This essay explores the individualistic, market-based ideology of “innovation” as it circulates from the English-speaking first world to the so-called third world, where it supplements, when it does not replace, what was once more exclusively called “development.” I am referring principally to projects that often go under the name of “social innovation” (or, relatedly, “social entrepreneurship”), which Stanford University’s Business School defines as “a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than current solutions” (Stanford Graduate School of Business)
For most of its history, the word has been synonymous with false prophecy and dissent: initially, it was linked to deceitful promises of deliverance, either from divine judgment or more temporal forms of punishment. For centuries, this was the most common usage of this term. The charge of innovation warned against either the possibility or the wisdom of remaking the world, and disciplined those “fickle changelings and poor discontents,” as the King says in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, grasping at “hurly-burly innovation.” Religious and political leaders tarred self-styled prophets or rebels as heretical “innovators.”
As Lepore (2014) has argued about its close cousin, “disruption,” innovation can be thought of as a secular discourse of economic and personal deliverance.
One undergoes development to achieve development; innovation, in turn, is the pursuit of innovation, and as soon as one innovates, the innovation thus created soon ceases to be an innovation. This wearying semantic circle helps evacuate the processes of its power dynamics, of winners and losers.
my point is to emphasize the political work that “innovation” as a concept does: it depoliticizes the resource scarcity that makes it seem necessary in the first place by treating the private market as a neutral arbiter or helpful partner rather than an exploiter, and it does so by disavowing the power of a Western subject through the supposed humility and democratic patina of its rhetoric.
Innovation, in its modern meaning, is about revolutionizing “process” and technique: this often leaves outcomes unexamined and unquestioned.
Max Weber argued that capitalism in its ascendancy reimagined profit-seeking activities, which might once have been described as avaricious or vulgar as a virtuous “ethos” (2001, 16-17). Capitalism’s challenge to tradition, Weber argued, demanded some justification; reframing business as a calling or a vocation could help provide one.
The TED Talk, with which we began, is in its crude way the most expressive genre of this contemporary version of the entrepreneurial romance.
The throat-clearing self-seriousness, the ritualistic gestures of humility, the promise to the audience of transformative change without inconvenient political consequences, and the faith in technology as a social leveler all perform the TED Talk’s ego-ideal of social “innovation.”
When we consider innovation’s religious origins in false prophecy, its current orthodoxy in the discourse of technological evangelism—and, more broadly, in analog versions of social innovation—is often a nearly literal example of Rayvon Fouché’s argument that the formerly colonized, “once attended to by bibles and missionaries, now receive the proselytizing efforts of computer scientists wielding integrated circuits in the digital age” (2012, 62).