that sort of thing — but every now and then I was able to sneak in observations like “Why do we need this innovation?” or “How might adopting it change human behavior, not just commerce?” Only once in a great while would a subscriber write in asking the same sort of questions. My readers’ apparent lack of curiosity about consequences of what they are getting into prompted me to worry about myopia and tunnel vision of technologists and their marketers.
After the 2001 tech crash ejected me from the IT puzzle palace, I had time to think about innovation mania. After a little research I published an unheralded critique and manifesto with my depressing findings that ended with a prescription for personal remedial action, inspired by Thoreau. A dozen years hence, those words got folded into a set of essays, an as-yet unpublished volume that nails humanist theses to the door of the Church of Innovation. Its chapters explore the nature of invention, measure growth of its artifacts, and speculate on the societal transformations that technology has wrought for infrastructure, telecom, automation, intellectual property, and posterity. Some parts of it have since been seeded hither, thither, and yon, in essays fretting about fetishizing innovation and the creeping technologies and creepy technologists that may yet do us in.
But the sad truth is we can’t help ourselves from getting sucked into innovation’s vortex. Not without a popular revolt against corporatism, at least, which I do see forming up. But that’s not what I came to discuss.
I’ve concluded that technology springs from a force of nature that somehow obliges us to invent stuff. Human beings insist on making tools, and have done with a vengeance, even before writing came along. That was a breakthrough technology; transcribing speech changed humanity by making it no longer necessary to carry all our information around in our heads. And so, for a long while, our knowledge and stories took tangible forms that let us share information without utterance. Now, with digital media, more stories than ever are being told, in text, sound and pictures. Most, by now, are locked into silicon, and without the proper devices are totally inaccessible. I recently explained why this weirds me out, an essay that of course is only accessible digitally.
For a while, computers have been ordering their human acolytes to help them understand text, images, and speech. Having learned that, computers will insist on generating art and literature for people to consume. The day may soon come when humans pay to subscribe to podcasts of robots reading words that other robots wrote. Translation robots will then enable humans to access the content in a bunch of languages. All that can, in fact, be done with today’s technology, but the content and execution is rather appalling. (On a Mac, for a taste of things to come, highlight some text, press shift-control-s, and listen to it narrate at your leisure.) But the ascendancy of AI robot linguists isn’t what I want to talk about either.
Evolution is innovation. Life in general would still be dumb as soup were it not for some force behind its complexification. Not only does life evolve by adapting to its environment, and not only does its code mutate, evolution adds intelligence to the mix. The explosion of knowledge and messages in our species’ brief history is a chain reaction running amok, uncontrolled by any moderating forces I’ve been able to discern. It began in the mists of prehistory, took off with the invention of writing and then moveable type, was ramped up by computation and magnetic memory, and is quickly reaching critical mass thanks to global network connectivity.
If technological innovation is indeed a force akin to evolution, it seems bent on making the planet into a thinking being (Gaia goes to college, if you will), as Jesuit humanist and scientist Teilhard de Chardin foresaw and his acolytes still proclaim. I call the skin humans have applied to Gaia over centruries (our infrastructure, if you will) Stepmother Earth, and her emergent consciousness Silica. Her lizard brain demands that we invent things that glorify her and augment her cognitive capabilities. We obediently and hastily oblige. Geeks everywhere dedicated to advancing AI are wiring up her cortex, whether they think they are or not. What Stepmother Silica will think of and treat humanity going forward is a question I lose sleep over. The consequences of technology escaping from human control also worried Sun Microsystems co-founder Bill Joy in 2000, whose 2000 Wired Magazine essay Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us many technologists hated.
Here a well-known technophobe describes what we can look forward to:
As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decision for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better result than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.
This ominous prediction came from Theodore Kaczynski, a.k.a. the Unabomber, in his 1995 manifesto Industrial Society and its Future. By deploying AI robots (that are supposedly our slaves), he believed, even the slave owners cede to them human agency, and that is why he targeted AI researchers with mail bombs. The makers of the robots may get rich and their users may feel empowered, but are they in control? That nagging thought seems not to occur to entrepreneurs and researchers, whose companies love to point out how evermore wonderful and convenient their inventions make our lives, even as they diminish our capabilities, not to mention many of our incomes.
Even if advances in technology are inevitable, how capitalism develops and deploys them isn’t. It is perfectly possible to provide creature comforts and create built environments that sit lightly on the land instead of smothering it with hard surfaces and toxic substances. After all, indigenous tribes were able to sustainably coexist with their biomes for tens of thousands of years, so what went wrong? Why do we insist on isolating ourselves from nature and running roughshod over it rather than adapting to its constraints? Instead, as if she were a rival kingdom, we set out to conquer nature and dub the spoils “resources” and “real estate.”
Nearly every member of the animal kingdom from ants to aves to apes modifies its environment to survive and successfully reproduce, but only humans with their fast capacity for toolmaking seem to trash theirs in the process. It’s easy to blame capitalism for screwing over the planet, but if people didn’t naturally gravitate to new and improved stuff and happily go into debt to acquire it, businesses wouldn’t be able to foist off, as Mark Twain put it, a “limitless multiplication unnecessary necessities.” And so, as Walt Kelly’s Pogo the Possum famously quipped, “we have me the enemy and he is us.”
Wall Street and Madison Avenue didn’t generate our lust for overconsumption. It had already raised its ugly head when David Hume published A Treatise of Human Nature in 1740, in which he observed:
This avidity alone, of acquiring goods and possessions for ourselves and our nearest friends, is insatiable, perpetual, universal, and directly destructive of society. There scarce is any one, who is not actuated by it; and there is no one, who has not reason to fear from it, when it acts without any restraint, and gives way to its first and most natural movements.
Rampant consumerism wasn’t simply a product of the industrial revolution gathering steam in Hume’s time. Things had started to go seriously wrong in the Age of Exploration 200 years previously. That was when monarchs chartered the first joint stock ventures, such as the English and Dutch East Indies Corporations, immortal entities to whom they granted monopolies to exploit the resources of lands their forces had colonized, offering military protection in return for a cut of the action. Their cut went into royal treasuries while taxes on commoners paid for the expeditionary forces. Replace monarchs with lords of industry and princes of global finance and you’ll see that today’s economic arrangements work pretty much the same.
A chartered corporation’s primary motivations are, of course, return on investment and control over our consumption and behavior, not humanity’s or the planet’s well being. High tech companies in particular trumpet what fabulous engines of innovation they are as they go about appropriating, patenting and suing over intellectual property for the sake of ever-greater market share, all the while pretending that their copycat products are uniquely extra special. They have perfected ways of pushing our buttons to make us yearn for unnecessary necessities with ever-shorter lifecycles, such as that smartphone I will presently be forced to acquire and pay through the nose to use.
Meanwhile, shackled in invisible chains, we alienate ourselves from the planet and trash it. Shouldn’t innovation be done for better reasons than to make as much money as possible for inventors and investors? Raping Gaia only to smother her with crap doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what capital has been doing for decades. When Silica’s wiring is finally in place and Stepmother wakes up to find she’s become a wasteland ravaged by clueless two-legged idiots, she’s going to be hopping mad. And when Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
 For a more in-depth description of the evolution of chartered corporations, their hegemonic aspirations, and damages they have done, see chapter 1 in Douglas Rushkoff, Life Inc. (Random House, 2009).