“Innovation” is no substitute for a robust technology policy. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The innovation fetish

Left, right, and centre – everyone loves to talk about “innovation”. But what does it mean, this ambiguous, ill-defined buzzword?

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

Who today is against innovation? It is a word capable of uniting even the two parties. In December, the House passed a bill called the Innovation Act by a margin of 325 to 91. Cities (like Austin and San Francisco) have established innovation offices. Two years ago, the White House launched an innovations fellows program to place technology-savvy workers inside various (presumably innovation-deficient) federal agencies. The nation’s innovator-in-chief, Barack Obama, has extolled, “Don’t just download the latest app [but] help design it. Don’t just play on your phone [but] programme it.”

As a buzzword, “innovation” appeals to the left and the right, both of which claim it as their own. For the left, the case is plausible, at least in the abstract. The values of innovation – uncompromising experimentation, radical impatience with the current order – seem squarely of progressive provenance. But the left’s ecstatic celebration of innovation helps to conceal its glaring absence of a robust technology policy – at least one that is independent of Silicon Valley and serves social goods greater than flying cars and longevity pills.

Take something as basic as access to knowledge – a theme of the left ever since the days of the Enlightenment. What, one might ask, is the left’s current vision on the issue? Some might point to the Digital Public Library of America – a worthy initiative that seeks to make digital holdings accessible online – but it’s an effort spearheaded by elite universities and private foundations. It barely registers on the radar of policymakers in Washington – and for very good reasons: The success of such a project would require ambitious structural reform of the copyright system. And what politician on the left has the courage for that?

Without a policy, the left prefers to imagine that democratic access to knowledge will magically materialise; that innovation will produce projects that look like Wikipedia – with a strong social dimension and free access. And it’s true that many of the platforms built by the tech industry – from Skype to YouTube – can be used for civic purposes. But it’s also true the companies that have beneficently provided the platforms are intent on maximising their own commercial agendas. These products might disappear as swiftly as they appeared, eliminating the information infrastructure that we already take for granted.

Who today remembers Google Reader – a handy but unprofitable tool for keeping track of news feeds that the company shut down last year? Won’t a similar fate await Google Scholar, a tool used by plenty of academics to keep track of citations and articles? So far, the left has kept quiet about such risks, hoping that some other innovation would come along to replace whatever commercial services face extinction.

But why not acknowledge that some services like Google Scholar are important enough to warrant formal institutionalisation and public support? Of course, saying this would require the left to accept that a non-commercial approach is needed and that Silicon Valley can’t offer much here.

The conservative position on innovation is more ambiguous. It’s hard to imagine classical conservatives – in the mold of Edmund Burke or Michael Oakeshott – getting too enthused about the disruptive potential of apps and gadgets. But today, many on the right eagerly celebrate the fruits of “creative destruction,” without spending a moment fretting about its impact on the culture.

That’s because many conservatives consider “innovation” a mere synonym for deregulation. Some on the libertarian right have become fond of the idea of “permissionless innovation” – a notion that they borrow from recent Internet history. The idea is that the internet only thrived, because its creators didn’t need to beg powerful gatekeepers for permission to invent. That’s a line of argument even some of the founding fathers of the Internet hold. As Vint Cerf, who designed the key internet protocol, said in 2011: “[On the internet] if you want to try something out, you just do it. The Yahoo! guys and the Google guys and the Skype guys didn’t ask permission to build their products and services; they just put them up on the internet and let people come and use them.” Cerf, it should be noted, was primarily concerned with the power of big companies – the likes of AT&T – and not with big government.

For many libertarians, however, the indisputable success of the internet offers a wonderful template for promoting deregulation more broadly. “Advocates of the internet are right to extol the permissionless innovation model – but they are wrong to believe that it need be unique to the internet,” writes Eli Dourado of the Mercatus Center, a bastion of libertarian thought funded by the Koch brothers. “We can legalise innovation in the physical world, too.” Dourado is quick to show how it could be done: Bitcoin can “do for finance what the internet did for communication.” It’s as if there is no difference between AT&T and the Federal Reserve, since both are gatekeepers. That one is a profit-hungry private company and the other one is a political institution erected to carry out a public mission does not seem to matter.

But why assume that innovation – and, by extension, economic growth – should be the default yardstick by which we measure the success of technology policy? One can easily imagine us living with a very different “internet” had the regulators of the 1990s banned websites from leaving small pieces of code – the so-called “cookies” – on our computers. Would this slow down the growth of the online advertising industry, making everyday luxuries such as free e-mail unavailable? Most likely. But advertising is hardly the only way to support an e-mail service: It can also be supported through fees or even taxes. Such solutions might be bad for innovation, but the privacy they afford to citizens might be good for democratic life.

This is where the left’s enchantment with innovation talk is particularly detrimental to its long-term interests. For they too – at least those on the left who deal with the arcane issues of technology policy – have embraced the very same language. Marvin Ammori at the New America Foundation, for instance, warns that “the neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive.” Here even the freedom of expression hinges upon the correct framework for innovation.

The “permissionless innovation” meme is regularly invoked in defense of the left’s favorite cause of “net neutrality” – the idea that network operators should treat all content passing through their systems equally and without discrimination. But there’s an irony: The big telecom companies complain that net neutrality wouldn’t treat all companies equally. In fact, the law might actually force them to ask the government for permission to innovate – for example, if they want to charge extra for premium online services – where no such permission is needed currently. Ultimately, the public will have to determine which side – the start-ups or the incumbents – produce more “innovation.” And the incumbents will probably win this fight: They don’t have to prove anything – they just have to introduce enough uncertainty to make definitive conclusions impossible. They certainly have the lobbyists to do it.

The lesson for the left is simple: “innovation” is no substitute for a robust technology policy. It must frame its arguments around big themes of equality and justice. Of course, those goals are buried somewhere in its information agenda; it’s just that the left, mesmerised by the jargon of TED Talks and Al Gore, has simply preferred not to emphasise them. Instead, the left accepts that these questions require economic thinking, with its fascination with efficiency and constant change. But the genuine act of innovation would be to redefine the idea altogether.

Evgeny Morozov is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article first appeared on newrepublic.com


Show Hide image

Marvel has moved past the post-credits teaser, and it's all the better for it

Individual stories are suddenly taking precedence over franchise building.

The lasting contribution of 2008’s Iron Man to contemporary cinema comes not from the content of the film itself, but in its Avengers-teasing post-credits scene featuring an eyepatch-sporting Samuel L. Jackson. While post-credits scenes were not invented by Marvel, their widespread adoption in other blockbusters is a testament to Marvel using them to titillate and frustrate.

Fast forward nine years and Marvel’s direction has significantly altered. Having moved to a three-film-a-year structure ahead of next year’s climactic Infinity War, their two releases this summer have featured less explicit connective tissue, using post-credits scenes that are, in typical Marvel fashion, self-reflexive and fun – but this time with no teases for films to come.

Where previous Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films have trailed characters donning superhero mantles, confrontations to come, or more light-hearted team ups, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 decided to lovingly poke fun at Marvel grandmaster Stan Lee, leaving him stranded on a godforsaken space rock in the outer reaches of the stars. Spider-Man: Meanwhile Homecoming targeted filmgoers who had stayed until the end in expectation of a tease, only to receive a Captain America educational video on the virtues of “patience”.

That isn’t to say that connective tissue isn’t there. Marvel seems to be pursuing world building not through post-credits stingers, but through plot and character. In the past, teasing how awful big bad Thanos is ahead of the Avengers battling him in Infinity War would have been done through a menacing post-credits scene, as in both Avengers films to date. Instead Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 uses character as a tool to explore the world at large.

Nebula’s seething rage is, rather than just a weak excuse for an antagonist’s arc, actually grounded in character, explaining to Sean Gunn’s loveable space pirate Kraglin that Thanos would pit his daughters, her and Gamora, against each other, and replace a part of her body with machine each time she failed – and she failed every time. It’s effective. Thanos’ menace is developed, and you feel sympathy for Nebula, something Marvel has historically failed to do well for its antagnoists. Her parting promise – to kill her father – not only foreshadows the events of Infinity War, but also hints at the conclusion of a fully formed arc for her character.

In the high-school-set Spider-Man: Homecoming, the stakes quite rightly feel smaller. The inexperienced wall-crawler gets his chance to save the day not with the galaxy at risk, but with an equipment shipment owned by Iron Man alter-ego and billionaire inventor Tony Stark hanging in the balance. While such a clear metaphor for widespread change in the MCU might be a little on the nose, the set-up is effective at plaing the film at street level while also hinting at overall changes to the structure of the universe.

Stark gifting Peter a new (and oh so shiny) suit is a key set piece at the end of the film, whereas in 2015's Ant-Man’s Hope Pym inheriting her mother’s own miniaturising suit it is relegated to a teaser. Peter’s decision to turn it down not only completes Peter’s transition past seeking the approval of Stark’s unwitting father figure, but it also leaves the Avengers in an as-yet unknown state, still fragmented and incomplete after the events of 2016’s Civil War. To anticipate Spider-Man joining the Avengers proper is to anticipate the forming of the team as a whole – keeping our collective breath held until we stump up for tickets to Infinity War.

With this happy marriage of the macro and the micro, individual stories are suddenly taking precedence in the MCU, rather than being lost in the rush to signpost the foundations for the next instalment in the franchise. It’s a refreshingly filmic approach, and one which is long overdue. To suggest that Marvel is hesitant to overinflate Infinity War too early is supported by their refusal to share the footage of the film screened to audiences at the D23 and San Diego Comic Con events in recent weeks. Instead, the limelight is staying firmly on this November’s Thor: Ragnarok, and next February’s Black Panther.

Stan Lee, at the end of his Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 post credits scene, cries, “I’ve got so many more stories to tell!”, a hopeful counterpoint to a weary Captain America asking “How many more of these are there?” at the end of Homecoming. With Disney having planned-out new MCU releases all the way into 2020, entries in the highest-grossing franchise of all time won’t slow any time soon. We can, at least, hope that they continue their recent trend of combining writerly craft with blockbuster bombast. While the resulting lack of gratuitousness in Marvel’s storytelling might frustrate in the short term, fans would do well to bear in mind Captain America’s call for patience.