Charles Harries

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Innovation in tech

I'm extremely tired of the powerful in tech holding the rest of us hostage in the name of innovation.

Starting to get real tired of hearing about innovation. Vast swathes of the tech community shifts heaven and earth in the name of innovation. Not progress, mind, because progress implies that there's some quantitative metric that's going up and to the right. Innovation is metricless. You can't measure innovation; you can't say with certaintly that Company X or Group Y was the most innovative organisation in the year of our lord 2021.

Innovation is unmeasurable, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. The first iPhone was innovative. The microprocessor was innovative. The invention of gunpowder was innovative. I think we can all point to technologies (or more likely, products) in our collective past that reset the bar for performance or experience. I realise I'm speaking extremely generally here.

But one thing about this perspective of innovation is you can only look back on it. It's very difficult to reliably appraise a current technology as innovative. Some people have a better sense for how we'll see things through the lens of time, and they generally get away with calling things innovative, and I don't think I have much of a beef with them. There's very few of these people and I try to listen to what they have to say without getting too caught up in how they say it. I think that the thing they're gesturing to when they talk about innovation is fundamentally different from the way that those in power—those ostensibly responsible for innovation—talk about innovation. Tech pundits talk about innovation in terms of how the future will look back on something. Billionaire CEOs talk about innovation in terms of what they're doing, right now.

Is Richard Branson flying on a commercial spaceship innovative? Maybe it is—maybe in the next few years the market will flourish and we'll all be able to point to the work that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin did to innovate in commercial spaceflight. Or maybe we'll look back on it as a couple of billies trying to out-excess each other.

What I take offense at is how the other 99% of people use the term innovation: usually in terms of some mythical property that gets stifled ("xxx will stifle innovation") if you don't let people in power—usually men, in tech—do what they want. Here's a random list of things that stifle innovation according to a cursory Google news search:

When power structures are challenged, the first thing that those at the top do is hold the rest of us hostage in the name of innovation. "Do what I want or I'll stop doing my job." What's worst is that these entrenched structures of power prevent smaller organisations from doing the "innovative" work that they won't: Facebook hasn't innovated much since they released the News Feed in 2006, and despite legions of smaller social networks created and killed in the intervening 15 years, Facebook still sits at the top.

So when Apple makes it harder for Facebook to target and track users on Apple products, hearken to Facebook CFO Dave Wehner (emphasis mine):

“Apple has a number of private APIs on hardware and software that advantage their own products and services in ways that are challenging. We face that issue in places like our messaging products, and even with the hardware products we’re launching. So we generally don’t think this closed approach is the best one for the industry from an innovation perspective.

Just tired of it.