Innovation

New devices, processes, methods, ideas… reach their real meaning and dimension in the social and cultural context. Effectiveness, industrial, economic and social improvements, and the final utility of a rich variety of proposals depend on how a society perceive them, and on shared fears and expectations about change and future. Some societies together with different groups do not regard innovations as substantial means to transform their worldview. Novelties in this case are just seen as tools with immediate practical applications. Supreme values are instead those that contribute to enhance group cohesion; if something threatens this perspective, it will be dismissed. In ancient Greek culture, innovative tendencies implicit in arts were restrained (not eliminated) by political and moral invocation of prudence. Innovation in this case doesn’t have the same connotations as it has in western cultures, at least since the Renaissance. From this time on, the argumentum ad novitatem (appeal to the new; something is better only by virtue of being new o newer) has been recurrently proclaimed in particular moments to emphasize the superiority of moderns over ancients, to underline in sum the radical opposition between present and past times. Innovation then became a symbol. Moreover, modern mentality is grounded in the rejection of tradition and consequently in the promotion of innovations and technology. The twentieth century has sacralized the concept and has converted it in an essential part of the search for resources to improve citizen conditions, where the state has a crucial responsibility and therefore dedicates part of the budgets to promote particular programs in areas such as health, industry and military forces (or national security). Science is seen in this context as a valuable and even unique source of innovation. But according to George Basalla this restrictive assumption has to be modified in order to accept other origins:

In the twentieth century, however, science has come to play a much larger role in the creation of technological innovations and hence deserves separate treatment. Proponents of scientific research have exaggerated the importance of science by claiming it to be the root of virtually all major technological changes. A more realistic and historically accurate assessment of the influence of science on technological change is that it is one of several, interacting sources of novelty.

The evolution of technology, Cambridge, CUP, 1999, 92.

The same author points out a variety of elements to explain innovations: psychological and intellectual factors (technological dreams, technological visions, impossible machines, popular fantasies, transference of knowledge, imperialism, migration, practical knowledge, environmental influences, and science) and socioeconomic and cultural factors (economic motivations, market demands, workmen shortage, patents, and laboratories of industrial research). To conclude with Basalla’s words:

That the process of innovation involves the interplay of psychological and socioeconomic factors is generally agreed. An overemphasis on the psychological elements leads to a genius theory of invention, one in which the contributions of a few gifted individuals are featured. An excess concentration on the social and economic elements yields a rigidly deterministic explanation that presents an invention as the inevitable product of its times. Because it is so much easier to identify socioeconomic influences than it is to delve into the workings of innovative minds, and because we have yet to produce a theory capable of fully integrating the psychological, the social, and the economic in any realm, a satisfying unified explanation of innovation remains more an ideal than a realty

(Basalla, 1999, 65).