Jargon Dictionary #2: “Innovation”


Something sinister is afoot, we’re told. If you’ve been monitoring the situation in the U.S. involving the Federal Communications Commission (a government regulator tasked with overseeing Internet service) and America’s ISPs, you’ll know that “net neutrality” is in danger.

In English, this means that megacorporations such as Comcast and AT&T will be able to charge content makers a premium to have their sites and services put into a “fast lane.” So if Google paid AT&T for one such speedy corridor, then YouTube would load much faster than Joe Schmoe and his bootstrapped streaming video startup’s site.

What’s the impact of this change? It is hard to quantify since Internet traffic has, for the most part, been treated equally for decades. Plus, moral judgement of “net neutrality” depends on whether you think the Internet is a public service or a corporate good.

If you want to really scare people, though, tell them that the decline of “net neutrality” will Stifle Innovation.

What is innovation?

  • Term: innovation
  • Jargony definition: “the action or process of innovating.” (via Google)
  • Jargony definition not from a dictionary: “I concluded that this was the single difference between the innovator and the ordinary person: one saw the dots and connected them while others 1) didn’t see them or 2) if they did, they didn’t explore, question, or connect any of them.” (via David Brier)
  • English definition: “Creating something new.” (via me)
  • Use it in a jargony sentence: “Apple is incapable of real innovation now that Steve Jobs is dead.”
  • Use it in an English sentence: “The Ford production system was a key innovation in capitalism.”

Innovation is misused so much that its meaning has been destroyed. Horace Dediu has helpfully tried to pick up the pieces, supplying well thought-out definitions for novelty, innovation, creation, and invention that segment these terms into a hierarchy. According to Dediu, innovation is not only something new, but also something uniquely useful.

What a surprise, then, that seemingly every niche app can be branded an innovation, or that useless gadgets such as Google Glass can be anointed the successors to the iPhone. It should be cause for pause that both the left and right sides of the political spectrum in America can get behind “innovation,” either as a progressivist mantra or a codeword for deregulation. Like “the cloud,” it is whatever its sayer wants it to be.

Is innovation good?
Not always. Innovation, like progress, is often construed as a force that moves in one direction, which is supremely odd given the number of directions that almost anyone or anything can take – why reduce everything to some simplistic backward/forward dichotomy? What if the innovations of ad-supported content (like this blog) and massive data collection are actually retrograde in terms of their impact on civic good and privacy?

As it is commonly used, the term innovation skirts over these issues. It’s a business marketing term, basically. It almost always inflates the value of what it describes, and is rightfully skewered (my favorite example is satirical Twitter account Prof. Jeff H. Jarvis’ analysis of Spongebob Squarepants). Look, I understand the desire to stand out from the crowd – you’re not just making software, you’re innovating!

But innovation, at least in common formulation, has a ridiculously constrained outlook – it essentially assumes that market forces, and a few savvy tech startups, can work everything out and create the best of all worlds. Yet in some alternate universe, imagine governments providing the financial and political muscle to create publicly supported alternatives to Facebook and Google. Would these innovations have been better (in that they’re more useful and equitable to more people) than the innovations we have now?

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