Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

We’re stuck. The signal innovations of modern times—mass water purification, electricity, automobiles, modern manufacturing processes—are behind us. This slowing of invention presents a problem. We are trapped by the imperative of ever more innovation even as innovation becomes harder to achieve. Jean ­Baudrillard called America the last remaining primitive society. The claim sounds strange to us, convinced that we are living in an advanced civilization with everything on offer. But Baudrillard’s insight is quite simple. If we entertain ourselves with visions of the innovations that await us in the future, then we are in a primitive state, not resting on the accomplishments of the centuries behind us. This expectation dominates our thinking. But it is belied by the fact that great technological advances have stopped arriving. Our culture now consists of recycled tropes, algorithmically developed ­music, and, in the past year, a disabling aversion to risk.

Praise of innovation arises from a deep source within the modern tradition. Indeed, it’s likely that the very heart of the modern tradition is praise of the new for its own sake. But incessant talk of innovation and “the new”—in communication, in advertising, in mission statements for thousands of corporate offices and small businesses—has led to a twofold problem. First, no one may challenge whatever innovations come along. Novelty and disruption are the totems of our primitive society, and we have no framework for evaluating whether a given change is politically, socially, or culturally beneficial. Innovation offers shiny objects around which to orient our political and economic expectations, and in thrilling over the latest devices, we neglect the need for standards by which to evaluate new things. Second, the mindless innovation imperative prevents us from considering what we want to do and produce. As a consequence, genuine innovations—improvements as judged by ancient standards, innovations that make a long-term difference and will last—are now rare. When electricity came to rural America, it marked a giant stride forward in productivity and convenience. What we get today are sham innovations. Consider the endless “Uber” companies that propose home food delivery as a major triumph of modernity.

How did we go from inventions that mattered, a central element of modernity and its promise of progress, to innovation that is ephemeral? Three observations are in order. First, we note that the rhetoric of innovation has largely replaced the rhetoric of progress. To be sure, the latter is still present. But change as such is welcomed without assessments of whether it brings progress or regress. As a consequence, in our present cultural moment the expectation of universal human progress has receded. It has been replaced by the innovation imperative that promises endless advancement.

Second, we now understand innovation simply as the arrival of new technology. As Jean-François Lyotard once said, technology “always means new technology.” In the classical world, that was not the case. Although each of the arts—rhetoric, blacksmithing, and so forth—had to be discovered in the first place and then improved, there was no expectation of a continual development of entirely new arts. The art of rhetoric is discovered once and then perfected, lost, and recovered again. On its own it does not lead “progressively” to ever new forms of human expression, to advertising, propaganda, and degrees in “communications.” The classical world did not praise “change” for its own sake, which is why a person who has read deeply in the ancients takes a wry attitude toward the replacement of human speech with tweets and ­messages, only to have conference calls made cool again through Clubhouse.

Within modern capitalism, the drive for innovation appears as Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction,” which praised capitalism’s permanent revolution, just as Marx had opposed it. Of course, from the standpoint of the consumer or citizen, the creation and destruction are not our doing. We merely accept the changes or resist them before coming to accept them. (We all know people who said they’d never get a cell phone, ­only to capitulate once smartphones came to seem ­indispensable.) The innovation itself (to say nothing of the injustices done halfway across the world as our gadgets are manufactured) remains behind the scenes while we enjoy the final product: the Apple computer with a completely closed case, impervious to tinkering. Technology allows us to participate in novelty without being responsible for it. Distracting ourselves from life for a period of time as we focus on the shiny new object is a typical experience of modern ­technological life.

Third, the modern notion of freedom includes a strong sense of change and newness. By doing something new, we show that we are “free” in the modern sense. Often, we worry that we are not living “authentically.” We suspect that if we did accept everything handed down to us—our way of life, our thoughts, our beliefs—it would be a sign that we are not free. So we accept the innovation imperative in culture and morals, justifying our embrace of “the new” by the simple fact that it shows that we are not bound to the past or tradition except by our own free choices.

Consider the recent marketing campaign of an American fragrance boutique: “CREATE YOUR OWN RITUAL.” The appeal to self-created ritual is an important part of the larger project of self-care, a major source of sales to the modern consumer. Rituals imposed by inherited traditions are bad. But we may seek to innovate our own rituals—or rather, purchase scripted products from companies eager to market themselves as servants of our self-expression. A similar dynamic is at work in the “freedom” of exchanging information on modern media platforms—where it becomes ever clearer that our purported freedom is being managed in a thousand ever more sophisticated ways. “Be free to express yourself,” urge the social media platforms, when what they mean is, “Perform yourself online so that we can harvest your data and corral your thoughts into ever more limited domains of ­acceptable opinion.”

With the rise to prominence of these three aspects of our praise of innovation—its replacement of the rhetoric of progress, its demand of technological change, and its centrality as an aspect of our freedom—come two difficulties. First, the obligation to be innovative has itself cheapened innovation. If innovation were really so achievable, we probably wouldn’t need to ritualize the imperative or convene endless seminars on how to become more innovative. In a bygone day, the ritualized elements of human life reminded us of the orthodoxies from which fallen human nature has tended to stray. But now the praise of innovation has become a litany or ­mantra, a constant element of our speech that nurtures constant dissatisfaction. Why am I conventional and not “creative”? The dissatisfaction is redoubled because insisting upon innovation encourages discontinuity with solid elements of our past. We’re neither genuinely innovative nor self-confidently traditional.

Innovation has become a standard both cheap—everyone claims it—and ever more dear, as genuine advances seem increasingly remote. We are immersed in advertising-driven excitement over the newest developments and the newest studies in countless areas. But everyone knows how rare it is to revolutionize a field. The iPhone was new only once. Apple’s claims that every new iPhone is better than everything that came before do not change this fact. The likeliest candidates for true innovation in recent decades are those changes that keep available the already existing features of modernity, such as new techniques for extracting oil from the earth. But innovation that maintains the status quo is not the sort of innovation championed as the hallmark of modern society. It is the innovation of a rat in a wheel.

And our non-transformative innovation comes at a high human cost. Relentless talk of innovation conditions us to expect to have to relearn everything at some point or be left behind—jobless because you didn’t succeed at retraining, or out of the club because you didn’t make the leap from one social media network to the next. As recently as thirty years ago, few realized that the new technologies coming on the scene—the screaming modem whose linkup was once described as a digital call of the wild—would reinvent human communication by the close of the twentieth century and again in the opening years of the ­twenty-first.

Everyone was obliged to keep up. But in another way, very little has changed. My Internet usage is about the same as it was when I joined the Prodigy network in 1990: I write emails, browse online content, and still use WordPerfect. Recently, as concern over the tracking features of WhatsApp drove everyone to Signal, the 1990s-era chat program ICQ enjoyed a brief reappearance among the recommendations of tech writers. Slack has essentially the same design as the Internet relay chat of the 1990s, just with graphics and annoying connections to other social media apps.

And so, we toggle between breathlessness and boredom. Once we switch to a new method of communication, things change again, and we’re cast into a realm in which children know more than adults and language becomes distilled into symbols reminiscent of hieroglyphs. Having cultivated the arts of communication for centuries, suddenly we are back at the beginning—lost. How should one speak? No one knows. After many months of COVID lockdowns and the collapse of ordinary, in-person civilization, truly no one knows. Technology combines the conceit of the advanced with the fact of the primitive.

A second difficulty arises from the piecemeal nature of innovation. It emerges to fix particular problems. In some cases, as in mending a broken bone, a particular problem may have a simple cause and a simple solution. The same holds for intense pain when a surgeon cuts into a patient, a rather severe problem that led to the development of modern methods of anesthesia. Today, even pharmaceutical cocktails work upon a small number of causes. By contrast, if we thought the sources of human dissatisfaction complex or insurmountable—our feelings of inadequacy, our sense of loss, our anguish over the reality, our anger over injustice—we could place no hope in innovation to solve them. Praise of innovation does not just overpromise; it obscures the question of whether human problems are complex, and thus very likely unsolvable.

I suspect that we praise novelty and newness everywhere because we sense that we need to lower the stakes of innovation in order not to be disappointed. We have transformed the concept of innovation from representing the truly transformative, to being a never-ending collection of piecemeal responses to particular dissatisfactions—a process that, over time, often creates greater dissatisfaction on the whole. In a way, then, the age of innovation has come to an end through its own universalization and extension—its presence in every press release, in the announcement of every new product, in every annual evaluation, every paper abstract, every artwork and musical composition. The original imperative of modernity was to overthrow the ancient and bring in the new. At this point, modernity has little left to work against. So, innovation becomes a kind of burden. Like its sibling, ­creativity, it functions now as an obligation, which is why the claim of originality is a required advertisement. Innovation is everywhere, or so we are told, endlessly. We use its language but hold back from believing in it.

Consider Uber, one of the the many marquee companies that present themselves as the most extraordinary innovators. Uber sought to revolutionize the transportation industry by teasing ordinary commuters with the prospect of making extra money by driving people to their destinations. They shifted the cost of vehicle ownership and upkeep onto private individuals and sold their drivers’ services at a below-market rate, endangering licensed taxi companies and putting taxi drivers out of work while, in most cases, not providing their own drivers with a living wage. And Uber continues to lose money on every ride. Finally, after nearly a decade, England has forced Uber to treat its contractors by the standards of normal employment, revealing the company to be what it always has been—a global taxi enterprise aspiring to monopoly but unable to make money. As industry analysts have pointed out, the taxi business faces numerous obstacles to further business optimization that make it an unlikely target for the grand label of innovation. But “Uber” spawned hundreds of similar companies offering “Uber for x.” Roofing companies ­reinvented themselves as “Uber for roofing,” where the big innovation is that you take a picture of your roof in order to get an estimate. The failure rate of those ­companies has been extremely high, a sign of a wasteful ­society that does not know how to prioritize its efforts.

Amazon tops the list of companies that many insist have engaged in extraordinary innovation. Should it, though? Amazon is a mail-order company that happens to have put itself in a monopoly position on logistics, which in turn enabled it to impose a hyper-Taylorist production system on its workforce. What does Amazon boil down to other than free two-day shipping for an annual fee? Maybe one day they’ll invent “instant shipping,” also known as “shopping.” Amazon has turned shopping at Walmart—a revolutionary act in previous decades, when the discount chain rampaged through American towns—into a reactionary act, since you must go physically to a place and see people and can take the further counterrevolutionary step of skipping the checkout machines and talking to a human cashier.

Major inventions elsewhere in modern society are likewise not particularly impressive. When ­Boeing transformed itself into a “modern ­company,” the result was the disastrous 737 MAX—a failed attempt to improve on the original design of the 737, a true, lasting innovation when it took over the skies in the 1960s. In the automotive world, we were promised driverless cars (probably the one thing that could make Uber profitable). But our advances in AI have not made driverless cars a reality on anything other than carefully planned streets with few obstacles and no weather hazards. AI cars will not be racing through the streets of Boston or around guardrail-free mountain passes any time soon. More generally, the world of AI and “machine learning” has given us little in the way of significant transformations of human society for the better.

Nearly ten years ago, the Northwestern University economist Robert J. Gordon observed in the Wall Street Journal that most of the innovation through the year 1970 had been driven by inventions from the late nineteenth century, and that in the 1970s a new wave of innovation had begun on the basis of computer technology, finally married with telephone communications by the Internet. But the areas of innovation supposedly before us—­genetic engineering, pharmaceutical research, the fracking revolution, robotics, driverless cars—­either are phantoms, or do not hold out the prospect of genuinely beneficial transformation. They may even be positively bad. Henry Ford happily allowed his children to be chauffeured around town in the mass-market vehicles he pioneered, but today, ­Silicon Valley executives protect their children from smartphones and send them to schools without screens—a telling sign of their opinion of their own products. More and more, the innovations that do intersect with ordinary human life either maintain us in our present condition or make ordinary life worse.

Can we mount a response to innovation—its ubiquity, its dilution, its pointlessness? How can we distinguish good innovations from bad?

This question came before Aristotle in book two of his Politics as he surveyed competing accounts of political life from other thinkers. Hippodamus, a pretty boy from Miletus who strutted around in a heavy coat in summer as well as winter, had proposed honors in the city for those “who discover something useful to the city,” including beneficial changes to the laws. His regime would be like a patent office, awarding honors to those who could devise political improvements. Aristotle famously criticizes Hippodamus on the grounds that such a plan would lead to “harassments” and “changes of regime.” As Aristotle pointed out, human beings are creatures of habit, and one very important habit is that of obedience to the law. Innovation in the laws should not, therefore, be encouraged willy-nilly. Rather, the regime should oversee innovations and make sure that they accord with the way of life of the city. The best regime needs to engage in military innovations in order to keep up with its opponents, but innovation as such should not be a goal.

Aristotle did not understand innovations as we do, as remedies for individual problems—­Coca-Cola figuring out how to keep profit margins up, Boeing figuring out how to update a landmark airplane body. He saw them as major transformations of our way of life. For Aristotle, such transformations were to be undertaken by the city and the political regime. He devoted the fifth book of his Politics to chronicling the many causes of political change and revolution, and their remedies. For Aristotle, a regime defines the way of life of a city, and the causes of political change are many. No arrangement of human beings, no regime, no city’s way of life, can endure. But he advises every regime as to how to preserve itself—for the ­causes of a regime’s destruction stem especially from its flaws. Only through improvement, then, can a regime endure. This task may entail extraordinary changes, but these changes will aim at preservation, not “innovation.”

Aristotle offers a great deal of practical advice on this topic. Bringing into the regime those outside it—such as the people, if the regime is an oligarchy, and the rich if the regime is a ­democracy—constitutes a major “innovation,” which in certain circumstances is necessary for the regime’s preservation. Benjamin Disraeli considered the universal male franchise a fundamental change in electoral laws, which he believed (correctly, as it turns out) would preserve the British regime against internal strife and faction. Aristotle also recommends establishing an office of moral censorship to make sure that everyone’s lives correspond to the intention of the regime. This innovation may require creative reflection on how best to encourage commonality of purpose. He urges that the young be educated in accordance with the regime, an enterprise that always requires agile adaptation to ­circumstances, given the difficulty of the task. For Aristotle, then, aiming at innovation causes destruction—­whereas aiming at preservation causes the right kind of change.

Thus, following Aristotle, we need to set aside cheery talk of “innovation” and ask what changes we might make in our own regime, as we seek to foster a Christian way of life. First and foremost, we need to recognize that this fostering is a political act. In fact, we can say that deliberation about the changes necessary to secure “preservation” rather than “innovation” is a kind of reason of state. At present, we are engaged in a cultural ­project of innovation for its own sake, which risks the collapse of our state—and along with it could be swept all the projects of local and ­regional Christian life that many have spent ­decades building.

Though we must view the project of technological innovation as an integral and irreversible part of modernity, we should still try to resist and replace it in small ways. We should, for instance, consider state actions to limit the destructive “innovations” of modern firms. We might tax online retailers in order to shelter high street retailers. We could shut down Uber in order to forestall its takeover of the taxi market. And we can make social media companies integrate with national laws wherever they operate. Most of the destructively innovative companies rely on bending the rules with new technology and hoping that the legislative process will take a long time to catch up. Unfortunately, they’ve been right. Amazon could be disassembled under antitrust laws, Uber under labor laws, and social media companies six ways to Sunday. At the highest level, we need to orient innovation toward the preservation of national culture and institutions rather than their destruction.

We also must not imagine that government policies cannot be used to bolster American family life. There is considerable room for policy innovation ordered toward the preservation of domestic stability. Most conservatives in Washington tend to think of state spending on families as a remedial policy to help struggling families between jobs. But family policy is much more comprehensive than this: It means turning state spending toward families and measuring a wide range of government policies by their impact on families. Imagine directing 5 percent of national GDP toward improving the lives of families with children. Most families say they want one more child than they currently have, and among families in income brackets that would benefit from family policy, most say they would prefer benefits in the form of cash payments, not subsidized programs such as free childcare. The “transformative” idea at the heart of family policy is that growing families spend more on family-related products. In an economy driven by growing families, consumer product innovation would propose products that benefit families rather than urban singles.

Centuries before the modern rhetoric of innovation was coined, Christianity generated its own praise of novelty. Though the Scriptures warn against any turn toward strange gods, nonetheless they urge: “Sing ye to the Lord a new canticle: sing to the Lord, all the earth” (Ps. 96:1). The author of Sirach calls on God to “renew thy signs, and work new miracles” (Sir. 36:6). When ­Ezekiel calls upon his listeners to depart from their sins, he asks them to “make to yourselves a new heart, and a new spirit” (Ezek.18:31). In the letter to the Galatians, St. Paul calls upon Christians to become “a new creature.” He exhorts the Ephesians to “put off, according to former conversation, the old man,” and “put on the new man”—a thought repeated in his letter to the Colossians. St. Paul writes to the Romans of serving God “in newness of spirit” rather than “in the oldness of the letter.” He speaks of walking “in newness of life” and of being “­reformed in the newness of your mind” (Rom. 6:4, 12:2). “If then,” says St. Paul, “any be in Christ a new creature, the old things are passed away, behold all things are made new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Christianity’s extravagant praise of newness arises from the New Testament’s proclamation of fulfillment of the Old, a change ordered toward preservation.

If we are to experience the fullness of that ­newness in culture, society, and politics, we must first restrain the innovation that is choking our world.

Gladden Pappin is a visiting fellow at the Mathias Corvinus Collegium in Budapest, and associate professor of politics at the University of Dallas.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines