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Our Naive "Innovation" Fetish

Left, right, and center—everyone loves the buzzword of modern America

Who today is against innovation? It is a word capable of uniting even the two parties. In December, the House passed a bill called the Innovation Act by a margin of 325 to 91. Cities (like Austin and San Francisco) have established innovation offices. Two years ago, the White House launched an innovations fellows program to place technology-savvy workers inside various (presumably innovation-deficient) federal agencies. The nation’s innovator-in-chief, Barack Obama, has extolled, “Don’t just download the latest app [but] help design it. Don’t just play on your phone [but] program it.”

As a buzzword, “innovation” appeals to the left and the right, both of which claim it as their own. For the left, the case is plausible, at least in the abstract. The values of innovation—uncompromising experimentation, radical impatience with the current order—seem squarely of progressive provenance. But the left’s ecstatic celebration of innovation helps to conceal its glaring absence of a robust technology policy—at least one that is independent of Silicon Valley and serves social goods greater than flying cars and longevity pills.

Take something as basic as access to knowledge—a theme of the left ever since the days of the Enlightenment. What, one might ask, is the left’s current vision on the issue? Some might point to the Digital Public Library of America—a worthy initiative that seeks to make digital holdings accessible online—but it’s an effort spearheaded by elite universities and private foundations. It barely registers on the radar of policymakers in Washington—and for very good reasons: The success of such a project would require ambitious structural reform of the copyright system. And what politician on the left has the courage for that?

Without a policy, the left prefers to imagine that democratic access to knowledge will magically materialize; that innovation will produce projects that look like Wikipedia—with a strong social dimension and free access. And it’s true that many of the platforms built by the tech industry—from Skype to YouTube—can be used for civic purposes. But it’s also true the companies that have beneficently provided the platforms are intent on maximizing their own commercial agendas. These products might disappear as swiftly as they appeared, eliminating the information infrastructure that we already take for granted.

Who today remembers Google Reader—a handy but unprofitable tool for keeping track of news feeds that the company shut down last year? Won’t a similar fate await Google Scholar, a tool used by plenty of academics to keep track of citations and articles? So far, the left has kept quiet about such risks, hoping that some other innovation would come along to replace whatever commercial services face extinction.

But why not acknowledge that some services like Google Scholar are important enough to warrant formal institutionalization and public support? Of course, saying this would require the left to accept that a non-commercial approach is needed and that Silicon Valley can’t offer much here.

The conservative position on innovation is more ambiguous. It’s hard to imagine classical conservatives—in the mold of Edmund Burke or Michael Oakeshott—getting too enthused about the disruptive potential of apps and gadgets. But today, many on the right eagerly celebrate the fruits of “creative destruction,” without spending a moment fretting about its impact on the culture.

That’s because many conservatives consider “innovation” a mere synonym for deregulation. Some on the libertarian right have become fond of the idea of “permissionless innovation”—a notion that they borrow from recent Internet history. The idea is that the Internet only thrived, because its creators didn’t need to beg powerful gatekeepers for permission to invent. That’s a line of argument even some of the founding fathers of the Internet hold. As Vint Cerf, who designed the key Internet protocol, said in 2011: “[On the Internet] if you want to try something out, you just do it. The Yahoo! guys and the Google guys and the Skype guys didn’t ask permission to build their products and services; they just put them up on the Internet and let people come and use them.” Cerf, it should be noted, was primarily concerned with the power of big companies—the likes of AT&T—and not with big government.

For many libertarians, however, the indisputable success of the Internet offers a wonderful template for promoting deregulation more broadly. “Advocates of the Internet are right to extol the permissionless innovation model—but they are wrong to believe that it need be unique to the Internet,” writes Eli Dourado of the Mercatus Center, a bastion of libertarian thought funded by the Koch brothers. “We can legalize innovation in the physical world, too.” Dourado is quick to show how it could be done: Bitcoin can “do for finance what the Internet did for communication.” It’s as if there is no difference between AT&T and the Federal Reserve, since both are gatekeepers. That one is a profit-hungry private company and the other one is a political institution erected to carry out a public mission does not seem to matter.

But why assume that innovation—and, by extension, economic growth—should be the default yardstick by which we measure the success of technology policy? One can easily imagine us living with a very different “Internet” had the regulators of the 1990s banned websites from leaving small pieces of code—the so-called “cookies”—on our computers. Would this slow down the growth of the online advertising industry, making everyday luxuries such as free e-mail unavailable? Most likely. But advertising is hardly the only way to support an e-mail service: It can also be supported through fees or even taxes. Such solutions might be bad for innovation, but the privacy they afford to citizens might be good for democratic life.

This is where the left’s enchantment with innovation talk is particularly detrimental to its long-term interests. For they too—at least those on the left who deal with the arcane issues of technology policy—have embraced the very same language. Marvin Ammori at the New America Foundation, for instance, warns that “the neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive.” Here even the freedom of expression hinges upon the correct framework for innovation.

The “permissionless innovation” meme is regularly invoked in defense of the left’s favorite cause of “net neutrality”—the idea that network operators should treat all content passing through their systems equally and without discrimination. But there’s an irony: The big telecom companies complain that net neutrality wouldn’t treat all companies equally. In fact, the law might actually force them to ask the government for permission to innovate—for example, if they want to charge extra for premium online services—where no such permission is needed currently. Ultimately, the public will have to determine which side—the start-ups or the incumbents—produce more “innovation.” And the incumbents will probably win this fight: They don’t have to prove anything—they just have to introduce enough uncertainty to make definitive conclusions impossible. They certainly have the lobbyists to do it.

The lesson for the left is simple: “Innovation” is no substitute for a robust technology policy. It must frame its arguments around big themes of equality and justice. Of course, those goals are buried somewhere in its information agenda; it’s just that the left, mesmerized by the jargon of TED Talks and Al Gore, has simply preferred not to emphasize them. Instead, the left accepts that these questions require economic thinking, with its fascination with efficiency and constant change. But the genuine act of innovation would be to redefine the idea altogether.

Evgeny Morozov is a senior editor at The New Republic.