That’s just so dull, isn’t it? Here in the South West of England, council taxes have gone up, local services have been rationalised, blah, blah, but people are “adopting” their own streets with a view to keeping them clean. If you want to complain about all the plastic bottles on the beaches, you’ll have to time your visit carefully, or bring your own bottles (don’t), because the beaches are cleared daily - hourly - by local people ferreting out even tiny beads of expanded polystyrene. Yes, yes, plastic’s terrible, but we’re picking it up. Those people buried up to their necks in opprobrium just below the high-tide line? They tried to leave without picking up their fast-food cartons.
Oh, and there’s even a cottage industry ( literally; it’s also a terraced-house industry) that produces “eco-bricks” (viable building bricks) by stuffing plastic bottles with (for example) crisp packets. Tightly. Clean crisp packets. That one’s spread beyond the South West (I don’t know where it started), as has the beach cleaning by local people (ditto). No matter that central government is still spewing out consultation papers on tidying up, nor that successive global summits on climate change continue to declare global warming a bad thing. People have got the message. They’re fixing it.
Let’s hope they never get organised. There’s a template here. Central government fails. Personal responsibility kicks in, and - heck, if we can resist the temptation to mobilise our elected representatives, we might even survive global warming. I mean, it stands to reason that [The bulk of this paragraph, which drones on boringly about the canary-in-a-coalmine role of media, the broadly self-serving but somehow necessary incompetence of central government, the self-replicating and somehow demoralising nature of bureaucracy, the central role of technology in holding our attention but not really helping very much, has been deleted for your convenience. Sic. This author writes well enough, but boy, he gets predictable sometimes.] at the edge of the precipice.
So that’s plastic sorted out. Might as well leave it there, really. I try hard to panic, but the world keeps turning. The thing we miss, all the time, is that now is the least reliable guide to then. Problems, once stated, don’t become fixed. We’re doing with plastic what scientists keep saying we should do with global warming: fixing it. Oh, and there was a report out the other day - I was in the other room, not really listening to the radio - that young people somewhere, might have been Japan, have stopped having sex. Research had been done. Questions had been asked and (honestly?) answered. Maybe the whole thing was part of an old-fashioned attempt to get a headline. No, it didn’t even cross my mind that limiting population growth would be a way of fixing global warming. Don’t be ridiculous.
But I did wonder, very briefly: how much of what we do is consciously directed? We’re rational, educated, civilised (sic), twenty-first-century human beings living in a liberal democracy. We plan ahead, act collectively as well as individually, move forward together on the basis of shared values. No, seriously, we do. Don’t we? I mean, it should be obvious that we got where we are today deliberately, with forethought. We’re intelligent. We’re sane. We’ve had two thousand years, more than that, to get civilisation sorted out. The results of all that planning and organising and working out better ways of living together - they’re all around us. Obviously we’re masters of our own destiny. I mean, for example, look at, er…
The central point being made here is that surveillance capitalism is something new, and that it doesn’t help to interpret it in terms of what’s gone before. Zuboff offers the example that the first automobiles were not usefully described as “horseless carriages” - the attempt to apply familiar categories did not help at all in assessing the likely impact and evolution of the new thing. No it would not behave like a carriage in every respect except that the horses wouldn’t be there churning up the mud and, er, depositing mud. We're gonna need bigger roads.
In my day job, I encounter large organisations that have embraced the future by setting up Innovation Departments and appointing Heads of Innovation. They want it to be known that they’re looking ahead, so they’ve made their commitment to innovation visible. Also - because they are large organisations - they have fitted innovation into their structures, allocated budgets to it, and made provision to measure cost/revenue. Innovation is a Department now and serious people are drawing up spreadsheets for it.
Out in the real world, every innovation seems to be app-based, and the equivalent process - the departmentalisation of innovation - seems to be undertaken by “incubators”, which aspire to be today’s equivalent of Bill Gates’ Albuquerque garage. Large organisations, and/or the Innovation Departments of large organisations, are invited to bring their budgets to incubators and meet investable innovators. I think it’s fair to say that if an innovation should ever poke its nose out of its burrow, we’ve got the traps set to catch it.
But Zuboff’s also making the point that innovation is invisible. We don’t have the categories, mental or organisational, to recognise it. Innovation is big business, in the sense that, as one Head of Innovation put it to me, “You always get gurus” when a new thing appears, who write about it and make money from selling books about it. You get gurus, and training courses, and consultancies, and … yeah, big business. On my scale, anyway. But is any of that actually innovation? We go through a process that has become familiar, and call it innovation.
If I’m going to go with the punchline that I’ve set up, I should say something cute here about giving up our efforts to invent a better mousetrap. Give up on mousetraps altogether. But what I really want to say is that mice don’t need us. If I’m seriously going to end this post by drawing an analogy between mice and innovative people, I suppose I have to say that mice just prefer to be left alone to get on with it. Not trapped, not even by an organisation. Let them do what they do, and then apply the "innovation" label if it fits.