A Critique of "Innovation"

We shouldn't let the concept of "innovation" stop us from regulating the economy or protecting workers.

You’re busy, so here’s the TLDR:

  • Capitalism’s “innovations” aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.

  • “Innovation” is a bad argument against regulation and worker protection.

    Interested? Keep reading!

Of all the defenses of the particular blend of central planning, market forces, public programs, and private ownership that make up what we call “American Capitalism,” perhaps none are more compelling to the general public than “innovation” — the false notion that unregulated markets are the best at fostering new technologies that better society.

And not without good reason. Technological advances occur quickest during competitions, most notably war and the space race. Positioned as an ostensibly “free” market, capitalism is understood as unrestrained competition, so (theoretically) if left alone, it will generate the most technological developments.

To the average part-time-voter/full-time-consumer this argument rings true, but what is entirely ignored is the question of what is being innovated? “Innovation” is always taken to mean technological innovation, primarily better consumer goods that will make life easier and more enjoyable. We think of higher-definition televisions, less-spotty cell phone service, or a laptop that doesn’t have to be recharged every time I watch an episode of Too Hot to Handle.

Therefore lies the argument that if you want a faster car with better gas mileage, we shouldn’t tax Subaru.

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Hey Sharks! I’m innovating a new company — it’s an app that connects you with local car mechanics, only the mechanic’s kids don’t get health insurance!

But the unacknowledged reality of this is that nowadays, many of the companies substantiated by this principle of laissez-faire (that’s French for “let the poor starve”) aren’t innovating life-bettering technologies, but rather cost-cutting business practices that are often dubious and unethical.

Take for example the most iconic tech company of the 21st century: Uber.

Uber’s technological innovation is rather minute: it’s an app that hails taxis, a concept that pre-dates Uber. What has made Uber the cultural giant it is today is not invented technologies, but rather its anti-competitive financing and employment practices, most notably the subsidizing of low fares until it can achieve ride-share monopoly, and the exploitative “independent contractor” model of employment that exempts workers from labor protections and benefits. (For a more in-depth examination, I suggest the Gravel Institute’s How Uber is Scamming You video.)

But Uber is far from the only billion-dollar company using “innovation” as an anti-regulation shield. DoorDash applied Uber’s model to food delivery, essentially adding a middleman where he wasn’t needed, as most restaurants delivered already. Now, nearly every restaurant delivers through DoorDash, upping your cost to cover their CEO pay, lavish offices, and — you’re not gonna believe this — lawsuit settlements with their workers, when all you wanted was a goddamned buff-chix pizza because your edible was too strong and now your fridge is a dragon. 

The list goes on, and on, and on: Google has acquired more products than it has developed, and Amazon’s chief innovation seems to be union-busting, such as rigging stoplights to prevent organizers from talking to workers (don’t you dare say “team members”) as they leave the parking lot. 

So what’s the takeaway here? To push back hard against the notion that if we want cool, new, shiny toys under our Christmas tree we need to step aside and let corporations strut into the second Gilded Age. And while many corporations are busy “innovating” exploitative employment practices and ways to skirt taxes, many collective institutions (*cough*cough* NASA *cough*cough) have a history of inventing the technologies that make our lives better, such as GPS and the internet. So next time you hear we need unregulated capitalism so we can have “innovations,” you should roll your eyes so hard the eyesight-tracker in your Mac short-circuits.

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