The complicated history of American innovation

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At a small workshop in Georgia, an aspiring lawyer named Eli Whitney worked for several months on a new machine. He tweaked and prototyped until he got it to function just the way he wanted. Finally successful, Whitney wrote to his father, “One man and a horse will do more [with this new machine] than fifty men with the old machines.” He had invented the cotton gin. The year was 1794.

Designer Tim Brown in his TEDGlobal 2009 talk ‘Designers — Think Big’ discusses how the design profession needs to shift away from incremental thinking. He fears that designers nowadays focus on inconsequential improvements, aesthetics, iteration, and trends. Brown even cites himself as an example. Early in his career, he designed new models of a fax machine and an oven, both of which became obsolete soon after. Brown’s argument is that designers need to pay attention to the bigger picture, the kind of design that impacts millions of lives and creates entirely new systems. As someone who is interested in design for good, Brown’s TED Talk immediately lured me in.

I soon realized that Brown is advocating for disruptive innovation. He believes that it would serve the greater good by creating better products. Disruption today is readily sought after in many fields, including product design and engineering. In the tech industry, for example, disrupters are idolized as geniuses; think of the reverence (or ‘priesthood’ as Brown puts it) bestowed upon founders like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, who revolutionized computing and transportation. Consider the desires of tech investors who constantly hunt for ‘unicorns’, which are startup companies so disruptive that they redefine industries.

However, I think disruptive innovation has a complex history that contradicts Brown’s argument. And we only need to look through America’s past to uncover it. Beginning in 18th century America, to be called an innovator was not a compliment. Professor of History at Harvard University Jill Lepore argues that innovation in that time meant “novelty for novelty’s sake.” Innovators typically made inventions that either failed to function or served no purpose in society.

This changed in the 19th century, thanks to industrialization. Railroads, telegraphs, typewriters, steam engines, even photography, all revolutionized life. As a response to these inventions, our understanding of progress adopted a technological undertone for the first time. Improvement in American society correlated with the improvement of its technologies. Prolific inventors, such as Thomas Edison, centered functionality in their work and became successful as a result. A worthwhile 19th-century invention was one that benefited society and moved America into the new age. In his talk, Brown himself says good design must be “desirable.”

In a sudden reversal, the early 20th century muddled America’s relationship with technological progress. The two World Wars were catastrophes made possible, in part, by technological advances like the tank, the machine gun, the jet fighter, and the nuclear bomb. These disruptive technologies gave society the ability to destroy itself. Consequently, a disillusioned America saw innovation as something that could progress too far.

The 80s and 90s saw the advent of personal computing and the internet. These technologies restructured American society and made disruptive innovation the norm. America became a society interested in fast-paced electronic change. This blind progress led us to our current predicament, where technology companies like Facebook and Google have accumulated so much data and influence without a clear sense of their social responsibility with it.

At the Second Continental Congress of 1775, the Founding Fathers met to define the nation’s constitution. Due to a lack of consensus about slavery, they decided to shelve the topic. Professor Lepore contextualizes this decision, recalling that slavery was in a steady decline at that time — many who were present at the Continental Congress believed it could not last for much longer — so the Founding Fathers felt it was not worthwhile to debate it. However, 20 years later, slavery’s decline was suddenly reversed by a single invention: the cotton gin. Whitney’s device radicalized cotton production and enabled plantations to rapidly increase their output. As a result, plantation owners invested in more slave labor, preserving the institution. Slavery thrived and expanded throughout the southern United States for another 70 years, thanks to this one disruptive, new machine. Brown believes that disruptive innovation always leads to societal improvement, yet history shows us that isn’t always the case.