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Why Has Innovation Disappeared?
Why has innovation disappeared from modern life? Amid the frenzy of digital innovations, is such a claim even defensible? In the December issue of First Things, I argue that our quest for genuine advances has been thrown off track. Only an ambition to build things that last can inspire the great projects that will define a new and lasting postliberal order.
Here’s a preview:
We’re stuck. The signal innovations of modern times—mass water purification, electricity, automobiles, modern manufacturing processes—are behind us. This slowing of invention presents a problem. We are trapped by the imperative of ever more innovation even as innovation becomes harder to achieve. Jean Baudrillard called America the last remaining primitive society. The claim sounds strange to us, convinced that we are living in an advanced civilization with everything on offer. But Baudrillard’s insight is quite simple. If we entertain ourselves with visions of the innovations that await us in the future, then we are in a primitive state, not resting on the accomplishments of the centuries behind us. This expectation dominates our thinking. But it is belied by the fact that great technological advances have stopped arriving. Our culture now consists of recycled tropes, algorithmically developed music, and, in the past year, a disabling aversion to risk.
Praise of innovation arises from a deep source within the modern tradition. Indeed, it’s likely that the very heart of the modern tradition is praise of the new for its own sake. But incessant talk of innovation and “the new”—in communication, in advertising, in mission statements for thousands of corporate offices and small businesses—has led to a twofold problem. First, no one may challenge whatever innovations come along. Novelty and disruption are the totems of our primitive society, and we have no framework for evaluating whether a given change is politically, socially, or culturally beneficial. Innovation offers shiny objects around which to orient our political and economic expectations, and in thrilling over the latest devices, we neglect the need for standards by which to evaluate new things. Second, the mindless innovation imperative prevents us from considering what we want to do and produce. As a consequence, genuine innovations—improvements as judged by ancient standards, innovations that make a long-term difference and will last—are now rare.
What can get us back to building genuine improvements? You can read the rest of “Advancing in Place” at First Things.