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Deceptions of Innovations Investigating the Claims of Big Tech

The grand premise of innovation is that everyone benefits from it: technology not only yields great opportunity; it constructs great equality. The image of innovation is a redemptive one—but for whom?

15 years ago, then-senator, Barack Obama, addressed a group of young Americans being awarded for outstanding achievement by the Rockford Register Star. He said:

And so you need to be the Idea Generation. The generation who’s always thinking on the cutting edge, who’s wondering how to create and keep the next wave of American jobs and American innovations, who’s figuring out how to out-compete the Idea Generations of Indias and Chinas of the world.

His remarks from that day would frame the grand strategy of an American future that he would guide as US president three years later. The merit, purpose and yardstick for American success had been established: innovation.

But what is ‘innovation’? Classic definitions characterize it as that which ‘makes new’ but newness is not the only quality advocated by the innovation movement that we’ve become accustomed to. This newness must bring dominance, a sense of refreshment and—most importantly—redemption. This heroic depiction of innovation was evangelized by American leaders as a solution to the global recession. Innovation had become the promise for an abundant future that could redeem us from the unbearable treachery of mundanity and mediocrity. Remember Edison, Ford, Gates and Jobs? You could be like them. You should be like them—from rags to riches, hacker to stacker, entrepreneur to emperor.

Yesterday’s dogma of innovation became today’s Big Tech. Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook are bastions of a technocentric, techno-deterministic new normal promising to uproot the failures of our past and correct the miscalculations of our sentiments. Tech innovation won’t just save us, it will save us from ourselves. Right?

The Dogma of Disruption

The idea of ‘disruptive’ innovation was popularized by Clayton M. Christensen in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. He explains, using mainly historical anecdotes and poor data, that the presence or absence of disruption defined historical developments in market capture. The subsequent rise of dotcoms and technology platforms gave credence to this assumption; that disruptive innovation not only works but is ideal. Even Facebook’s initial motto, ‘Move fast and break things’, reflected the normalization of disruption as innovation.

Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Repore reviews how Christensen’s work and advocacy has misguided corporate values and entrepreneurial focus since the 2008 collapse of the global financial system. She notes how an idea like ‘disruption’ demonstrates the ways a nifty name can give life to bad research and theory. Using Christensen’s own examples, Repore argues how there is little to no evidence demonstrating that disruption has ever really happened. As far as Repore is concerned, Christensen’s concept is an example of theory driving data without context. Yet the ‘disruptive innovation’ idea is alive and thriving today and perusing the Harvard Business Review over the last decade suggests that much. The contagion of disruption and innovation is reflected by how readily businesses justify models and services that disregard the public interest and how they can afford to do so. Innovation is a calling constructed by the very ideology which has institutionalized global inequality, exploitation and plutocracy.

Repore notes how disruptive innovation within the financial services industry ultimately led to the global financial crisis, propelled by the sale of subprime mortgages, collateralized debt obligations and mortgage-backed securities. It is worthwhile to note that the meltdown instead fuelled the fervour for disruption; ‘disruptive’ products contributed to the very panic upon which ‘disruptive innovation’ thrives. Christensen later conceded that disruption fails to account for unpredictability despite its design and use as a predictive tool.

Today, ‘disruptive innovation’ is applied to spheres whose aims diverge from those of business. Concepts like ‘social innovation’, commonplace in some of the world’s leading universities and research institutes, promise to reorder society in competitive new ways yet remain blind to how systems shape the outcomes of competition. The revision of concepts calling for innovation appropriate progressive language but remain steadfast in one commitment: do not ‘stifle’ innovation. As Big Tech has monopolized the global economy and repurposes everyday life, the myths of dominance, totalization and standardization have rendered a new normal. Diverse ideas about what constitutes success, value and truth have been overshadowed by the tempting call for convenience.

Hostile Takeovers of Global Development

The grand premise of innovation is that everyone benefits from it: technology not only yields great opportunity; it constructs great equality. The image of innovation is a redemptive one—but for whom?

After the ‘knowledge crisis’ highlighted by the 2008 global financial collapse, social scientists began to reconsider fundamental assumptions behind economic, political science and cultural theory, hoping to account for ‘what we didn’t know and when we didn’t know it’. The resulting evidence has slowly chipped away at the innovation paradigm and exposed its exploits.

Substantial research focuses on the reality of how technology has propagated social inequalities globally. Policymakers have undoubtedly contributed to this, but the embeddedness of technology in critical infrastructure and everyday society has led to fundamental dependencies that leave many behind and make it difficult to hold technology organizations accountable. This situation leads to the ‘disfiguring’ of democratic practices globally and hampers democratic opportunities. We saw an explicit instance of this with the fallout from Cambridge Analytica, where Facebook was profiting from election interference practices.

Basic internet access remains obstructed for the developed world. However, companies like Facebook offer convenient ways to access the internet through smartphone services like Free Basics, aimed at capturing users with limited internet access. Targeted largely at the Global South, Free Basics adoption was rejected by Indians in 2016 over fears of a more ‘curated’ internet experience and heightened surveillance in exchange for access: losing a free internet for ‘some’ internet. Is the opportunity watershed of internet connectivity worth the price of certain freedoms? Can illiberal democracies afford those costs, which go beyond financial? Can a society remain free without net neutrality?

These questions have been the focus of recent works drawing parallels between the rise of surveillance platforms by Big Tech and colonialism. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff and The Costs of Connection by Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias both detail how surveillance practices underly today’s everyday technology and operate in a totalizing fashion, similar to the rise of colonialism in the past. Also similar to Adam Smith’s argument that concentrated wealth yields concentrated power, these researchers demonstrate how concentrated data yields concentrated power over systems, networks, and the freedom of choice.

Data colonialism and surveillance capitalism go hand-in-hand as exploitative projects propelled by global neoliberals seeking to leverage the hope for mobilizing opportunity as the root for their political and material monopoly. While these problems may seem aggrandized at times, evidence suggests that issues relating to privacy, security, human rights, national sovereignty and policymaking are exacerbated for regions like the Global South. In these regions, people are left with options that others cannot easily be held accountable for.

Laws and Sausages and Tech

The poet, John Godfrey Saxe, once said there were two things you didn’t want to see being made: laws and sausages. These days, we may say the same of technology.

Technologies that keep life running smoothly are not sexy, as Andrew Russell argues, and the role of innovation is overvalued against the role of maintenance. The romanticization of innovation obscures the reality of how the world works, should work and will work. He writes:

Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. This preoccupation with novelty is unfortunate because it fails to account for technologies in widespread use, and it obscures how many of the things around us are quite old… The stalest innovation stories focus on well-to-do white guys sitting in garages in a small region of California, but human beings in the Global South live with technologies too. Which ones? Where do they come from? How are they produced, used, repaired? Yes, novel objects preoccupy the privileged, and can generate huge profits. But the most remarkable tales of cunning, effort, and care that people direct toward technologies exist far beyond the same old anecdotes about invention and innovation.

To truly recognize what we’re signing up for with a ‘Technology First’ world, we need to elucidate what our resistance to and resilience from the shortcomings of this normalized pro-innovation worldview mean.

Policymakers have slowly begun to respond with measures to address corporate technology autonomy and embeddedness but there is still anxiety around the liabilities from structural vulnerabilities posed by platforms, providers and users. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) by the State of California in the US are early examples of how regulators are implementing punishments. Kenya, with the Data Protection Act of 2019 and South Africa, with the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA), set to commence later this year, are examples of African efforts to ensure digital rights for citizens.

Such efforts, while interpreted as modernizing, reflect the geopolitical risk of technology regulation, where falling behind on digital rights could mean magnifying the digital divide, characterizing most of the illiberal world. However, these early data regulatory schemes generally protect concerns related to privacy and data ownership which includes a limited scope of the risks digital technology practices pose to a free society. Effects on areas like the workforce are evident as technocentric hiring practices continue to reinforce the exclusion politics seen in systemic discrimination, privilege and inequality. Those wary of tech dominance can only opt out of it because they can afford to. The image of progress held up by innovation has many ambitious claims, but the real results prove it to be dismantling, destructive and disenchanting.

Diffusion of Deceptions

Everett Rogers’ 1962 publication, Diffusion of Innovations, brought the study of innovation into public consciousness. Examining how tipping points and systemic change explained the adoption of innovations, Rogers’ work and its value have been obscured over time because the idea of ‘diffusion’ has become over-diffused. Similarly, today, we have become disrupted by ‘disruption’ and to critique innovation is seen as a challenge to progress itself.

The advocacy of innovation espoused by the Obama administration would become the very undoing of its legacy. Ahead of the 2008 US elections, President Obama redefined 21st-century political campaigning by seizing marketing innovations with social media, and would later be hailed as the ‘most tech-savvy’ president. These very practices were later exploited by various actors, including Donald Trump’s campaign and authoritarian intelligence operatives, to successfully sway the results of the 2016 presidential election. These revelations and persisting evidence have done little to change how policymakers and media will approach the 2020 general election. Disinformation innovation has a renewed market value.

The ideological construct of innovation tells us that past performance predicts future results and measurability is the bottom line. It tells us ‘functionabilities’ are true fortunes, real talents are enumerable capabilities, and alignments are destinies. Forget the cross-pollination of independent traditions that may lead nowhere, the long-term development of immeasurable assets, and the incongruencies of histories known and unknown. Innovation has disrupted tradition as a theory of nature and nurture. The world may not necessarily be getting better but, at least, our devices are getting newer and newer

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