Innovation and its Discontents - Where are we heading?

Process Player Piano
Stuart Rankin
Borrowing from Adam Jaffe and Josh Lerner's 2004 book, Innovation and its Discontents, an emerging discourse in innovation economics is highlighting more and more the negative impacts of the intense period of innovation in which we currently live. In the UK, the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex recently celebrated its 50th anniversary with a large conference entitled, "Transforming Innovation."

Nearly two years ago, Kat Neil wrote about declining public trust in innovation. It is becoming increasingly apparent that economic growth and innovation is not benefitting everyone, and that it needs to be addressed by policy and society.  At the SPRU conference, a session on IP looked at clashes between intellectual property rights and human rights’ protection.

An ongoing concern is the potential that the participation of low-skilled workers in production will be rendered obsolete. A dystopian take on this suggests that innovation in Artificial Intelligence (AI) will give rise to the Useless Class, a disenfranchised section of society with skills for which there is no demand. The potential social fall-out from this disenfranchisement is extremely unpleasant with a large portion of society no longer having a "reason to get up in the morning."

No one ever believed Cassandra
A panel entitled, "‘Racing with the machine’: Tensions and trade-offs between technology, innovation and employment," discussed alternate approaches to address the economically disenfranchised.  One option is guaranteed income, where all members of society are guaranteed sufficient income to survive and thereby distributing more equally the spoils of innovation. A second option is guaranteed work, in which members of society are guaranteed work. Izabella Kaminska of the Financial Times noted care work is a good candidate for such a scheme (the idea that care work should be paid is something feminist economics have looked at for some time, as discussed in the comments in this post.)  Each of these options have downfalls, with guaranteed income conflicting with dominant capitalist approaches, and guaranteed work raising questions as to what that work would entail.

These debates are not new, in Kurt Vonnegut Jr's 1952 debut novel, Player Piano, an American society operates in a guaranteed work scheme, where citizen's lot in life is determined by IQ and National General Classification Tests. It's not a pretty picture. Large portions of society are idle or superficially employed, the fabric of society is in tatters, and innovators are constantly innovating people out of jobs. (I thoroughly recommend the book, with the caveat that it thoroughly fails the Bechdel test.)
The First Industrial Revolution devalued muscle work, then the second one devalued routine mental work. ...
"Do you suppose there'll be a Third Industrial Revolution?" Paul paused in his office doorway. "A third one? What would that be like?"
"I don't know exactly. The first and second ones must have been sort of inconceivable at one time."
"To the people who were going to be replaced by machines, maybe. A third one, eh? In a way, I guess the third one's been going on for some time, if you mean thinking machines. That would be the third revolution, I guess - machines that devaluate human thinking. Some of the big computers like EPICAC do that all right, in specialized fields.
- Kurt Vonnegut Jr, 1952 

Or are we crying wolf?
Taking a more positive note on innovation, Lord Nicholas Stern's keynote speech noted the need to address climate change, and the potential for innovation to address problems in the Anthropocene age (the Age of Humans, in which our impact is the dominant force on the planet). An on-going challenge is the two-prong approach of reducing negative environment impacts via reduced consumption and more efficient production.

Returning to a more depressing note, a session on entrepreneurship, policy and industrial dynamics highlighted that we have virtually no empirical evidence that innovation policies work.  Professor David Storey reported that, after decades of research in this area, he no longer trusts self-report evidence (e.g. surveys.)  Participants in innovation support schemes nearly always report that the scheme was beneficial, while a handful of studies which do not rely on surveys suggest otherwise.  Your Katonomist raised the subject of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs, a technique often used in medical research where subjects are randomly assigned placebo or treatment groups) as potentially the great white hope of innovation research.  RCTs may prove more robust, but, as Professor Marc Cowling noted, they still use self-report data. I suspect we will see more on this in the future.

Are we really heading into a dystopian vision of masses of unemployed where only specialist, knowledge-based skills are in demand? The IPKat community can be relatively secure in our highly human and intellectual capital heavy industry. However, changes in innovation may affect demand for our services. We'll be in better shape once we've invented the crystal ball.
Innovation and its Discontents - Where are we heading? Innovation and its Discontents - Where are we heading? Reviewed by Nicola Searle on Friday, September 16, 2016 Rating: 5


  1. "The IPKat community can be relatively secure in our highly human and intellectual capital heavy industry."

    I bet Go players felt that way until a few months ago.

  2. From my favorite Economistsview blog, a summary at

    of a paper from the chairman of the CEA of the White House.

    Pdf paper:

  3. I think Vonnegut may have run off with that ball:
    Even as I speak, the very last polar bear may be dying of hunger on account of climate change, on account of us.

    Here, and shockingly few other places in this country, men are paid to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that.
    “That’s very generous of General Forge and Foundry Company.”
    Nothing generous about it. New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become.

    Cat's Cradle 1963

    More recently Jeffrey Lewis mused:
    "I kinda thought I was gonna grow up to do stuff that would benefit humanity.
    But it's getting harder to tell if this inventor's life is even benefiting me."

    Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror


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