Searching for the Limits of Innovation Speak

In a blog post at, Chunka Mui, author of the recently released book, The New Killer Apps, offers up a friendly critique of my last post here on the job-killing potentials of autonomous (or self-driving) cars and other cyberphysical systems, like drones.  Mui's main point is that my warning about autonomous vehicles undervalues the human toll of automobiles, including deaths and injuries. He would rather see lives saved by adopting autonomous cars than see jobs saved by not adopting them.

In this response post, I want to say, first, that Mui misunderstands me. On the point of adopting autonomous cars as consumer goods, he and I are closer than he might imagine. In fact, I could easily see, within the next twenty years, becoming an advocate for mandating the use of self-driving systems on all cars for reasons of safety, emissions control, and fuel economy.

But, second, I also want to claim that there is a logical incoherence in Mui's larger argument and that, on a deeper level, it is his fondness for certain kinds of buzzwords, like killer apps and disrupting technologies, that has led him astray. Adopting autonomous cars as consumer goods does not necessarily, or inevitably, entail that we must also use the technology to kill jobs. We need to remember that.

Ultimately, however, Mui's overvaluing, if not outright worshipping, of killer apps and disruption and such is a symptom of his relationship to the notion of innovation. (Mui manages to use the word innovation and its near relatives eight times in the short piece.) So, in the third and final part of my response, I'll go one step further and argue that our culture has a real innovation speak problem. We need to find new ways of thinking and talking, ways that better reflect our core values. 

A few weeks ago, I sent my blog post on autonomous cars to Dave Farber's famous email list, Interesting People, which is filled with smart readers from the tech world. A few days later, Mui responded to the list, "I'm troubled that the article pays lip service to the autonomous vehicle safety question on the way to the labor question. . . . Autonomous vehicles offer the potential of reducing a significant percentage  of . . . accidents. To me, that is the most profound impact of the technology." Here, Mui just misunderstands my point. If I gave short shrift to safety in the autonomous car post, it's because I cover very little else than the risks of the automobile and how to decrease those risks on this blog. That's what this blog is about!!!! So, I didn't feel the need to address that issue in the post on potential job loss. I am a strong advocate for safety, as my earlier post on the federal government's failure to create a new rearview camera standard makes clear.

Part of Mui's misreading of my position may be my own fault, however. In an effort to cut what I thought was a too long post, I excised several parts from the autonomous car piece, including the following lines, "After everything I've written here it may sound hypocritical of me to say that, for reasons of crash safety, I am a cautious advocate for autonomous cars, but I am. My point is that we have to think through the systematic effect that adopting a technology might have and make intentional choices about how we adopt it." So, apologies if I was unclear. 

Still, I think that Mui doesn't work his way through the systematic effects of adopting technologies, nor does he deal with how we might make intentional choices to lessen certain negative impacts of adoptions. It's sad because that means he doesn't really engage with most of what I said in that earlier piece. Take this example. Mui writes, "Jobs will only be lost if Google or some other innovators delivers fully autonomous cars." Do you see how gorgeously passive that sentence is? "Jobs will . . . be lost" just like mistakes will be made.

It's not surprising that Mui's statement here closely resembles one that Jeff Bezos made in an interview with Charlie Rose (which I quoted in my post on autonomous vehicles). Rose was pushing Bezos on the well-worn issue of how Amazon closed local businesses, to which Bezos responded, "The Internet is disrupting every media industry, Charlie, you know, people can complain about that, but complaining is not a strategy. And Amazon is not happening to book selling, the future is happening to book selling." In my earlier blog post, I wrote, "Bezos's statement is a beautiful example of someone using the notion of technological determinism—the idea that technological change drives social change—to absolve himself of responsibility."

It's not surprising that Mui closely mirrors Bezos because both men are beholden to a certain view of the world that is sadly common today. It's a worldview built of buzzwords and cliches—the kind of double-speak that Orwell warned us about so long ago. (For a nice list of buzzwords and catchphrases, check out the trailer for Mui's recently released book.) Killer apps and disruptive technologies are two good examples of the buzzwords dear to adherents of this worldview, but there are many others. (What's your favorite tech buzzword, dear reader? Feel free to list them in the comment field!) It's only recently that I've come to appreciate fully how so many of these buzzwords act as a  cover for arguments guilty of technological determinism. It shocks me in part because in the academic communities that study technology such arguments have been out of fashion at least since the 1960s. To make a technologically determinist argument is a major faux pas and the cause of much embarrassment.

But I'm certainly being naive. Of course, the tech world and its Silicon Valley thought leaders want to make arguments where the technology does all the acting. Bezos makes such argument to absolve himself of responsibility, and Mui makes them because he wants to sell the kinds of books that business people buy at airports. (His previous titles: Billion Dollar Lessons: What You Can Learn from the Most Inexcusable Business Failures of the Last 25 Years and Unleashing the Killer App: Digital Strategies for Market Dominance.) Mui's readers likely either want to design the killer app so they can be disruptive like Bezos did or they are disruptive and now want to absolve themselves of responsibility like Bezos now does. 

With these thoughts of technological determinism in mind, let's look at the title and subtitle of Mui's piece: "Will the Google Car Force A Choice Between Lives and Jobs? I hope so, and I would choose lives." Well, first off, the Google Car isn't going to "force" anything at all because, if it did, it would be capable of artificial intelligence or something. If groups USE autonomous cars to replace workers, it will go like this: Google or some other company will perfect an autonomous car. Google will then sell the system to the automakers (Google doesn't want to manufacture cars). The automakers will make autonomous cars. Likely before production begins, pro-autonomous car groups will pressure state governments around the USA to create some (at least semi-) uniform laws to deal with autonomous vehicles. Only then(!), after all of these previous steps and many more besides, will corporations have the chance to use autonomous vehicles to replace workers. Cars don't lay people off; corporate executives do. Weak thinking and sloppy writing—things as basic as using passive voice—hide this important fact, just as Mui does.

But, second, we can easily see that Mui is forcing a false dilemma on us. We could adopt autonomous cars for safety reasons and choose not to use them to kill jobs. There's nothing inevitable about using autonomous vehicles to replace workers. Indeed, we can imagine not wanting to have vehicles without trained users "behind the wheel" on our roads, just as we insist on having pilots in the mostly automated planes in our skies.

We have to go beyond the logical incoherence of this false dilemma and the implicit technological determinism in Mui's argument to see the deeper matter at hand, however. These issues are just symptoms of an underlying condition, the dominance of "innovation speak" in our culture, because when it comes down to it Mui's argument is that we all have to adapt or we'll be left behind. As he writes, "Those that fall into this all-too-easy tendency to defend the past rather than invent the future will end up on the wrong side of the inevitable creative destruction. The resulting havoc to their investors, employees, business partners, etc., will be devastating." Change or die, as the saying goes. (See Matt Wisnioski's wonderful history of that expression here.) 

Mui introduces his analysis of innovation by telling us a moving story about his father's life in the laundry business and how people used automatic dryers in ways that shut down his father's line of work. This story is really the best part of Mui's post. He describes how his father's work, which allowed the family entry into the lower middle class, opened up immense opportunities for Mui himself. But his path into the lower middle class is closed; there's something to mourn about that. (But again, note Mui's technologically-determinist writing: "Just as washing machines eliminated Chinese laundries, fully driverless vehicles would eliminate many professional driving jobs . . .")

Mui's argument then makes a rhetorical turn. He says that, while only jobs were lost by the way that people adopted and used automatic laundry machines, we have to add injuries and deaths to our consideration of adopting autonomous cars. Again, he says that eliminating deaths justifies the adoption of the self-driving cars. I have already shown that he is forcing a false dilemma. The important point, however, is that the moral of Mui's story is that we should accept innovation in general. (All innovation? What about innovations that help drug dealers better sell illegal drugs? Or what about innovations that enable better acts of terrorism? How do we tell the difference between good innovations and bad innovations? And who gets to choose which is which and which ones should come into being?) In making his argument,  Mui simply restates the dominant ideology of today, and he uses the most common word of that ideology to do it.

In part of my research, I have been examining the history of the notion of "innovation" and how various parties adopted and used it. (This research fits into my general interest in the history and sociology of buzzwords and jargon.) Use of the word "innovation" began rising immediately after World War Two—a conflict in which novel technologies and scientific discoveries played critical roles—and the word experienced exponential growth during the Cold War. Its increasing use has barely ever flagged since, and today we hear the word more than ever. 

(A professor friend jokingly suggested to his students that they play a drinking game during one of Obama's State of the Union Addresses by taking a drink every time Obama said the word "innovation." Later that night as he listened to the address, he became extremely worried because he realized, that if any of his students had taken him seriously and if they had used shots of hard alcohol to play the game, they would have been dead.)

A Google Ngram of the word "innovation" from 1900 to 2008, the last year available. I don't think we should lean heavily on Ngrams as evidence, but they are suggestive, and in this case, the curve fits other kinds of evidence available. 

Things are even more dramatic if consider phrases, like "innovation policy," use of which shot off like a rocket around 1980. 

A Google Ngram for the phrase "innovation policy" from 1900 to 2008. 

A Google Ngram for the phrase "innovation policy" from 1900 to 2008. 

There are many things to say about these trends. Certainly, they are partly explained by the recession of the 1970s and worries that Japan was overtaking the USA technologically. I go into more depth about the historical context of these developments in my other work, but for now I want to juxtapose these trends around use of the word "innovation" with some other trends. 

This graph is from Mother Jones, obviously. Folks there built it using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Census Bureau.

This graph is from Mother Jones, obviously. Folks there built it using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Congressional Budget Office, and the Census Bureau.

As we all know, economic inequality has greatly increased in the United States since the 1970s, and for many Americans, the real value of their income has decreased over the same period. The US has fallen behind in several other markers as well. (Perhaps the most famous list of which is contained in this rant from the TV show, Newsroom.) The most provocative reading of this juxtaposition is to say that, during the era of "innovation," we have become a worse people. But certainly it's not THAT simple. On the one hand, there is no causal relationship here. Focusing on innovation doesn't necessarily lead to inequality. But on the other hand, many policies done in the name of "innovation" haven't helped matters much either. Conservative neoliberal policies, like trickle-down economics, deregulation, and tax cuts, exacerbate inequality and other social problems. Liberal policies, like using public funds to pay for regional innovation clusters and tech incubators, likely just put money in the hands of hyper-educated people who might find dough elsewhere. 

More troubling, however, is the vaguer, more philosophical mindsets that have accompanied "innovation." The vision verges on a kind of Social Darwinism, where the strong survive until the environment shifts and then they either must adapt or be displaced by the new rulers. The lesson is that, if, say, the "winds of creative destruction" come and "innovation" moves your job to a maquiladora on the Mexican border or a factory in China or replaces you with a machine, you can get stuffed. In this worldview, such changes are "natural," "inevitable," "unstoppable." The vision has disenfranchised ordinary citizens to an enormous degree. It has led people to believe that they have no power to shape the world, and it has enabled the wealthy to make themselves more so.

I am not saying that we should be anti-innovation. That would be stupid. Part of my academic work focuses on how we can re-tune innovation policy and research funding mechanisms to produce more and better technological change. And I like many new things. I fucking love using Spotify on my iPhone to listen to the new Mark Kozelek and Jimmy Lavalle record on big, puffy, bright red headphones as I take my dog for long walks around the neighborhood. Or whatever. My work as a historian has also been vastly improved by the rise of digital tools, including things as ubiquitous as Google Books. My point is that we have to stop acting as if innovation is one of our core values, like family, love, spirituality, fellow-feeling between neighbors, really, really beauty things, a sense of justice, and freedom from economic insecurity. (I'm sure that readers have their own list of core values, but that list is close to mine.) And we have to ask who innovation is good for.

For all of these reasons, we should be critical of argument's like Chunka Mui's and his insistence that we just have to adapt. His killer apps and disruptive technologies and other buzzwords do us little service.  It's deeply ironic that Chunka Mui is the managing director of a consultancy called the "Devil's Advocate Group" because that is precisely the position he seems incapable of embracing. Instead, he simply regurgitates the reigning orthodoxies of the day.

I will end this post the same place I ended the last—by making a plea for more imaginative thought about how to move our society forward. Unfortunately, the battle to regain our imaginations will involve clearing out a lot of garbage—or as two earlier book titles put it, going Against the Self-Images of Age or conducting The War Against Cliche.

Until those new thinkers emerge, you'll be happy to know that I am one of the founding members of Inno-Anon, a twelve-step group for recovering innovation speakers. Keep your eyes peeled for local branches opening soon in Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley (Manhattan), Boston, and other inno-speak hotspots!!!! 


Update (12/24/13): Chunka Mui has put up a response to this post at, where he writes, "I was surprised by your choice to imbue your response with an attack on my choice of words and sentence construction." I reply to him in the comments there, pointing out some problems in his response and continuing trouble in his choice of words and sentence construction, which is not just an issue of grammatical persnickety-ness but one of logical and moral clarity.