Questioning Innovation, Part 2: Underground Vacuum Trains and Toilets

By Chris Barton, Editor-in-Chief

This series aims to take a critical look at ASU’s claim to be “#1 in innovation.” What does that actually mean? What does it say about us and our school? And is it even a good thing?

Last week we looked at the distinction between invention and innovation, and the process by which a ‘new thing’ evolves from the former to the latter. This process, which we called ‘bringing a product to market,’ depends on meeting immediate needs (whatever they may be) and realizing short-term benefits. ‘Innovation’ as a process is blind to historical precedent or long-term impact – can we count on it to help us progress?

Almost as common in popular rhetoric as the word ‘innovation’ is the word ‘disruption.’ Disruption refers to one popular way by which an invention enters common usage and becomes an innovation. When an innovation ‘disrupts’ an industry, it creates a new and more attractive way of delivering the service that the industry provides, and redefines business as usual for the industry. The other side of this coin is that a disruptive innovation makes the old way of doing things obsolete and irrelevant. It replaces a good-enough old method with an often highly promoted new method that appeals to a customer’s sensibilities, and in doing so transfers mastery of the field from the old experts to the new. Edison’s electric lights disrupted the oil and gas lamp industry and made the Edison Illuminating Company the last word in artificial light. Lyft and Uber disrupted the taxi industry and became the masters of urban transportation. Nukes disrupted warfare and made the US into the world’s foremost military power.

He’s gonna innovate the crap out of those bad guys.
Courtesy of Movie Pilot

This mastery – being the go-to person in an industry – comes with immense power, politically and economically. It’s what turned Edison into the ‘Wizard of Menlo Park’ and Oppenheimer into ‘Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.’ The power of being the latest and greatest innovator is prestigious. We idolize innovators both real and fictional – think Elon Musk or Tony Stark – and grant them the social license to do pretty much whatever they want. Perhaps this is why ASU wants to be “#1 in innovation.” It frees us from social oversight; all is acceptable in the name of innovation.

But we can’t all be the next big thing. Every new innovation undermines the last one, kicking the ladder out from underneath anyone who built on the older technology. The lightbulb made oil lamps obsolete, nukes nullified many combat tactics. Innovation becomes a zero-sum game where there can be only one victor, and everyone tries to innovate better than everyone else. In the process of establishing a new innovation we raze the old one to the ground, making obsolete all the effort that has gone into advancing the older technology and adopting it into our lives.

Rather than building on the successes of those who came before, innovation incites us to toss everything old onto the trash heap in favor of the shiniest novelty. A prime example of this is Elon Musk’s ‘innovative’ Hyperloop between DC and NYC. His underground vacuum train could disrupt the transportation industry, and would do so by ignoring the existing infrastructure and starting over from scratch. Never mind the massive investments that have already gone into creating a rail and road network, or the people who depend on and maintain these networks. Why would they want to ride a lame old train when they could be riding a shiny new Hyperloop?

A group of historians, social scientists, engineers and businesspeople have recently organized themselves under the banner of “The Maintainers,” and have put their collective minds to work on uncovering the value of old technologies: the kind that innovations seek to disrupt and toss into the trash. The Maintainers have shown that it is old technologies — those that aren’t shiny, ‘disruptive’, or even all that noticeable – that have the biggest effect on our lives. For every cool new innovation promising a marvelous future, there are dozens of technologies supporting the lives we live right now. What would the world be like without elevators, stoplights, or indoor plumbing?

Take a moment to appreciate how amazingly useful a toilet is.
Courtesy Consumer Reports

Our fetish for innovation blinds us to the importance of the technologies that we have all around us. What is really more useful: a futuristic vacuum train, or a toilet? The next new app or elevators? More than simply depriving toilets, elevators and trains of the respect they deserve, the process of innovation puts these technologies at risk. It’s the old technologies that we depend on, yet all our attention and resources go toward supporting the next innovation.

We’ve created a world where Elon Musk has the resources and public support to build a magic underground vacuum train, but the public transportation we have already built – and which many, many people rely on – is falling apart from lack of maintenance. Innovation’s proclivity for ‘disruption’ puts it at odds with the functioning of our daily lives; when everyone strives for disruptive innovation, the technologies we depend on are neglected and undermined.

What if every technology we used – elevators, cars, bridges, plumbing – became obsolete as quickly as iPhones do? What if we had to replace our roads, vehicles, and toilets every time they broke or malfunctioned, because all the engineers, mechanics, and plumbers are working on innovating the next big thing instead of repairing the technologies we all use? It would be exhausting, impractical, and wasteful. But that’s what a commitment to disruptive innovation would mean. We’d get a Hyperloop, but we’d have to give up on the comfort of functioning toilets.


This week we talked about how innovation disregards our history—next week we’ll explore how innovation’s promise of a glowing future is largely false.