Saturday, July 17, 2010

Innovation

This morning, I read an editorial from the BBC Magazine on America's love of innovation. I typically read such things with trepidation, and today was no exception. In fact, the title (which ended in a preposition) was nearly enough to cull my interest. But I was intrigued by what a Brit might think of American innovation, so I swallowed my initial irritation and read.
Webb begins by explaining that innovation means different things across the Atlantic. That, in Europe and in America, the term itself connotes different meanings, different feelings. The understanding of it is taken in a cultural and social context.
In the New World it is a wholly positive word; it connotes the life-force itself. It speaks of what drives human beings to achieve. It suggests the conquering of disease and ignorance. It is at the core of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Of Europe, however, he says:
But innovation per se? Let us get back to you on that; let us see how it really turns out, this innovation of yours. Let us wonder out loud whether change is really necessary or whether in fact the old ways of doing things, stretching back to feudal times, are the best ways.
I began to see what he was getting at, and in my American brain a truth rang loud and clear: sometimes you must take that first blind step away from your comfortable past and toward your unknown future.
Webb continued, drawing (amusingly) on his own "European" past (though most Brits will tell you they loathe to be considered European). A bit of this English snobbery came out:
David Brooks, one of America's finest political commentators, suggested years ago that his countryfolk lived life in the future tense. That imperative to succeed, to see innovation as the core of the way things should be, is an American phenomenon. We Europeans live life at least partly in the past tense. We are fearful and careworn: experience tells us, we say, that this might not work. Americans, sans experience of anything much, reckon it might and reckon as well that it is worth giving it a go. Whatever it is.
I objected - "we have experience!" I thought defensively. But I caught myself and considered, and he's right. We've had wars, but not like Europeans have had wars; we've suffered terrorism, but not like Europeans have; we've had a busy couple hundred years, but they've had a busy couple thousand. It's not that we don't have experience, it's that our collection of it has, admittedly, a lot of catching up to do. That doesn't mean our limited experience is worth less, but only that it is just that - limited.
In the end, Webb even linked the American belief in innovation to our "weird religiosity." While Europeans are content with the empty, passive traditions of their old churches, Americans demand results: "in fact it merely represents, it seems to me, a truth about the [American] nation: the search for God is not just a search in the lazy passive European way: it is a search with an end in sight." And in a strange way, this touched me. My search for meaning in life has always been, and continues to be, almost frantic - every night I fall asleep with an unspoken hope that I can wake again in the morning and continue where I left off, even if I know full well that I may never reach any conclusion. That hunger will never be satiated, and I prefer it that way. If this frenetic, seeking hope is what is meant by innovation, then so be it. It makes me proud to be an American.

And to make a last little jab at the British (I just can't help it) - one commented, "The author is obviously misinformed. We Europeans are always and have always been at the forefront of innovation. We are just incredibly modest about it. A recent study by a Japanese University concluded that over 40% of all modern inventions were invented in Northern Europe with a large majority originating from the UK." The projected population of Europe for last year was about 800 million, whereas the American population is only 300 million. This makes the European "40% of all innovations" a bit piddly, considering all those people... not only that, it completely ignores the fact that many of those inventions were by Europeans who had moved to the US. And having to tell yourself that you're being modest only proves you're not.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for a very interesting post. I'd try to take this to deeper psychological levels. Cultures go through phases of rise and fall, power and diminishment. France in its royal and then Napoleonic heyday would have been seen as innovative, spreading new rules and aspirations throughout Europe, in addition to material changes (canned food, for instance). Then Victorian England ruled the world, innovating its way through the steam age and industrial revolution. The US seems to be the last locus of high power and innovation, starting with its endless physical horizon of continental territory and continuing on with the curious empire we sponsor around the world today.

    Of course we are all curious about what is next. Europe is shooting itself in the foot economically as we speak, while China and other Asian countries have been much more intelligent in weathering the economic storm. Will their pell-mell growth translate to a cultural moment of high innovation? I am not sure. One could make a case either way. Personally, I would suggest that the next frontier of innovation might not resemble the growth phases of the past, but come to grips with our ecological and quality-of-life limits, building a happier and more sustainable world, not one with new empires and more consumption.

    But then the robots take over, and all bets are off!

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  2. Burk, who knows? Perhaps the robot revolution will lead to a utopia like the world has never before conceived.... It's a thought, anyway.

    You're certainly right that there's a time-dependence to the social and cultural factors at play in the concept of innovation. America is still young, coming into its prime, in a tremendous amount of control with respect to things like world politics and economics. So it seems obvious that America, in such a place, should be full of innovation, just as the Roman Empire was, or the Ottoman Empire, or Napoleonic France, or Victorian England. And as who you are is a conglomeration of "nature and nurture," your outlook on life will be affected by the conditions of your life, so that if you live in an age of great forward-thinking and innovation, you yourself will tend toward this mindset. Statistically speaking, anyway.

    Personally, I think it's likely a good idea we all start learning Mandarin - just as Latin, French, and now English have been the world's common tongue, Chinese will be the next.

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  3. I'm not sure I entirely agree with the thrust of the article. There seems to be a confusion between change, innovation and progress,
    which are all related but decidedly different. Certainly, there's a love in the US of innovation. However, I'd say there's an optimism in US culture which is based against a reluctance to change, in that old values are held high. Sometimes this can be positive, and sometimes negative. Some US states still cling to the idea that execution is an acceptable form of justice. Some still outlaw home-brewing - something which is presumably a relic of the days of complete prohibition. On the other hand, the US still (admirably) looks at its constitution, not as an archaic document, but as the imperative foundation of its society. To its great credit, the US still remembers that a pocket knife is a tool first, a weapon second. In the UK, you're considered with the deepest suspicion for carrying a small pocket-knife, for why else would you carry one but for the purpose of plunging it into another human? Such reactionary "progress" is indicative of culture which will leap headlong into changing its very foundations, without the slightest intellectual consideration of the issues at hand, or lessons of the past.

    Technologically too, Britain leaps ahead in accepting new ideas, sometimes forgetting the past. The personal cheque (check) is virtually defunct in Britain, abandoned as the ridiculously outdated and flawed financial medium that it clearly is. However, almost all washing machines in Britain are now front-loading washer-dryers; compact machines which do two jobs, but both at a mediocre level, for the sake of convenience. It was only 20 years ago that there were many large old-style machines that are still in use in the US - machines that may be basic and bulky, but which do a much better job at actually cleaning clothes. Most in Britain have forgotten what the old machines are like, and are now satisfied with the inferior performance of the new ones. In Britain, the "big brother" cameras are everywhere - for it is considered better that we have no privacy and catch the criminals, than uphold long-held rights to privacy in a less efficient system. Over the past 50 years, Britain has been performing a constant jig, bouncing between nationalisation and privatisation of its services, in a dance of indecision - all whimsical change, and no stability.

    If I was to generalise in such a way, I'd say that Britain is the nation obsessed with change, but laced with an almost unhealthy dose of cynicism, whereas the US is considerably more reserved, but exhibits an optimism in the old foundations proving triumphant in the future.

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  4. Do you suppose that Britain's "jig" is because of the the governmental system? It's my understanding that many things - the amount of paperwork required to do anything, for instance - have become as they are over the last decade or so, because one particular party has been in power. Normal UK citizens think "oh, that's the way it's always been," when that's really only the way it's been in recent memory. A decade earlier, the opposite was the case. In the US, because of the staggering of elections, this kind of back-and-forth occurs on the scale of two years, instead of decades. This kind of timescale difference must have some effect.

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