American Innovation is Dying
Part One: The Domestic Situation
The United States of America has the best venture capital ecosystem in the world. CEOs and company-founders migrate here to get a final American degree, file their patents, and set up their corporations.
Folks are coming to America with innovative ideas in hand — per the grand idea beyond the very founding of our great nation. But while the US might reward that with venture capital money, it simultaneously punishes them for their origins and refuses to roll out innovations at scale.
Where are their ideas coming from?
These ideas were generated by international interdisciplinary education systems that still focus on new ideas and novel research. These ideas are coming from workforces and business cultures keen to effectively apply change. These innovations are coming from countries with governments willing to be agile and acknowledge the larger trends of technology (and keen to use these new technologies faster for good or ill). These innovations are coming from societies more open and less scared of the evolution of science and technology, societies that are keen to improve the lot in life of their citizens.
Meanwhile, lack of foundational critical skills in the United States’ early education systems and the “publish or perish” academic nightmare that is the overpriced, over-specialized US higher education system are churning out well-heeled business drones, middle managers, and bureaucracy bloaters instead of innovators and thinkers. Holding an American degree still equals a lot of social weight (which is why folks come here to get one still), but they are increasingly less useful, less practical, and more expensive than education abroad. They’re well on their way to not being worth the effort.
Those few native-born dreamers who persist and rise despite the US education system — are usually tamped down. If they can’t get into certain socio-economic education tracks early, we’ve lost them to poverty. No one can think creatively when they’re struggling to feed themselves. Those who do get in the “right” track and try to continue working in academia are tamped down by lack of funding for early researchers in their 20s (when historical anecdotal evidence of ‘genius’ suggests humans are most prolific and flexible in their inventions). Or else these rare few American thinkers are siphoned into the 9–5 job world. In an effort to have and feed their family (per biological impulses), they will find themselves embedded in the corporate culture of America. And while US corporate culture claims an emphasis on digital transformation, it is ultimately more bent on protecting the status quo of its bureaucracies than it is in actual change.
Process innovation, i.e. the restructuring of a system to improve its processes, is ongoing in America. But rather than clean things up, it has only added to the needless labyrinth of the hierarchical workforce. Suddenly we need six consultants and ten meetings to update a single IT policy from 1992 before we’re willing to update it. Except even then, we’re only going to update it a form that was popular in 1995. Never-mind that it’s the year 2020 and systems have changed enormously.
Change isn’t happening in America.
Those who advocate for change are either blowing smoke in an effort to transform themselves into digital transformation thought leaders and influencers or, worse, blindly parroting the buzzwords they think people want to hear to feel like something is being done.
Some rare few of those people may have actual ideas. But having actual ideas is going to quickly label you a non-conformist. To push for change, one has to point out that change is needed. And if we’ve learned anything from Alcoholics Anonymous in pop culture: the first step is admitting that there’s a problem. No one wants to hear about what the actual problem is though, we’re all busy fighting imaginary process dragons who live in windmills with outdated weapons. Which means that those non-conformists will inevitably be singled out and punished within an ecosystem for critiquing and attempting to evolve that ecosystem into the thing it claims it wants to be.
America philosophically prizes the underdog, the goonie, the novel and eccentric change-maker that we cheer for as part of our Hollywood driven storytelling culture. But in practice it is a much darker tale. Are you not an older affable white man with an ivy league MBA who claims they’re not racists and a feminist? Are you not a thin white woman with the same haircut in the same jacket with the same personality who is willing to enforce the policies of older white men? Than I’m sorry — no success, experience, or idea you have will ever be considered worthwhile. And you will be trapped or punished as more complacent cogs get promoted in the system by sheer dint of not having challenged the system. Never-mind that you wanted to effective positive innovative change.
Why are new things scary? What is this fear culture we find ourselves in both academically and in the corporate world? There are a myriad of theories, probably all of which are actually in play, all entangled, that are responsible for this miasma.
A few of my favorites include:
· The lack of public education in philosophy and critical thinking skills — if we aren’t teaching people how to think for themselves, how are they going to think for themselves? (an ever-more pressing concern in an era of misinformation and media). We need to reconfigure our curriculum away from rote memorization and the metrics of standardized tests and focus on getting people to think. While we might look askance at the curriculum of the turn of the last century at posh British boarding schools, it arguably churned out several generations of innovative thinkers. We’ve failed to do the same by over-bureaucratizing and commercializing our “modern” education system.
· The over-specification of jobs — -if people only know how to do step 6 of a 10 step process, how and why would that 10 step process ever get optimized. Not only will no one know how to actually optimize it, but if a consultant comes in to try and cut it down — it’s going to be done without hands on knowledge. AND it’s going to result in resentment: if steps 3 and 8 are now redundant and there are two people whose entire career’s depended on knowing how to do step 3 and step 8 respectively — those people are fucked. We need to move towards interdisciplinary, cross-functional workforces that have mechanisms and energy to transition to new tradecraft.
· The over-specialization of education and science. America is not a nation that prizes interdisciplinary thought and thinkers. We prioritize funding and career pathways for one trick specialists who are laser-focused on a single thing within a single area. Our national labs are filled with these folks. While we need that too. What we need even more are renaissance humans who can handle science and technology as well as art, literature, and history. Well-rounded intellectuals are the ones who have historically driven change in both culture and technological development. Why are we limiting our pathways and actively insisting — right from the start of college — that students are either STEM scientists or pursuing the arts. And why do we rank those ‘hard’ scientists more favorably over the ‘soft’ scientists. Even our language on the topics betrays our bias. We’ve stopped thinking it’s important to know our history or about how people work and think and dream. And yet we depend on technologists to turn around and craft tools for a population that they know little to nothing about. Hence the foundation of User Experience Research — the orphaned child of anthropology, sociology, and psychology who still hasn’t fully met its parents and stopped reinventing old wooden wheels. We need to start thinking and encouraging interdisicplinarity in practice and in thought instead of inventing new sub-discipline rabbit holes for people to spend their whole lives in.
· The over-bureaucratization of government. America’s governmental processes are a useless labyrinth of bad decision on top of mediocre decision on top of meh decision on top of decent decision on top of good decision. We are oozing and leaking money by not adjusting to the times. We’ve an outdated IT infrastructure, an outdated critical infrastructure (i.e. dams, power systems, transportation systems), and our policies for regulation and application of technology are decades behind the actuality of what most Americans use tech-wise on a daily basis. This would be bad enough. The American government has long since created processes to update these systems. And though they’ve proven endlessly ineffective — we’re clinging to the sunk cost of them. What changes are effected are few and far between and depend more on an individual giving their entire life up to fight that system and patiently wend a single change belatedly through the government labyrinth.
· The slow rate of change to technology and social policy. Technology changes every year. We cannot spend decades shifting policy and regulation to prepare for that technology. It has already come and gone by then. Which would be fine, if America and Americans were the only humans ever. But we’re not and we need to realize that. If other nations are finding ways to regulate data, protect privacy (well hello there GDPR), and implement new technologies more rapidly — than they reap the benefits of those technologies and the socio-economic power that that implies. Given that the major burst in tech these days focuses on optimization and automation — -ie making processes and analysis faster, cheaper, autonomous, and larger scale — -not participating in these new waves of technology is going be incredibly costly and painful for the United States of America both financially and philosophically.
· Fear of change (in general). Homo sapien sapiens aka humans once survived by being cautious creatures. Is that a lion on the savannah? Is that a snake in that tree? While some caution is still needed in the world (because: serial killers and identity theft and human trafficking and pedophiles, etc), some of our fear response is unnecessary. Innovation and change has been overwhelmingly beneficial for our species. If we hadn’t changed, we’d still be a hunter-gatherer tribe (or we’d have long since gone extinct). Even in the last one hundred years — change has meant grocery stores and supply chains; mobility and transportation (cars!); women’s rights and women in the workforce; the internet and connectivity to each other and to everyone else on the planet. Right now, we’re facing blowback to cultural change, to conservative backlashes against positive progressions — i.e. the acceptance of racial, gender, identity, and sexual diversity. But as a species, we’ve seen that pushback fear impulse rise up before. And thankfully, we usually manage to get over it and evolve for the better.
· Fear of change as America loses its cultural hegemony over the rest of the world While many of the innovative changes of the last 150 years were driven by America, our power to drive that power has waned (see all of the above). And that’s fucking terrifying us further. When we’re not the cultural hegemons (which FYI is erudite fancy-talk for “leaders”), what are we? Who are we if we’re not the golden gleaming nation everyone looks to for guidance? Are we leaving behind a power vacuum in the modern world, that someone else (cough cough China) is going to seize? Or have we reached a multicultural point in human history where individuals have enough access to pop sub-cultures that they can choose their own adventure? Can there even be a monolithic culture these days? Personally, I think not. Though given our issues with conformity and that the right schools and the right friends and the right business formal attire still play a part in our cultural make-up, I worry that we’ll be one of the last ones to embrace anything other than our 1960s Mad Men cultural concepts. To our detriment in the meantime. Everyone else goes to the pub after business meetings. You know that right?
America is scared, disorganized, and is actively working to squash its own innovation. The incoming administration will have their work cut out with them even getting us back to a baseline normal (given both the past administration (especially their migration policies which have been stopping innovative thinkers from even entering the country) and the whole pandemic zombie apocalypse that we’re in).
And while we may never be cultural hegemons again, we CAN untangle the innovation clusterfuck.
But only if we’re willing to admit that there’s a problem.
My biggest worry is that we won’t.
*Day One of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) — which I’d like to spend writing a piece a day on the things in my head (vs a whole novel) to at least get back in the habit of writing often, — especially since I am now FINALLY allowed to participate on Medium and in other academic writing arenas as myself, all opinions should be considered my own and not those of my employer, etc.