Jill Lepore’s popular essay in The New Yorker, “The Disruption Machine: What the Gospel of Innovation Gets Wrong,” requires some annotation.
First, though, some appreciation. Wise and wistful, scathing and sly, the piece raises important questions and invites strong reactions. +1 and more for Lepore.
The scathing part, which comprises much of her essay and has received much of the attention, is not my interest here. As Lepore describes it, the theory of “disruptive innovation,” hyped by her Harvard colleague Clayton Christensen, doesn’t meet the standards of good historical analysis.
My concern is about the stance Lepore takes — that wisely, wistfully sly stance. Here’s my summary of her position: The post-Enlightenment idea of inevitable progress has lost its power, even among those who have cherished it. Some have sought to replace “progress” with “innovation,” but newer does not necessarily mean better. The future is unreadable.
As a comparison, I’ll quote Stephen Toulmin, from the conclusion to Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity. “We have a choice between two attitudes toward the future,” Toulmin opined. We can develop a new “ecology of institutions” or “turn our backs on the promises of the new period.”
Essentially, on Christensen’s disruption, Lepore’s views are clear; on other matters, not so much. She advocates for neither of Toulmin’s attitudes. I’m concerned that she perpetuates, even unintentionally, a “view from nowhere.”
This phrase, the view from nowhere, might be familiar from critiques of contemporary journalism. In journalism, its stereotypical form is the he-said she-said pretense to even-handedness. The view from nowhere, Jay Rosen insisted, is where “the profession of journalism went awry.”
At the same time, the nowhere view is hardly unique to journalism. It’s similarly pernicious and pervasive in other fields, other realms. But this worldview is a shape-shifter, taking different forms in different contexts. You have to look for the nowhere view to notice it.
In academia, it’s a stance of critical noncommittal or blind objectivity. You might consider objectivity a feature of academic discourse, and I’d of course agree. But it’s also a bug, an occupational hazard, and according to Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison in Objectivity, a creation, “ubiquitous and irresistible,” of the 19th century. “An objective standpoint,” wrote Thomas Nagel in The View from Nowhere, “is created by leaving a more subjective, individual, or even just human perspective behind.”
In economic relations, I associate the nowhere view with the assumption that financial value is a good proxy for social value, that profitable innovation is necessarily healthy innovation.
In sum, beliefs in progress, rote objectivity, and the invisible hand — all borne of an Enlightenment-to-modern era sensibility — are all gained through the surrender of the human perspective to the view from nowhere.
Thus, I will not mourn the loss of Lepore’s cherished progress. That era is gone. If the future is to be better than past or present — or better than other plausible futures — it is our opportunity and responsibility to make it so, individually and collectively. This is innovation with a view from somewhere.
Lepore concludes with the claim that the future is “unreadable,” and while I smile at her selection of authors (Vonnegut, Atwood and so on), I question her chosen metaphor.
The future, rather, is a book to be written. And the contingencies of chapters to come will, as ever, be shaped by those that have already been.