Innovation’s Collateral Damage

Innovation kills. When we talk about innovation (and a lot of people are talking about it these days) we mainly focus on what it creates. When something new and innovative is embraced, new behaviors and patterns replace old ones. Often, we lose something when the old ways of doing things go away.

Let’s take an example: the digital camera. The idea of taking film to your local pharmacy and waiting a few days for photos to develop seems silly today. On your typical $100 camera (or phone for that matter), you can take hundreds of photos and enjoy them instantly. In minutes, people around the world can enjoy them as well. Many smartphone apps bake in Twitter, Facebook or Flickr integration.

We undoubtedly gained some amazing new capabilities which lead to new possibilities, but we also lost some things:

  • The moment. Rather than being somewhere and enjoying an experience, we feel compelled to stop experiencing that moment to document it. We’re so motivated to share beyond the current company, we forget the moment itself as we momentarily depart. When others witness this, it’s disorienting. It’s as if you momentarily disappeared and returned soon after.
  • The need for judgment. A $15 smart card can hold hundreds, possibly even thousands of photos. There is no need to weigh and consider whether that next photo is worth taking. We just snap away. The real work comes later as we glare at photos that all look alike. All that abundance steers us to lazily snap away without much care or concern. Scarcity motivates and sometimes inspires. 
  • Anticipation. At the tail end of my teenage years, it was still necessary to go develop film. It usually took 2-3 days until the 24-hour development shops kicked in. By wedging some time between the experience itself and getting the pictures, the photos became so much more satisfying. It was a new moment to enjoy and talk around. Today, we’ll take a photo, pause real life, stare at that LCD and edit on the spot, then move on. There is no distance. It’s a gimmicky pausing of the live experience.
  • Exclusivity. Growing up, my aunt amassed a bigger collection of photos of my own family than we ever had. She loved sharing them with us but warned us never to take any for ourselves. They were hers. She cherished the time we’d spend sifting through them together and she didn’t want to lose that. Today, we share with everybody everywhere. Nobody is special enough to afford exclusivity. Everyone is special, which means no one is special. By “publishing” we forego the intimacy that can come from sharing something with someone else.

This all may sound a bit quaint and nostalgic. It isn’t meant to be. I’m a designer and technologist myself. I love the possibilities of technology. Still, I think we will seek out what we lose in other ways. We still want to look forward to things. We still want to make others feel special when we share something with them. Hopefully, we’ll continue to think about the human context as we innovate, and be wary of what’s lost as much as what’s gained.

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