New technologies and their inventors are often celebrated as society’s heroes. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Larry Page: These are all contemporary “innovators” whose “visionary ideas” and “creative leaps” led to “disruptive realities”—that is, if you buy the rhetoric of certain books and novelty-orientedpublications (including, sometimes, your very own CityLab).
But those who’ve questioned whether technology really is society’s salve aren’t alone. Lee Vinsel, an assistant professor of science and technology at theStevens Institute of Technology, wrote a dissertation on innovation and regulation in the early days of the automobile. But lately, he finds that the word “innovation” is overused to the point of meaninglessness—and worse, that it can obfuscate the bleak realities of the status quo. “In a culture where we forget about things like crumbling infrastructure and wage inequality, those narratives about technological change can be really dangerous,” Vinsel says.
How so? “Look no further than the income disparities and gender inequalities in Silicon Valley, which is often seen as a hub or cathedral of innovation,” says Andy Russell, also a historian of technology at Stevens Institute of Technology.