Questioning Innovation, Part 1: Electric Lights and Crack Cocaine

By Chris Barton, Editor-in-Chief

Here’s a fun game:

Next time you are on a non-Thunderbird ASU campus, count the number of times you see the word ‘Innovation.’ You may see it on books, banners, business cards, buildings and busses, as well as blasted across every page on the ASU website. The sheer quantity of the word is overwhelming – the effect is somewhere between the torturous iterations of a broken record and the vaguely sinister affectations of a disarmingly unapologetic brainwashing program.

It’s impossible to be alive in Arizona and not know that ASU is ranked #1 in innovation. But what does that actually mean? What does it say about us and our school? And is it even a good thing?

Let’s start with the basics. What, exactly, is innovation?

According to Merriam-Webster, it’s “the introduction of something new.” There are two parts to this: the ‘something new,’ and it’s introduction. It’s important to note that a ‘new thing’ is not, by default, an innovation; the ‘new thing’ is an invention, “a device, contrivance, or process originated after study and experiment.” It remains a mere invention until it is ‘introduced’ into the world and adopted for use. Only when it becomes part of our lives can we call it an innovation.

The inside of Menlo Park. The Innovation is palpable. Courtesy The Menlo Park Project

These two terms – innovation and invention – are often confused. To understand the difference, let’s look at the the lightbulb: both a classic example of invention and a ubiquitous symbol of innovation. Edison’s “invention” of a commercially viable lightbulb (dubious as his claim to invention is) was at it’s core the clever resolution of an engineering problem. Edison was famous for such engineering solutions, churning out dozens of them from his workshop at Menlo Park. But each invention was initially but a novelty; they became innovations once they entered common use and changed the way that things were done.

What made the lightbulb special was its widespread use, which was a result not of Edison’s engineering chops but rather his skill at convincing people to accept and adopt his invention – a process we might now call “getting your product to market.” Unlike invention, which relies on technical expertise, innovation depends on the ability to navigate and harness the fickle currents of public sentiment and economics. Edison was a clever inventor, but just as importantly he was a talented social influencer and a shrewd businessmen – and it was these features that allowed him to innovate. For contrast, look to Nikola Tesla: a brilliant inventor, but without the skills to bring his inventions to market and into common use. The important distinction here is that while the invention of ‘something new’ is a feat of technical creativity, innovation – the ‘introduction’ of the new thing – is a political and economic process.

So, an innovation begins as an invention, which is then introduced into common application or practice, often resulting in a dramatic change in the way things are done. Edison’s electric light changed the lives of families and the productiveness of industry. Democracy allowed cultures to share political power. The printing press facilitated the spread of knowledge and ideas. Agriculture let early humans settle down, build cities, and develop cultures and civilizations. The steam engine led to the industrial revolution. Penicillin saved us from numerous formerly deadly diseases, and the Internet lets us watch cat videos.

But the atomic bomb was also an innovation, as were chemical weapons, slavery, fascism, drone warfare, crack cocaine, and, to take a recent example, the Collateralized Debt Obligations that fueled the 2008 financial crisis.

The discourse we hear in conversations around business strategy, technological progress, and even societal advancement all speak of innovation as if it is some sort panacea. We treat innovation as an inherently positive process, one that produces only beneficial outcomes – when it doesn’t. Being #1 in Innovation means being #1 in the process that produced both electric lighting and crack cocaine.

Innovation will make your graph go up! Courtesy

What do electric lighting and crack cocaine have in common with agriculture, slavery, penicillin and CDOs? They’re all shiny technologies that promised, to a particular person or group of people, a short term benefit. The long-term effects – positive or negative – were only secondary concerns to the innovators; they peddled short-sighted remedies to particular, immediate problems. This is the process of getting the inventions to market: fill an immediate need for your customer. Light your room at the flip of a switch! Get high, quickly and cheaply! Grow your own food instead of having to search for it! Have other people do your work for you! Stop dying! Get rich quick!

Innovators don’t often look forward to the implications, externalities, or long-term effects of their actions. And they don’t look backwards to understand the historical precedent of their situation. They don’t need to, because the impetus for their action and the benefit it accrues are both visible in the historical present. An innovation neither builds on a past nor aspires to a future – it’s purely a symptom of the moment.

And nothing that is grounded only in the present, with no history to build on or future to aspire to, can be counted on to guide our progress as a species, as a country, or as a university.


Tune in next week as I build on the work of The Maintainers and dive into how innovation undermines the technologies that we depend on every day.

Most recent posts

The Case for Crypto

What is Crypto? How about a Blockchain? Thor Abbasi guides us through these concepts, as well as explains recent sensational news such as the FTX collapse.