Don't Put a (Twitter) Bird on It: Innovation Needs Cultural Change, Too

Don't forget the whole universe of newness that exists beyond the computer chip.


Among the kids, there's a common way of noting a facile attempt to make something hip. They say, in reference to the numerous winged icons in hipsterdom, that you're "putting a bird on it." To overexplain: putting a bird on it isn't cool, it's merely the reproduction of coolness.

We find ourselves, I think, in a similar position in thinking about what innovation is or can be. We just put a Twitter bird on it and forget about the entire universe of newness that exists outside of the limited number of hot technology companies.

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage

Yesterday, here at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Sarah Rich and I convened a panel of four people doing legitimately new things in their fields (race relations, art, digital journalism). Yet because we'd framed the session as a look into the future, people assumed we were going to talk almost exclusively about technology. Adam Lerner, the director of the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art, observed that innovation has become nearly synonymous with these devices with computer chips inside.

It's easy to see why. People *think* that technology moves fast and culture moves slowly. I mean, the Rolling Stones are still one of the world's most popular bands, right? But that's not always true. If you look at futurists' takes from the middle of the last century, their biggest misses were not just technological (jetpacks instead of iPhones) but cultural. One example comes from the preeminent science writer Victor Cohn, who wrote a book called 1999: Our Hopeful Future. Here's my quick gloss on this work from my own book:

In 1999: Our Hopeful Future, John and Emily Future wake up in a wondrous world where John takes a helicopter to a 30-hour a week job while the Regional Weather-making Service generates snow for the pinochle game that Emily, a stay-at-home mother, is hosting.

"Emily had the ladies out in the garden bubble -- the new enclosed part of the yard (with dining terrace and thirty-foot swimming pool) where the climate was kept the same the year round. And the snow was beautiful through the clear plastic bubble."

Timothy, their son, eats Super-Mishmosh cereal which keeps him from ever having "a sniffle or cold." Nuclear and solar thermal power plants pump their world full of energy and atomic aircraft cruise the skies. People live to 115 and balding is a thing of the past. Finally, in January of that hopeful year, humans land on the moon.

The most glaring and obvious misses here are cultural. Cohn held the social and cultural norms of his day steady while projecting massive technological change. That's just ahistorical and kind of silly. So, in his 1999, women still don't work and the environmental movement never happened. He didn't, maybe even couldn't, anticipate the rise of the natural and organic food movements. Most of the things he describes are technically feasible (balding treatments aside) -- but people don't actually want to live the life Cohn imagined.

Part of the reason we have a hard time imagining cultural change is that it's difficult to create quantitative models of the spread of new ideas and practices. With tech, we've got hard numbers for the adoption of new gadgets. With some big exceptions (the Social Security Administration's tracking of name popularity, e.g.), it's much more difficult to show the spread of new foodways or artistic practices and to track their influence on society.

Perhaps, though, the very digital technologies that I've been downplaying may help us out. So much more human interaction is now recorded online that we may finally have the the right corpora to understand the cultural adoption of ideas. That's where the tenuous but real optimism about Google N-Grams, which show the rise and fall of word usage in the Google Books corpus, comes from. If we can track how culture is changing, maybe we'll actually come to believe that technology is not the only, or even the main, agent of change in society. At the very least, perhaps people will come to believe that the technologies we have exist because they worked with and within specific cultures.