Sources of Innovation & Invention

Peter Jones Innovation

There’s this meme about innovation being spurred by the military and porn, that circulates around new media circles from time to time. I don’t know why it persists, because its so readily faslifiable. But it provokes people, because few are lukewarm about porn and war.

Clearly its true that  the porn industry are early adopters of media innovations, as “marketers” are continually looking to expand their distribution. But adoption is not innovation – it helps the diffusion of innovations occur. Likewise, the US military has a trillion dollars a year of US-debt-based income to throw at anything they like. While most of this cash is wasted forever, some ends up going toward experiments – most of which were already innovations being developed in university or private labs. There is occasional in-house investment yielding something more useful than a yet another fighter plane that will never see a dogfight. While the Internet is always mentioned as an outgrowth of DARPA-net, it is an example of improvised infrsaturcture rather than military innovation. The distributed architecture needed to survive multiple nuclear hits was co-opted by hippie university geeks in the 70’s for email and D&D. (Exhale – yes, THAT’s the innovation baby!)

McLuhan in 1964 envisioned – in principal – all that’s happening now. Nearly 50 years ago, Understanding Media (extensions of Man) gave us a framework for seeing into all the variations of He wrote about “disruptive innovation” and tossed the phrase like it was a well-accepted notion THEN. Rogers had just published the Diffusion of Innovations in 1962. So now we (every 10 years or so) reinvent innovation as if we invented it. So why does the innovation meme stick, rather than, say, invention or even intervention? (Because its so fuzzy that it means whatever we mean it to mean?)

I say this because we deploy “innovation” to create meanings without defining what we mean. There seem to be few commonly accepted meanings of innovation (and none that I know that would restrict breakthrough inventions to fear, death and sex). These are perhaps indicative of our current economies. Did the Wright Brothers conceive of the warplane? (They were bicycle makers.) It took 30 years before cars were used in battle. Take a look at Forbe’s Top 85 innovations from 1959 – 1971, a fertile time for things that eventually made it big.  Forbes 85

My favorite example of innovation – is that of Solon’s Athenian democracy was invented to solve debt slavery, who was able to imagine and then sell to landowners a truly better world for Athenians, after the ruination of Draconian Athens. In today’s world we need a social innovator like Solon again.