I is for Innovation

This was supposed to to be the future.

But where are our jetpacks? Our miracle food? Our underwater homes?

One of the great myths of capitalism is that it’s an unstoppable force for progress and innovation.

We are constantly told that entrepreneurs are the drivers of new ideas, because of their ceaseless search for profit.

Apple is a prime example. It’s often paraded as the model of a dynamic, creative corporation. But iPads, iPhones, and iPods are built around twelve key innovations – all of which were developed by publicly funded research and development projects, and millions of hours of free labour gifted by hobbyists, tech enthusiasts and hackers.

Apple’s “ingenuity” boils down to capturing those innovations, enclosing them and turning them into private profits – and mounting ruthless lawsuits against anyone accused of stealing “their” ideas.

It’s tempting to buy into the myth of people like Apple’s Steve Jobs and Elon Musk at SpaceX. It fits with the fairy-tale image of the lone genius who struggles for years against the odds.

But it doesn’t fit with the facts.

Far from being dynamic, capitalism tends to stifle innovation, it limits our imaginations and it strangles creativity.

Private companies systematically underinvest in research and development because it’s too risky. Under pressure to generate profit, they will always play safe and bring in the easy money.

That’s why so many of the “innovations” on offer turn out to be regurgitations of what already exists.

Our dreams of a better future get swapped for shiny new commodities* (*which have to be upgraded every 18 months).

This mirage of the new also produces a monumentally huge “need” for more work – waged-labour whose only function is to sustain the mirage, marketeers, designers and admen tasked with persuading us we really “need” the latest “revolutionary” iteration.

Our inability to free ourselves from the 60-hour weeks that result leaves us with no space for true invention and creative endeavour.

In a capitalist world, innovation only takes place if it’s sanctioned by wealthy investors – who have a vested interest in everything staying the same.

It’s no surprise there’s so much research directed at invented automation that will reduce labour costs – and little directed at improving our health and happiness.

In the midst of a global pandemic, thousands of scientists are working collaboratively in labs across the world, freely sharing ideas, information and swapping data – standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. The results of their endeavours will form part of the vast global commonwealth.

But it’s the pharmaceutical companies who will take the plaudits – whilst their directors and shareholders will take the profits.

It’s not only the pandemic. We’re facing climate change, food insecurity, rising inequality, racism, a crisis in care and more.

We must take on the task of responding to these crises: scientists, garage inventors, makers, ordinary people, commoners.

We must share ideas, create in common and refuse to be stifled by capitalism’s ceaseless quest for profit.

Unlike capitalism’s anointed innovators, we have the imagination.

And unlike capitalism’s anointed innovators, our lives depend upon it.

Only we can invent a future.