Is innovation always good?

Do we really want to “move fast and break things“?

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

It has been said that there are no facts – only points of view.

That is one of those generalizations that may be true most of the time, but not all of the time.

But sometimes it is glaringly, undeniably true.

As we are learning in the months following the arrival of a global pandemic – and its economic, mental and social repercussions, many key principles that we once held as true or desirable have suddenly shifted in our vision.

Innovation is one of those sets of values that is changing shape and value as we move into the next few years.

Since the mid 1990s, innovation and entrepreneurship have been seen as ideals to reach for.

Most college students back then, and for the past couple decades, have held as their career high point, not working for a prestigious company but starting their own company and dominating the market in the mold of Apple, Facebook, or Amazon – and of course, most were equally enamoured by their media-lionized figureheads – especially Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.

That model has dominated for about 30 years.

That’s pretty much the shelf life of any philosophical position.

And I see signs of change almost every day.

And I see those signs of change in both directions – dis-satisfaction with what came before and a longing for what has been neglected.

The Facebook philosophy of “move fast and break things“ is not as appealing as it once was; perhaps because most of us have seen as many “broken” things as we ever want to see in our lives and careers and relationships.

Elon Musk, founder of Tesla (among other companies and projects) said “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

Again, I think we’ve all seen enough failure lately.

These companies, all dominant, if not de facto monopolies, have been absurdly profitable (all the founders who are still living are among the richest people in the world) but at a cost, critics say, to our political system, our economy and, perhaps most of all, to our personal privacy.

Personal privacy, like bookstores and physical media like compact discs or DVDs, seems to have evaporated.

Consider a few statistical details on some of the mainstays of our pre-FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) economy:

Since 2001, newspaper and music revenues have fallen by 70%, book publishing, film and television profits have also fallen dramatically.

Revenues at Google over this same time span grew from $400 million to $74.5 billion.

Google’s YouTube today controls 60% of the streaming audio business and pays only 11% of the streaming audio revenues.

More and more of us are listening to music and watching films and videos and other creative content than ever before, but less revenue is flowing to creators and owners of the content.

Which means that more and more revenue is collecting at the platforms that control the whole media landscape.

Google, Facebook, and Amazon now enjoy financial, hence, political power on par with Big Oil and Big Pharma.

But Big Oil and Big Pharma took many decades, or longer, to accumulate their wealth and political clout.

And they didn’t promise to “break things”.

Especially “things” like our economy and our political system.

How many thousands of jobs have been lost, essentially forever, at bookstores, music shops and entertainment venues?

To put it mildly, as we have seen in many recent news stories and lawsuits, when more and more Americans receive their news, music and other forms of entertainment from a small group of companies, it can pose a major threat to every ideal of democracy

And a diverse, stable and productive economy.

A common complaint, for example, is that music of our era all sounds the same – and that movies seem to follow the same plot(less) line. Anyone else tired of the same predictable superhero franchise assembly line on our screens?

But how could they not be the same when they all filter through the same three or four companies and their corporate values and biases?

Tech monopolies and near monopolies are a major factor in creating astounding levels of income inequality and ever-increasing employment instability. Anyone remember the term “micro-serfs”?

Microsoft millionaires might be the ideal, but drudging temp-work, usually with a mind-numbingly long commute, is far closer to the reality.

Rules and laws that apply to “normal” companies such as anti-trust, unions, monopolies and taxes, don’t apply the same way to internet companies, as internet entrepreneurs have convinced successive governments that these will come in the way of “efficiency”. The result is a few outsized winners, and many losers – and not just in financial terms.

What began as “innovation”, perhaps like every religion or political movement, became fossilized and hide-bound in its own traditions and expectations.

Computer algorithms have become the guardians (and semi-accidental censors) of our culture which means we get far less variety, worse quality and fewer forums for true, almost child-like creativity – the kind that we do for love, not for profit.

The “innovation” as framed by these tech behemoths of our era, are immersed, almost defined by the antiregulation, antitax legislative environment of the libertarian flavored late 1990s.

As always in history, there is no “going back”, no return to a mythical “promised land”.

I am convinced that our near-worship of innovation is coming to a rapid conclusion.

Big Tech may join Big Oil and even Big Coal as the dinosaur-like mascot of an era, long lost in the mists of neglected history.

Anyone else bothered by the algorithm of “If you like this, you’ll probably like that”?

Where does targeted, even surveillance marketing, end and spying begin?

Thumbing through records or browsing a bookstore, or having a stable job, or even a few hours without a screen in your face sounds like the rediscovery of a lost paradise.

It doesn’t have to be new to be good.

And sometimes not breaking things is a good policy.

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