The Delusions of “Heroic” Innovation

Holly Wood
May 10, 2016 · 8 min read
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So desperate we are for God in a Godless age that we often fall prey to men pulling bullshit out of their ass and calling it Him.

If there is no God, we ask, what runs the machinery of the Universe?

No one knows.

Except some people seem to really know.

It’s Capitalism.

Ha, you thought I was going to say Science but even scientists entertain doubt. After all, every new scientific discovery challenges the premises of what is already known. Every new idea contains within it a latent threat to the old paradigm. That’s the structure of scientific revolution, at least according to Kuhn, the leading expert on the structure of scientific revolution.

No, everyone knows there is no other way to organize the universe but through the Market. The marketization of society can never be challenged. There is no other way but The Way.

There is no you but the Great LinkedIn profile.

All praise the Founder.

He is risen Series A funding.

If you dispense with the Great White Man version of history that deludes us into thinking men — usually Presidents and inventors — somehow move the engine of progress, you’ll see that the only question driving history is the following: given the circumstances and the opportunities available, what kind of shit can we actually get away with doing?

Seriously. I’ve taught history for several years now and this is the question I pose to kids age 8 to 22: if you were alive during this era, how much would you be able to get away with?

For most of Western history, being anything other than a rich white man would stop you pretty right quick from doing much that the white man didn’t want you to be doing. Salem Witch Trials, Slavery, Jim Crow Laws, Ku Klux Klan — if you were a woman or a minority, you were going to have a bad time sticking your neck out to innovate. White men have long been the arbiters of possible for most people for most of American history not because white men are better than anyone else but because white men designed a society where anyone else had to risk everything to stand up for themselves.

This is why America is what it is.

When I teach history, I often try to convey what I call the historical problem of structural inertia. What is this? Well, if white men had all the power for most of history, their privileges are encoded in the very fabric of our society. Now, hold on, I know, that sounds like a platitude, but it’s nevertheless very accurate. Much of what we take for granted in our waking lives continues to be those ideas that serviced the elite hundreds of years ago. The tilt of the American game board is favored very much in their favor. At no point in history did we all stop as a society and ask ourselves, “Well, gee, how do we neutralize the bias of this board?”

Take, for example, the SAT. The SAT continues to have almost no correlation with achievement, intelligence, classroom success, or any other relevant metric college educators would care about. It was, historically, designed to allow elite schools such as Harvard and Yale a way of discriminating against high-achieving Jewish boys who were educated in public schools. You can read about its discriminatory history in Jerome Karabel’s excellent book, The Chosen. Frankly, it’s bizarre how much power the College Board continues to have over the educational process given its explicitly antisemitic origins, but here we are.

I come back to this idea of structural inertia a lot, in much the same way I come back to the idea of heroism a lot. In a way, they are related. Heroism is, how we say, historically conditioned. There are always new opportunities for heroism, but only at instances where the structure falls apart and no longer appears to be working. If the structure worked well for everyone, there would be no need for heroics. A functioning utopia doesn’t need saviors.

Your personal understanding of heroism is further conditioned by the distance between you and surviving the structure. If survival is to you eking out a menial existence after hours of suffering each day, heroism is whatever gets you through the day. You haven’t the luxury to be abstract about it. A hero is someone who throws you a cigarette when you can’t afford your own pack and doesn’t keep track of what you owe. A hero is someone who gives your mostly great kids a present that you can’t afford just because. A hero is someone who helps make your existence slightly less hand to mouth.

Consider the extraordinary heroism of the single mother who finds the energy to cook dinner, help with homework and read to her kids after working two shifts to pay their rent. She goes to bed early herself to get them on the bus and do it again. We know this is heroism. But we don’t hear about this story because everyday heroism is boring. A nonstory. Cliched and derivative, as if millions of people are living under the same conditions and thus reproducing each other’s tragedies.

Working-class heroism never seems new or clever or innovative because it is the same struggle that has always been. Working-class heroism will never be the next big thing. It’ll never be the valor we put on the cover of magazines. It’ll never take us to Mars. The janitor has still never been asked to give the keynote.

If you are fairly well off, you can afford to be more abstract with your ideas of what constitute heroism. Hell, you can even get creative about it.

But if you’re poor, a hero is just someone who doesn’t fuck you over when they could.

When you’re struggling, a hero is just someone who remembers to call you after work and check in on you.

When you’re hopeless, a hero is just someone who keeps their promises.

So I always come back to this question, What is a hero to you?

And what does your idea of heroism tell me about you?

In Zero to One, Peter Thiel deconstructs the failure of so many solar panel startups. While the problem — climate change — is vastly problematic, solar panels were seen as the only nail anyone could figure out how to hammer. This became a problem for startup founders who — desperate to hit a nail — all descended on the same one, creating redundant solutions to the same problem.

What made the whole matter that much worse was, ironically, the federal subsidies for solar panel development. With so many people desperately looking for nails to whack, the subsidies funded a lot of useless hammers.

But Holly, doesn’t everyone want to launch a company that changes the world?

Yes, and that’s the problem.

We weren’t born to scour the earth looking for nails to hit.

We were born to be human and solve the problems that get in the way of us realizing our humanity.

We weren’t born to sleuth out revenue streams.

We weren’t born to be redundant heroes.

The startup world gets a lot of flak because the problems they seek to solve are such first-world problems. Many seem to be just fixated on building apps that solve the problems only wealthy young men have living in San Francisco. Investors themselves also live in this elite bubble and the ecosystem seems to perpetuate redundant heroism from the perspective of the pampered.

On the other side of this, you have heroes trying to co-opt this inertia and redirect this energy towards the social good. Jennifer Pahlka did this with Code for America, where she invited smart people to come build civic technology. The problems they solve are usually less romantic to the San Francisco man who needs six apps to deliver him ramen, but they provide a lot of service to millions of Americans who are looking for heroes.

My friend, Laurenellen, she incorporates this idea of “Build With Not For” in everything she does. It’s a simple mantra that conveys the belief that any kind of engineering or any kind of production that is ostensibly to be used by other people requires the creator to empathize with the user. Now this sounds like common sense, but the radical part of it is the need to leave your office and go where people need help. It means researching the problem from their perspective. It means taking them on as co-collaborators and putting them in the steering wheel.

The heroism of Laurenellen (I’ve known Laurenellen since college so I’m admittedly biased in my all-around pro-Laurenellen stance) is her capacity to appreciate the power of perspective. As a standpoint theorist, I appreciate anyone who can empathize with condition without prescription. We don’t know what’s best for someone else, but nothing is stopping us from asking them what they think. They know themselves better than we do.

This is how makers like Laurenellen entertain doubt, investigate society and deliver heroism.

So where are we in 2016? When pundits blather on about the Innovation Party and mirror-vested radishes working for the Pentagon ejaculate praise for an ambiguous tech-fueled future, you sit here and wonder who the fuck they are talking to and what mandate they believe themselves to have. In most of these cases, these people quite literally cut themselves off from Society to surround themselves with other wealthy people who think exactly like themselves.

People for whom six apps delivering ramen is progress.

These are people for whom the market works exceedingly well. They are writing op-eds demanding that the rest of us get on board with the market-based future they have planned for us — without ever so much as asking us what we think this future should look like.

We plebs are to have no say in it.

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described this prescription of ideals as symbolic violence. This idea that those with power culturally arbitrate good and bad.

This is what Laurenellen and I were taught in our Sociology courses never to do.

Power in a hugely unequal world carries with it the latent moral responsibility to attend to systems of injustice. We were taught to consider how a privileged existence lends itself to the reproduction of inequality.

This is why we must consider the ethics of innovation before we jack off to its promise. To hear evangelists talk about it, innovation is just awesome science absent any consideration of moral philosophy. These are people salivating about voluntarily spending hours a day behind a VR screen. These are people who read every scrap of biography of Mark Zuckerberg but have never thought about the terrifying social potential of Facebook’s data extraction engine. These evangelists are to me moral children whose understanding of innovation is bereft of any friction.

I’m actually fairly sure the founders of Uber and AirBNB didn’t intend to fuck over poor people and minorities, but then no one asked them, “Ok, but what if this actually fucks over poor people and minorities?” But to explicitly cater innovation to rich people living in San Francisco is to ignore the unintended consequences of said disruption. And it has unignorable consequences.

But for what social consequences are the innovators to be held accountable?


Or is innovation just going to be the same shitty Capitalism with a younger, shinier face?

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