Innovation—the introduction of new technologies, systems, and ways of doing things—is such a fundamental part of modern engineering, and life in general, that we rarely stop to question it. One person who has, however, is Gladden Pappin, a professor of political science at the University of Dallas. In the December issue of First Things, he describes how innovation has become an automatic part of modern Western civilization, and why this is not necessarily a good thing.
Pappin is no Luddite (the Luddites were allegedly followers of 19th Century Ned Ludd, a weaver who protested job losses to factory production). Pappin recognizes the benefits of modern sanitation, medicine, electric power, and other technologies that were largely in place by the end of the 1900s. But he sees our continual fascination with, and enslavement to, constantly new things as unthinking and possibly harmful.
He uses Uber as an example of an apparently novel enterprise which is really just a variation on the well-known theme of taxi companies. Uber managed to outgrow conventional taxi firms by cutting pay and benefits to drivers in order to beat the established firms’ prices. As a result, you have a lot of overstressed gig workers who try to hold down two or three jobs in order to survive, and a company that has never yet made a profit. Pappin claims that this kind of “creative destruction” (in Joseph Schumpeter’s phrase) is far more destructive than creative.
Although Pappin doesn’t mention social media in detail, it is another example of an innovation that is essentially a repackaging of a prehistoric idea: gossip. But social media put gossip on steroids, enabled key gossipers to gain a worldwide audience, and profits mightily thereby, but at an unknown and probably negative net cost to the body politic.
Pappin looks to the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle for guidance about how a regime should treat innovation with a mind toward self-preservation. It turns out that Aristotle gave a lot of thought to political change, devoting an entire chapter of his book Politics to it.
As you might expect, Aristotle starts out with some common-sense notions. Before a regime permits a change, it should consider whether the change will truly improve things, or whether it’s just a change for change’s sake. Admittedly, that is sometimes hard to tell in advance. But keeping in mind the ultimate goal—the preservation of the regime—it only stands to reason that things that might tend to harm it should be restricted, or even not allowed in the first place.
One of the boldest recommendations Pappin draws from this general principle is that “[w]e should, for instance, consider state actions to limit the destructive ‘innovations’ of modern firms.” For example, brick-and-mortar stores have suffered or disappeared as a result of online retailing. A suitably-scaled tax on online shopping could fix that. Social media companies have thrived by staying several steps ahead of the sluggish democratic legislative process. An energetic legislative and executive effort to get ahead of them could work wonders in alleviating the distortions, vindictiveness, and even deaths from bullying-inspired suicide that social media now is responsible for.
Pappin is rather short on ideas about how we could get from here to there. Part of the problem is that the very innovations we would try to regulate have crippled the democratic process by which we would regulate them. Nevertheless, there is hope in discussions about how Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act could be modified or even eliminated. Currently, it protects social media companies from being sued because of what third parties put on their websites. As the recent success of the Texas “fetal heartbeat” law shows, passing laws allowing private citizens to effectively enforce laws rather than making the government do it can, at the least, throw a monkey wrench into corporate and governmental attempts to counter them. So that might be one of the best methods to approach the problem of social media outlets whose operations do more harm than good.
There is of course the danger of going overboard with such regulation. My standard example of overweening government control of technology is Cuba. When Castro took over in 1959, he installed a top-down micromanaged regime that essentially froze large sectors of the economy in place. The fact that no imports of foreign automobiles were allowed eventually made Cuba one of the largest repositories of working vintage cars in the world. But as the former owner of a 1955 Oldsmobile, I can say that this situation is probably not what the vast majority of Cubans prefer in the way of transportation.
My point is that freezing all innovation can be just as harmful, if not more harmful, that allowing all innovation. And Aristotle himself would probably agree that the optimum situation lies somewhere between the extreme poles of total government control of anything novel coming into the economy, and complete passivity in the face of unbridled competition manipulated by an oligarchy of the wealthiest few, which is pretty much what we have now.
As a Christian, Pappin ends his piece with a call for family-friendly innovations that would go so far as to pay cash to people who want to raise larger families. But there’s nothing exclusively Christian about this idea. In another article in the same issue, an economist points out that the West in general is entering a period of demographic decline that could be extremely destabilizing. Again, simple common sense says you can’t have a nation of urban singles forever, even if you open the immigration floodgates and hope everyone will get along.
Pappin’s call to take a second look at our unthinking “innovation-is-good” attitude is something that goes counter to most corporate policy statements and the can-do engineering state of mind itself. But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Asking whether an innovation is really going to help society is a different question than asking whether it will help a given company’s bottom line. But the ethical engineer considers both.
Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. His article is printed here with permission