I recently asked my Twitter followers for heinous practices that would sound nicer if recast in innovation-friendly terms. So piracy became "copyright innovation," child labor became "supply-chain innovation" and blackmail became - my favorite - "informational innovation."
If these sound even vaguely plausible, it is because "innovation" has suddenly become ubiquitous and beloved. As is the case with "openness" or "sharing," the mere invocation of innovation automatically confers credibility on ideas, companies or products that could - and should - be widely contested.
Throughout the ages, the meaning of "innovation" has evolved. (Yes, even innovation is not immune to innovation.) According to historian Benoit Godin, for more than 2,500 years, the innovator was "a heretic, a revolutionary, a cheater." Innovators brought little but trouble. They challenged the status quo and undermined the stability of the state. As late as the 1940s, innovation was seen as a form of deviant behavior, like crime or delinquency.
By the 1950s, however, governments became convinced that technology and its cousin, innovation, are leading drivers of economic growth. A magazine for entrepreneurs called Innovation, launched in the mid-1960s, even adopted "Change or Die!" as its slogan.
As innovation has become synonymous with technological invention and economic efficiency, it's no wonder that today's gadget-obsessed and overworked society can't find much wrong with the concept. A recent study that reviewed all academic articles about innovation published in English since the 1960s found that, out of thousands of studies, only 26 articles addressed the negative or undesirable consequences of innovation.
Sure, start-ups such as Uber or Airbnb - which help you book a cab or rent out your apartment for short vacations or sublets - might be innovating when it comes to providing transportation or short-term housing. But to know whether such innovation is desirable, we must look beyond technology and economics.
Will Uber circumvent the anti-discrimination rules that old-school cabs have to comply with? Will Airbnb help landlords get around rent control? If we don't like anti-discrimination codes or rent control, we should abolish them through new laws, not erode them by innovating. "No innovation without representation" should be our rallying cry.
In an ideal world, start-up ventures would count as innovative only if they end up improving our society. The mere fact that we can do something more efficiently - without asking how such efficiency will affect the world around us - isn't necessarily innovative.
Evgeny Morozov is the author of "To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism."