Let’s Not Confuse Innovation and Disruption With Progress

By Rik van Hemmen

I just read Jill Lepore’s excellent article about disruption and innovation. She very carefully tears apart some recent trendy thinking about innovation and pretty much concludes that one cannot predict where innovation or disruptive technologies will come from and that, inevitably, any innovation or disruptive technology will pretty much find itself in the buggy whip maker position sooner or later.

In her article she provides a fascinating sidebar comment by noting that the term innovation used to be considered to be a somewhat negative term and in the early 20th century it was more common to call the march of mankind: Progress of mankind.

She describes it as follows:

The idea of progress—the notion that human history is the history of human betterment—dominated the world view of the West between the Enlightenment and the First World War. It had critics from the start, and, in the last century, even people who cherish the idea of progress, and point to improvements like the eradication of contagious diseases and the education of girls, have been hard-pressed to hold on to it while reckoning with two World Wars, the Holocaust and Hiroshima, genocide and global warming. Replacing “progress” with “innovation” skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices are getting newer and newer.

The word “innovate”—to make new—used to have chiefly negative connotations: it signified excessive novelty, without purpose or end. Edmund Burke called the French Revolution a “revolt of innovation”; Federalists declared themselves to be “enemies to innovation.” George Washington, on his deathbed, was said to have uttered these words: “Beware of innovation in politics.” Noah Webster warned in his dictionary, in 1828, “It is often dangerous to innovate on the customs of a nation.”

Progress of mankind slowly became innovation, and then, over time, innovation became a more positive term. However, next, the term innovation appears to have been replaced by the term: Disruptive Technology.

Somehow, progress of mankind is expressed in terms of aggression and combat, and while, undoubtedly, progress of mankind may have unintended negative consequences, progress of mankind also tends to correct those negative consequences over time.

Bottom line, while complaining is a human condition, and while we tend to describe and discuss our lives in terms of competition and combat, let’s not forget that what we are talking about is progress of mankind. Technologies come and technologies go, companies come and companies go, governments come and governments go but, when all is said and done, mankind actually does spend less time digging in the dirt for roots and gets to spend more time looking at the flowers, in better health, with less hunger, and with less fear.

This is the March of Mankind:

1.  Overall, somewhat better governance
2.  Overall, less violent death
3.  Overall, much less disease
4.  Overall, much less hunger
5.  Overall, better legal protections
6.  Overall, much better transportation
7.  Overall, much better communication
8.  Overall, better regard for one’s neighbors
9.  Overall, better education
10. And recently, while still touch and go, much better regard for our environment

Anybody can think of the negative examples on this list, but let’s not forget the positive progress; it is massive and vastly outweighs the backward steps; whether in the last 10,000 years, the last 1,000 years, the last 100 years or the last 10 years the list does not change.

Change is constant, but, overall, change is good. All we have to do is focus on change, and change is not innovation or disruption; it is progress of mankind.

Photo credit: Pim van Hemmen