Keywords for the Age of Austerity 1: Innovation


“Keywords for the Age of Austerity” is an occasional series on the  vocabulary of inequality. Certain words, as Raymond Williams wrote in his classic Keywords, bind together ways of seeing culture and society. These shared meanings change over time, shaping and reflecting the society in which they are made. Some of the words I will consider here are old, seemingly innocent terms that have acquired a particular fashion or developed a particular new meaning in recent years; others are recent coinages. All of them relate to to an affinity for hierarchy and a celebration of the virtues of the marketplace, of competition, and of the virtual technologies of our time. This series will explore the historical meanings embedded in these words as well as the new meanings that our age has given them.

Care to suggest a word? Send me a message or a tweet at me.

This is the first entry, on the modern virtue of innovation.

Innovation (n); innovate (v., trans. or intrans.); innovative (adj.).

The contemporary ubiquity of “Innovation” is an example of how the world of business, despite its claims of rationality and empirical precision, also summons its own enigmatic mythologies.

It is, in strictly literal terms, a broad concept. A scholar can uncover archival evidence that transforms the meaning of a text or historical event; an automotive engineer can develop new industrial processes to make a car lighter or safer; a corporate executive can extract additional value from his employees by automating production. These are all new ways of doing something, but they are very different somethings. One requires a combination of dogged persistence and interpretive imagination; another makes use of mathematical ingenuity and technical expertise; another, organizational vision and practical ruthlessness. What, then, makes this seemingly innocuous term so essential now?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.” “Innovation” has exploded in popularity since the 1960s, according to Google’s ngram database, although it has a much longer genealogy; the adjectival “innovative,” however, was virtually unknown before the 60s.

The verb “to innovate” has also seen a resurgence in recent years. The verb’s intransitive meaning is “To bring in or introduce novelties; to make changes in something established; to introduce innovations.” Its earlier transitive meaning, “To change (a thing) into something new; to alter; to renew” is considered obsolete by the OED, but this meaning has seen something of a revival. “Who’s the Best at Innovating Innovation?” asks the Harvard Business Review; the same publication sponsors a lucrative prize called the “Innovating Innovation Challenge.” The transitive construction “innovating innovation” thus uses the word in a form that was last common in the 18th century. Then, the word referred to a process of transformation or renewal that often carried religious implications: the salvation promised through Christ, but importantly also that offered though deceit by false prophets.

Its use as a synonym of “to invent” is now popular as well, as in to “innovate more effective school systems” or “innovate new solutions.” Yet because of its ambiguity, “innovate” is an abstract action even when a direct object is included, and it is especially so in its intransitive form, in which one innovates in or  upon something. One example from the Associated Press amplifies this abstraction to the point of absurdity: American cultural influence abroad, according to a 2012 article, “rests upon not only actual innovation but the oomph to amplify it.” “Oomph,” here, is the mighty chariot upon which innovation enters the world.

Innovation as a commercial ideal in the United States owes much to the myth of “Yankee ingenuity,” the 19th-century ideal of technical brilliance and native cleverness associated with New England’s artisan class. The 18th-century mark of deceit–the innovative tongue of the false prophet–shadows this later meaning, as well. As literary historians like Trish Loughran, Benjamin Reiss, and Lara Cohen have shown, “Yankee ingenuity” applied to watchmakers and engineers but also to confidence men and land speculators, those whose primary “innovations” were the intellectual devices by which they contrived to appropriate the fruits of others’ labor.

One can read the implication of duplicity in Thomas Hobbes’ use of the intransitive verb in his 1651 work De Cive. Beasts, wrote the English philosopher, are motivated by their base needs, which differ little from bird to bird in a flock, or bee to bee in the hive. People, on the other hand, are not content with satisfying basic needs and thus battle over questions of “honor and preferment.” Innovation, for Hobbes, derives from this capacity for envy. In a comically redundant use of the verb, which seems to mock its virtuous pretensions, Hobbes writes that “in a multitude of men there are many who supposing themselves wiser than others, endeavour to innovate, and divers Innovators innovate divers wayes, which is a meer distraction, and civill ware.”

We can find the commercial meaning most common today in the New Statesman’s 1965 critique of the British computing industry’s “failure to innovate fast enough.” Here, the term refers to a entrepreneurial capacity for inventiveness, creativity, and accumulation—the need to expand in order to thrive. A curiosity of the word’s intransitive usage in the contemporary United States, though, is that it often does not require even the indirect referent the New Statesman provides. A San Francisco Chronicle author, writing in 2011 about the late Apple Computer executive Steve Jobs, praised his “constant desire to innovate and take chances.” We are no longer innovating on or upon anything in particular, which can make “innovate” sound like a kind of mantra, recalling the religious associations the word once had: “If you don’t innovate every day and have a great understanding of your customers,” a Denver processed cheese executive told the Denver Post in 2010, “then you don’t grow.” Innovation sounds more and more like an epiphany here.

Other than mystifying creativity itself—which now looks more like an intuitive blast of inspiration, and less like work—“innovation” gives creativity a specific professional, class dimension. It is almost always applied to white-collar and profit-seeking activities, although its increasing popularity in educational contexts only reflects the creeping influence of market-based models in this field. Rare is the “innovative” carpenter, plumber, or homemaker, in spite of the imagination, improvisation, and managerial skills required of each.

Elsewhere, we see the rankings in business publications of the “most innovative nations,” a curious usage that describes a) a talent constrained by national borders, as if creativity dissipates or increases when one leaves passport control; and at the same time b) one unconstrained by fields, industries, or media. In Iceland, say, chefs, bankers, and sculptors are similarly innovative.

An example of the term’s increasingly vacuous abstraction is the acceptability of the tautological construction “to innovate innovation.” One can “innovate” without having to act upon any process or idea other than the act of innovation itself. One simply innovates in circles, forever, which sounds like a tedious and certainly not innovative way to expend one’s energy. As the linguist Nicholas Fleisher told me: in Soviet Russia, where the communist ideal of transformation was less individualistic than collective, innovation innovates you.

Like the mythical inventor of the American industrial age—Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison tinkering in their workshops—the “innovator” is a model capitalist citizen for our times. But the object of his innovation is more elusive: you can touch a telephone or a phonograph, but who can lay hands on an Amazon algorithm, a credit-default swap, or an international free trade agreement? An individualistic, white-collar trait, “innovation” reframes the cruel fortunes of the global economy as the logical products of a creative brilliance, but one that retains both a touch of the prophet, and a hint of the confidence man.

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