The Social Context of Innovation – E. Richard Gold

I’m Richard Gold, I’m a professor in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University, and I am also a CIGI Senior Fellow. If you think about the greatest innovations in human history, what comes to mind? Inevitably, we think of new things, improved services, enhanced mechanisms. Some would say that technology such as Gutenberg’s printing press, anesthesia or even plastics were the greatest breakthroughs. But none of these “things” are the innovations: we are. Technology is not sufficient for innovation. And neither is it necessary. So let me explain. Technology is not sufficient for innovation. Behind each of the printing press, anesthesia and plastic, is a narrative about why and how they gained importance. Innovation is not about mere technology; it is about the social context that adopts it and gives it meaning. The question, then, is not how technologies change society, but how we as a society both adapt, and adapt to, technology. This is a story of how technology transforms us, what we do, when we do it and with whom. When contemplating the greatest innovation of the Industrial Revolution, American sociologist Lewis Mumford gave a surprising answer. We would have expected him to say the steam engine. After all, it was this machine that enabled the rise of factory production, new methods of transportation and mass industrialization. The era seemed almost defined by this one thing. But no. Mumford’s idea of the most important innovation was not the steam engine, but the mechanical clock. Why? The clock is just an instrument that counts, measures and pinpoints units of time. The clock had already appeared in various incarnations throughout human history. The mechanical clock was just one step in a long chain of technology that eventually culminated and matured into today’s atomic clock. So why did Mumford consider it to be so important? Because the clock was important at that moment. It was important not because it was new technology, but because of the social context that adopted it and gave it meaning. It was important because the mechanical clock led to the creation of modern time, with its standardization of sleep and work, prayer and play. Through this innovation, we disassociated time from the natural rhythms of life — sunrise, sunset, hunger and tiredness. The mechanical clock was the quintessential and ubiquitous machine that suddenly allowed managers to maximize output and control wages. The mechanical clock standardized time, punctuating the day into intervals and disciplining work forces. This simple machine helped us revolutionize the human experience in a fundamental way. And, it’s even keeping me on track [now]. Innovations like the mechanical clock are essentially social. They are about us, rather than about technology. We evolve by interacting with them incorporating them into our social norms and standards. It is this interaction that is the true innovation. So what does the mechanical clock show us? That technology is not sufficient for innovation. And we see examples of this idea throughout human history, but even in modern society. So consider this: in recent years we have seen a revolution in childbirth. According to Statistics Canada, in 2013, for the first time there were more babies born to women over 40 than to teenage moms. That is, we are witnessing a decline in teenage pregnancy at precisely the same moment that we see greater numbers of women over 40 becoming mothers. Why? Now there is certainly technology behind this phenomenon. We not only have better birth control today, but we also have reproductive technologies like in-vitro fertilization and cryopreservation that greatly extend the possibilities of fertility beyond natural limits. These inventions allow better control over whether and when to become a mother. But is it the full story? No. The real narrative is one of social change. Counselling and provision of health services in schools, hospitals and community organizations have greatly shifted consciousness about teenage pregnancy. More of us live longer, extending the ideal time window for child birthing and rearing. Women participate more in the workforce giving them greater independence over fertility decisions. And we have changed the way we perceive teenagers — as children rather than as wage earners. The scientist who developed the Pill and in-vitro fertilization could not reasonably have foreseen that these technologies would result in the simultaneous reduction of teen pregnancy and an increase in childbirth of women over 40. The technology took on a life of its own given its particular social context. So, what does the advancement in assisted reproductive technology show us? That technology is not sufficient for innovation. Still unconvinced? One of the most heralded innovations of our time are vaccines This technology is so critical that vaccines are often seen as the perfect, almost miraculous, solution to many illnesses. The statistics support this popular perception; for example, between 1988 and 2013, we saw a drop in polio cases of 99 percent. But is this because of the vaccine itself? No. Vaccines alone provide protection only to individuals. One individual with immunity does not eradicate a disease in the entire population. We only stopped the spread of illness by developing the social programs to vaccinate large segments of people. We accomplished this with the social idea of herd immunity: reaching a threshold of protection and immunization among enough of the population that even those who are not vaccinated — because of illness, pregnancy, age — are still protected. The elimination of smallpox, for example, while based on a vaccine, was effective because we developed a program to vaccinate people in a ring around the infected individual. This policy disrupted the chain of infection. The impact of these policies has been nothing less than astounding. There were over 3,000 deaths from diphtheria in the United States in 1936; there were none in 2004. Whooping cough killed 7,500 people in 1934, and only 27 in 2004. Tetanus dropped from over 500 deaths in 1947, to four in 2004. Today, the biggest threat to public health is not the vaccine itself, but fear of vaccination that undermines the social concept of herd immunity. So, what do vaccines show us? That technology is not sufficient for innovation. If you think of the greatest innovations in human history, what comes to mind? In 2013, the public in the UK [United Kingdom] answered this question. What do you think they voted for? And, while the Austin Mini came in second, it wasn’t it. When the results came in, they showed that the UK population had chosen the Universal Turing Machine — not a real machine, but the idea of the modern computer. Not a specific technology, but a social revolution. One that has radically changed our lives, leading to the first large computers, to the desktop and to the smartphones in your pockets. The idea of the modern computer changed the fact that we don’t actually need to add and subtract on a daily basis, that we can communicate at great distances and that we can analyze huge sets of data. While the idea of the Universal Turing Machine gave rise to countless technologies, the way we use the Universal Turing Machine has altered us immeasurably. The way we talk: we send 73 billion text messages every day. The way we do business: more than 90 percent of money is stored in a computer; it has no physical form. The way we meet: one out of every eight couples met online. The technology is not sufficient for innovation. But neither is it necessary. So what does it mean to say that technology isn’t necessary? Consider Napoleon’s Civil Code. When the French army brought the Civil Code to particular regions of Germany, those regions thrived in comparison with their neighbours. The Civil Code replaced feudal land holdings and oligarchies with legal certainty and fairness; this set the stage for industrialization and economic growth, despite the fact that Germany had been in the midst of a chaotic war. The evolution of the Common Law is much to the same effect. What we see is that the rule of law and equality before the law were drivers of growth from which we still benefit today. And these innovations have no technological base. So technology is not sufficient for innovation. But neither is it necessary. On the other hand, our culture, our norms, our institutions always are necessary and often are sufficient. Evidence suggests that countries that were most open to technology use in the fifteenth century are up to five times better off than those that were low adopters. While the technologies themselves have long gone and been replaced, the social norms and values of 500 years ago continue to affect our growth today. Repeatedly, through history — ancient Athens, Baghdad under the Abbasid caliphate Hangzhou in the Song dynasty, Florence in the Renaissance, Silicon Valley today — places that are more tolerant, more welcoming of immigration, places where ideas are debated and challenged, where the law is fair and equal, generate more innovation and creativity than those that are not. These are not technological conditions but social ones. Despite this, our policies and funding focus on developing the technology and too often ignore the social context. And we are locked into the wrong narrative. So consider again the mechanical clock, assisted reproductive technologies, vaccines, the Turing machine and the Napoleonic Civil Code. We need to revisit our narrative of innovation to focus on the social. If we want to benefit from innovation — and to share it fairly — then we need to educate our population and encourage all to explore equally. We need to invest in our institutions and social infrastructure as much as in technology. And most of all, we need to preserve our values of tolerance and openness in order to assure our future prosperity. Thank you.

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