Innovation as a Cultural Fiction
It’s easy to think of innovation as an inexhaustible flame, regularly fuelled by a generation of vivacious imaginations. But the reality is a somewhat different story; innovation occurs in a series of fits and starts, and most of what we call innovation can, in fact, better be understood as emulation.
Generally, we’re an idealistic people. We’re inspired by the idea of the socially divergent working from humble dorm rooms and garages (modern day version of a lair), changing the world from the shadows. Spurred by Hollywood and an inveterately sensationalising media, there exists a cultural-wide love affair with the superhero narrative, attested to by the sheer number of superhero movies produced over the past decade (non-coincidentally resurgent from the 1970s and 80s).
A number of factors are behind this: encroaching world wide calamity – the threat of (nuclear) war or the constant peril of terror attacks – and a mutually shared disdain for the mundane or ordinary, to name a couple. We all want to believe something exceptional can happen, to think that any one individual can tear off their shirt to reveal their super self and save us from, well, ourselves.
And like superheroes, there’s a mythical quality to innovation and innovators. Similar to how we receive and interpret celebrities, pioneering innovators undertake an apotheosis, at least in the eyes of the outsider. We produce books and films and raise their pedestal; we apply a soundtrack to their lives and quote their words, and when the camera fades to black we feel the loss as if it was our own.
To put it simply, we’re in love with the fiction of continuous innovation. But in actuality, technology’s progress is incremental, comprising of little additions made by the thousands of start-ups that rise and fall each year. Facebook wasn’t the first social media portal; Apple wasn’t the first smartphone manufacturer; and Call of Duty wasn’t the first first person shooter.
Each represent marked points or milestones in the respective technology’s histories; a point in which they either become commercially huge or part-way revolutionised, turning the corner that otherwise eluded their predecessors. It’s also largely why the world of technology is frequently beset by legal battles over patents and proprietary claims. Apple, in particular, has a history of being sued and countersuing over its ‘borrowing’ of technologies, including the smartphone accelerometer. Likewise, Apple has waged war with both Samsung and Android, over pretty much everything that the company’s have shared interests in (which, again, is almost everything).
The problem with fictionalising innovation is that it omits the nitty-gritty of progress – the small steps that, whilst being a far less attractive subject matter, have been nevertheless vital in growing technologies. Emulation is a reciprocal affair that transpires between multiple organisations. It’s an unconsciously communal effort to develop, which more often than not gets conveniently summed up as the achievements and triumphs of one or two individuals.
When we hear platitudes about the ‘everyday hero’, we forgive the transgression to what we know for the sake of the sentiment. There can’t be multiple heroes; there can only be one, and that one must have had the power to change the world without the help of any other.
If we imagine progress as a long road, then innovation is the nitrous periodically poured into the petrol tank. By the time it’s worn off, we often find ourselves amongst unfamiliar territory, compelled only to move once more forward. True innovators speed up change, but they rarely create it. And the road, by the way, is never straight; it zigzags and twists, rising up and down with multiple turns and exits that eventually lead to the same destination.