Innovation in the dock

by Guest on December 18, 2009

By Tim Jackson, University of Surrey, UK

A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series

Are we a clever species or a stupid one?  It’s not a trivial question. Put our society in the dock with a jury of our future peers and the verdict would be far from clear cut.

Exhibit A, m’lud: the leaf-blower. Here is an instrument of profoundly meaningless intent, powered by increasingly scarce fossil fuels. Pumping pollution directly into the atmosphere, the modern leaf-blower has a power rating of around 2,500 watts.  Its task: to chase leaves into hidden corners, from which, in the course of a couple of days with the onset of the next cold front they will be blown onto the streets again by the wind. But that’s OK, because we can send out the workforce a second time, ears muffled ineffectively against the relentless din, to repeat the task. And guess what? These adventures in mindless pollution will contribute positively to the Gross Domestic Product of the economy. Over and against the humble broom, you can clearly see how great an advance this innovation represents in the progress of a clever humanity.

Hm yes…

Exhibit B: the cardio-pulmonary bypass (CPB) pump.  Conceptualised by Robert Hooke in the 17th Century, developed by Dr Clarence Dennis and his team at the University of Minnesota Hospital and first used during heart surgery in 1951, the CPB pump oxygenates and circulates blood mechanically round the body, while bypassing the heart and lungs. This procedure ‘perfuses’ oxygen to the other limbs and organs (crucially the brain), while allowing the surgeon to work on the heart or lungs in a bloodless environment.  Heart surgery as we know it would be next to impossible without it. The pump uses around 5 watts in operation – less than 0.2% of the power of the leaf-blower.

OK. I know what you’re going to say. It’s not a fair comparison.  Eight hours a day blowing leaves around isn’t comparable with 2 hours under bypass to save someone’s life. You just happen to be someone who likes sweeping leaves with a broom. And besides, your son was born with a ventricular sepal defect (VSD) which would have led to an early and unpleasant death if he’d not undergone surgery at the age of six months to correct it.

Both things happen to be true. In a world where reflective simplicity is at a premium and connection to nature mediated by too much in the way of noise and machinery, I am nowhere more content than a spending a couple of hours on a November Sunday playing leaf chase with a broom in my hand.  And then a few months later, spreading the composted mulch to fertilise my too often neglected garden. I have a sense of profound respect bordering on affection for those who do this sort of thing for a living. Personally I’d pay them a lot more, but that’s beside the point.

And as for the heart thing, I admit to profound terror at the prospect of having a surgeon bust open my son’s chest and tinker with his heart.  And to being only mildly comforted by the fact that, when he stood to shake my hand, the surgeon turned out to be 5 foot tall with the smallest and most careful hands I’d ever seen. If anyone was going to sew a piece of gortex into an infant chest I was glad it was this man. I may have been terrified. But would I rather it hadn’t been an option?  Absolutely not.  So if it were simply a comparison between these two innovations, perhaps I’d better be excused from jury service.

Even so, I can’t help feeling there might be some criteria through which we could and should judge the value of such innovations. Their contribution to human wellbeing might be one of them. Their sustainability in the face of finite resources and a fragile ecology might be another. Their potential for misuse or accidental harm another. Their impact on our working life and sense of fulfillment yet another.

And even if these are not the right criteria to judge by, are we really so sure that there are no such criteria that might be applied when our case comes to trial?  So sure in fact, that we’re prepared to prize innovation for innovation’s sake forsaking all others for as long as we all shall live?  So sure that we’re happy to defer the value of innovation to a single metric judgement based on monetary value?  So sure that in pursuit of the good life, we’re happy to favour innovation repeatedly over tradition (and conservation)?   So sure that, as I’ve argued extensively elsewhere, we’re prepared to structure our entire economies around the continual production and consumption of novelty?  For better or worse. Come hell or high water.

At the end of the day, of course, Exhibits A and B aren’t excatly to be compared against each other in a straightforward manner. Rather they’ve been called into play as evidence at a mock trial regarding humanity’s stupidity.  All I’m saying is, I can’t help feeling they’re likely to be balanced against each other during the jury’s deliberation.

Exhibit C, m’lud: an economy predicated on relentless growth – fuelled by thoughtless, unguided, socially disruptive, ecologically-damaging innovation.

If only I could rest my case.

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Tim Jackson is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey and author of Prosperity without Growth – economics for a finite planet (Earthscan 2009)

1 Ruth Seeley December 23, 2009 at 11:36 am

The technological glitch led, I think, to saving the best for last. This is precisely the question we have to ask ourselves, no matter how it’s phrased (it could have been oranges available all year round vs aisles and aisles full of not-quite-food in the supermarket).

Why, if costs continue to decrease, do revenues still have to increase in order for a company to be considered successful? In other words, what, as a species, are our values?

2 Andrew Maynard December 23, 2009 at 11:59 am

I think you’re right. We’ve got into the habit of assuming that market forces are a fundamental law of nature, and that we are completely at their mercy. This worked to a certain extent where society and the world could absorb the consequences of resulting mis-steps. But it seems that more than ever now we need to take control of our destiny rather than just letting things happen – unless we are prepared to accept the consequences of inaction.

3 James Dwight January 2, 2010 at 12:38 pm

This could well be the death of us all. I call it the K-Mart Syndrome.

I have long feared the collapse of communism, not because I am a staunch believer in Marx or Lenin, but because this mismanaged form of government has kept billions of the world’s consumers from the limited shelves that we all share. Now China has shown up to ask for their fair share. If it is true that the US has 4% of the world’s population and uses somewhere around 20% of the world’s resources, what happens when a country that has 30%-40% of the world’s population wants what we have? The depletion of our planet is only going to escalate.

It would be very easy to blame shot-sighted governments or short-sighted corporations (or in this context short-sighted scientists) for our current and future woes, but as I look around my room and notice all of the stuff it is so easy for me to buy I know who the culprits are. We, as a people, will not stop wanting more. Without unbelievable advancements in technology we will be forced to confront the realities of our human nature in ways that are infinitely more distasteful. My latest novel is set 53 years from now and has the working title of “Comply or Die”. I’m sure my publisher and I will come up with a more palatable title before it hits the shelves, but you get the idea.

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