Innovation And Its Potential To Damage Society

From the collection Economics of Innovation

The benefits of innovation are seldom questioned. Virtually every single growth initiative formulated by governments around the world to deal with today’s challenging economic conditions invariably circles back to the need to promote innovation as a panacea.

But what if innovation is not an unalloyed good for society? What if it simply adds to our current dystopian dysfunction?

These are questions at the heart of the exchange below with Simon Head, author of the recent book, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Dumber Humans. Head argues that our brave new world of networked computers, with monitoring software attached, have hugely expanded “the power to manage the affairs of giant global corporations and…micromanage the work of their single employees or teams of employees.” Their possibilities have spawned “Computer Business Systems” (CBS) which have colonized much of the service sector.

The ultimate impact is to discourage intuition and judgment in a large population, except for a tiny class of highly paid engineers and managers who are needed to activate and control the automated systems. What Head calls “digital managerialism” achieves this by transforming the objects of management into “electronic representations” of human beings. Organizations such as Wal-Mart or Amazon.com deploy innovation in their management systems to create what Head terms a “panoptic monitoring regime to pick up on…human waywardness [on the part of the employees] and correct it without delay.” At financial institutions like Goldman Sachs, traders and managers depend so heavily on algorithms that they abdicate personal responsibility for events like the subprime mortgage crisis.

In short, in the interview below, Head evokes a very different sort of world than the relentlessly sunny vision presented by the spokesmen in Silicon Valley. It brings to mind Orwell’s 1984 - technology and innovation harnessed in the service of creating an environment of computerized control and monitoring. And it evokes the harsh capitalism of early industrial revolution, rather than the “golden period” of prosperity that existed in much of the post World War II era.

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