On horses, technology and the monster of innovation

Long ago when I was still young, I believed in a world where the future would lead us upwards, technology would bring us prosperous times and digital enlightenment would come to earth. Virtual worlds would open their doors and for the first time humankind would be connected and world peace was on the brink.

Later on I discovered that I was haunted by a mix of two ideas, first that in the future things would be better and second that through taking risks and hard work one would always become successful. And as far as I’m aware, I’m not alone. If we no longer believed that buying new andย better products would lead to happier lives, if progress could no longer be linked to faster computers, and if a seventy hour work week no longer represented the road to success, the Western world would go downwards fast. Lucky for us most people do buy into the idea that technological progress is essential for the progress of us as a species, and that progress is good beyond questioning. Thanks to this unquestioned faith we now sit behind our glowing screens, drinking fake Italian roast fresh from the machine, burning through our lives for a better tomorrow.

The problem with those two ideas is that they are quite hard to reject. When asked most of us would admit that our lives did become better since the eighties and that we do enjoy the benefits of modern technology. It looks like it is the ideal system of self-fulfilling prophecy. Those noble enough to work hard and take risk will be rewarded, and those faint of heart and plain lazy get the empty lives they deserve. These are the ideas that have made America great, and created a model for the rest of the world to live by.

I want to take you to a place where these ideas collide: the internet start-up. An intense mix of courage, extreme ideas and long working hours that should make up the best chance to meet the future first. The internet-entrepreneurs, the dreamers and the constructors, they are often celebrated and praised by the captains of state and industry. The scene of high-tech start-ups seems to constantly deliver on their promises, innovation is at a speed never seen at any time in any area, and every year it seems to be delivering more new millionaires than the Russian mafia.

Who in their right mind would ever want to be sacrificed in the name of innovation, who in full knowledge would accept an seventy hour work week for unhealthy low pay, who educated by the best would spend their days in cheap office space with Spartan furniture. One look on Techcrunch gives you the answer: the internet entrepreneur! Prince of the future, horseman of innovation, fighter for the revolution, always awake, glued to their desk, only separating from the computer for fellow knights. They fight their solitaire battle, kept warm by fire-side stories of nerds become billionaires like Gates and Jobs; they expect that anytime now victory will be theirs.

But there is a darker side too, a side all too well known by the Googles and Microsofts of this world. The internet industry needs waste, innovation needs failures, many of them. Before a great idea can be turned into a great product it will demand millions in cash and wasted centuries in labour. Who are the minds behind the curtains, who benefit most from keeping these dreams alive? Who try to hide the burn-outs, the wasted lives and capitals, who celebrate the winners and keep all failure hidden, who speak badly of the office drones and hail all young nerds who give up safety and security for sleepless nights? They are the same Steve and Bill who eagerly wait for the very few survivors of the innovation battle. When the day breaks they will reward them with diamonds and glory and enough champagne to help them quickly forget their brothers who wasted their long hours for the beast of innovation.

So what should one do in a battle that knows no victories? Waste oneโ€™s days away in the safe factory of the large institutions? Play the endless games of bureaucracy and office sucking up and back-stabbing? Or should one fight the hopeless battle as described above? Maybe it is a good thing that we are human after all, driven by irrational emotions and wild desires. If one would ask me, I would say saddle the horse, bring me my armour, for god, glory and the country, Iโ€™m going to battle.

5 thoughts on “On horses, technology and the monster of innovation”

  1. that was a bit of a downer. the ‘art’ of constantly re-inventing existing products and creating new ones is a capitalist ideal. it keeps the world moving round. like you say, the unquestioned faith of believing we are able to create a better tomorrow… but for who? the whole world? unlikely. yourself and the people around you – more likely, at least if you succeed. products which truly make the world a better place are extremely rare, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth giving it a try! ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. @Marcus, but what if it isn’t about better products, but -to use the cliche- spend more time with friends and family. In that case not only money and material is wasted for an unquestioned goal but also the most important factor; time.

    But you are right, most fulfilling is still to work hard on creating a better world!

  3. Great post Sjors, summons it up I guess. But I’d point out it is not always unquestioned. I’ve just discovered this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sud_NC.JPG — ain’t it radical? This kind of stuff is essentially what drives me – passion for beauty that I can only achieve, alas, with “sacrifice” ๐Ÿ˜‰
    And of course, beauty is also inherent to innovating and its fruits.
    Back to coding…

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