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The Connection Between Fake ‘Innovation’ and Late Capitalism

December 10, 2020 16 comments

My previous post about the ongoing crapification of personal computing and series about how the computing “revolution” of past two decades has been a showy failure lead us to a seldom asked question. While it can be phrased in many ways, here is the simplest version- Why do so many who are rich, in power or aspire to either keep incessantly talking about “innovation”, “paradigm shifts” and “disruption” when we clearly live in an age of profound technological stagnation. Why do people pretend that Apple is an innovative company when the last time they did anything remotely innovative was 2007? Why do so many fanboys celebrate every fart emanating from Elon Musk? What is innovative about Uber, DoorDash or any other service which replicates the services already available in third-world countries full of poor and desperate people? What is innovative about the plantation-lite work environment of Amazon?

Now let us get back to the central question- why do so many people want to believe in fake “innovation”? What is the upside of celebrating fake “innovation” even when it is results in regression rather than progress? Consider user interfaces design for personal computers or software. What is the gain from producing and pimping increasingly shittier “redesigns” and “upgrades” which make the interface or program less useful, slower, buggier and resource intensive? Also, why did user interfaces remain fairly constant for over two decades (mid-1980s to mid-2000s before starting to become progressively shittier? Or take automobiles.. why hasn’t the reliability, safety and longevity not improves since late 1990s- even though their “complexity” has? Why are automobiles from non-Japanese manufacturers (and Nissan) full of progressively bad design choices in everything from layout of engine and powertrain components to increasingly gimmicky but dangerous design choices for driver control panels?

The same can be said for the increasingly shitty style of management of retail store chains which has caused many to go out of business in past decade or Boeing building progressively worse versions of their older airliners. Why do multi-million dollars homes in western countries look bland, formulaic and ugly. Are you seeing a common thread running through all of them and what does any of this have to with the strong connection between fake “innovation” and late capitalism aka neoliberalism aka financialism? To understand what I am going to talk about next, we have to first go into the pillars holding the unstable edifice of late capitalism. As I have mentioned in some previous posts, one of these pillars is credentialism. But how does it work in practice? Well.. the real function of credentialism is to cultivate incestuous insider networks with other “elites” by going to the same “elite” educational institutions. But how does this lead to fake “innovation” and actual regression of technological progress?

It comes down to its interaction with another pillar of late capitalism. Have you noticed that every corporation and rich person seems to have unusually high levels of investment in how they are allegedly perceived by the public? But who are they trying to impress? Do average people buy into the bullshit about “caring” and “socially responsible” corporations anymore than they believe that the HR person at work is on their side? If average people don’t give a fuck about the “social liberal” causes which are heavily supported by corporations, who are they trying to impress anyway? The simple answer is that all of these virtue displays, fake philanthropy and show of social liberalism by “elites” are about oneuping each other. But hasn’t this always been the case? Haven’t the “elites” of all societies throughout history spent too much time trying to oneup each other? So what is different now?

Well.. in previous eras, the “elites” of those societies did not pretend to have reached their positions because they were competent or actually good at whatever they were supposed to be doing. They were quite honest that being an “elite” was about being born to the right parents, married to the right person or being good at violence. Consequently, they left the actual work of getting things done to competent people employed by them. That is why, for example, the Medici family of Renaissance Italy stuck to the business of merchant banking and political influence while being great patrons of art rather than pretending to be great artists themselves. That is also why a lot of the industrial and banking dynasties of late 19th and 20th century Europe and USA stuck to their original vocations rather than seriously dabble in stuff which would make them look liberal, hip or “progressive”.

So what happens when incompetent but rich people try to do stuff at which they suck? Ask Nicholas II of Russia of the erstwhile Russian Empire who decided to personally take charge of military operations during the later stages of WW1 in Russia? Or what about Enver Pasha of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire who decided to cosplay as a military leader during WW1. The same hold true for thousands of generals and officers who gained their pre-WW1 positions in French Army through connections, bribery and kissing the right behinds. Long story short, when incompetent but powerful people enter roles they are not capable of fulfilling.. things go to shit. While this is especially obvious during acute crises such as large wars or economic meltdowns, it still occurs in times without obvious crises- albeit at a slower pace. The point I am trying to make is that “elites” who seriously dabble in real work almost always end up as massive and spectacular failures.

The reason this is a far bigger problem today than in past is that nobody expected “elites” or aspirational elites to do anything beyond being idle or playing insider games of the type seen in royal courts of yore. However the ideology of late capitalism aka neoliberalism is built around the concept of “meritocracy” which require participants to act as if they are involved in doing important work. It is even worse for aspirational elites, who in previous eras just had to play long with these insider court games or marry the right person. This results in people with power and money but no intellectual ability or competence pretending they are geniuses- with predictable results. It is even worse for aspirational elites, who now have to pretend even harder to be competent and brilliant people than the greedy power grabbers they really are.

The only way to succeed in institutions (including corporations) dominated by “elites” who subscribe to the ideology of neoliberalism is to fake the appearance of progress even if it destroys all of the real progress made in the past. That is why people who push bad ideas like Windoze 8 and 10 will be promoted over those who wanted to improve Windows 7. It is also why developing more fragile phones and computers protected by increasing amounts of hardware DRM is now the business model of Apple. Now you know why the UI of Gmail, Google Maps and MS Office, to name a few, has become worse with each iteration. This is also why people celebrate frauds such as Elon Musk who are pretending that technological capabilities which were refined 50 years ago are the result of recent “innovation”. And guess what.. you don’t even have to possess any actual technology to fake “disruption”- just ask that Theranos woman. It is all about appearance and style, not substance.

To summarize. the rise of fake “innovation” under late capitalism has much to with a toxic combination of financial incentives, “elites” and aspirational “elites” being out of their depth in a culture which very strongly favors the appearance of work as measured by “metrics” rather than anything close to the real thing. Might write more about this topic in future, based on comments and responses.

What do you think? Comments?