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The End of Innovation (As We Knew It)


‘The future arrives sooner here.’ I’m driving my car down Hillview Avenue in Palo Alto, California one evening around 1995 and I hear this assertion on U.S. National Public Radio, spoken by a Silicon Valley technologist who’s being interviewed.  It elicits a familiar response – a certain tightening in my stomach, a bodily resistance to being hailed into this presumption of avant-gardism, with its attendant mandate to enact the future that others will subsequently live.

These words reiterate a past, in the form of a diffusionist model of change that works, in turn, to reproduce the neocolonial geographies of center and periphery that (in the mid 1990s at least) underwrote the Silicon Valley’s figuration as central to the future of everywhere.  But we know now that centers and margins are multiple and relative, and futures can only be enacted in what Anna Tsing names “the sticky materiality of practical encounters … the makeshift links across distance and difference that shape global futures – and ensure their uncertain status” (2005: 1-2). These encounters and links happen within circulatory systems characterized by specific moments of boundary-making and transversal movement, events that we are just beginning to articulate in ways other than through the simple tropes of local knowledge or global flows.  Moreover, as Tsing also observes, those who claim to be in touch with the universal are notoriously bad at seeing the limits and exclusions of their own knowledge practices (ibid: 8).

In The End of Capitalism as we Knew It (1996), feminist economists Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham remind us of the performative effects of discourses of political economy, and the attendant dangers of a singularized ‘Capitalism’ as the figure for all forms of contemporary exchange. They question why it is that some terms are seen as what Judith Butler characterizes as ‘regulatory fictions’ (for example, the fiction of binary gender and its regulatory function in support of compulsory heterosexuality), while ‘Capitalism’ retains its status as structurally real (ibid: 2). It is precisely in the disjuncture between the singularity of figures and their enacted multiplicities, they suggest, that the most generative forms of interference occur.  They insist that in minimizing the significance of, for example, small spaces of noncapitalist economic practices within corporations, or the multiplicity of market forms outside of them, we are in danger of retrenching the figure of hegemonic Capitalism rather than loosening its grip. ‘Capitalist hegemony’, Gibson and Graham propose, is at once constitutive of the anticapitalist imaginary, and a brake on its development.

So how might we apply this analysis to the figure of Innovation and associated practices?  My own engagement in that project takes us back to the Silicon Valley, and more specifically the place that I’ll call here, following Susan Newman’s felicitous pseudonym, Acme Blackbox Research Center (ABRC), a highly celebrated site of research and development in computing.[1] My investigation begins with the question: What could it mean to take ABRC as a particular place, without presupposing it as a unique or exceptional one?  What if, rather than taking such a site as central, we treat it instead as one site among others?  And even in itself not as one but as many?  A key move is to shift from a view of the research center as the origin of change, to an understanding of the center as involved in the circulation of technological imaginaries, artifacts and regimes of value (Appadurai 1986). Combined with an appreciation for the ways in which circulating objects are refracted in distinctive – even unique – ways through particular places, persons, and things, this shift provides the basis for a decentering of innovation.  At the same time, I attend to the effects of organization members’ own preoccupations with the status of ABRC as central; a status seen variously as a history, and as a tenuous present and future.

How to think about futures and future making differently is the question that motivated a broader, collaborative project titled ‘Relocating Innovation: places and material practices of future making.’[2] The project worked through comparative analysis of three differently located sites of social, technological and political future making: an internationally recognized ‘center’ of technology research and development in Silicon Valley, California (my own study); small scale marine renewable energy enterprises on the ‘remote’ archipelago of Orkney, Scotland, best known as a World Heritage site for remains of Neolithic settlement (the work of my colleague Laura Watts); and the Hungarian Parliament, considered multiply as monument, administrative machine, and theatre of political representation (research conducted by Endre Dányi as part of his doctoral thesis at Lancaster University). We approach all three sites as places of future making; that is, of material practices oriented to imagining, and enacting, various modes of social reproduction and transformation. Our aim is that these cases should work as critical inquiries that can help to unseat the dominant discourse of innovation as a universal, and largely unquestioned, figure of social change. This involves, among other things, shifting questions of innovation, creativity and the new from their status as unexamined ‘goods’, to constitutive moments of affiliation and action within particular imaginaries of possibility and desirability.  In developing our analyses, we mobilize recent refigurations of the future not as a temporal period existing somewhere beyond the present, but as an effect of discursive and material practices enacted always in the present moment, however much those practices may be haunted by memory or animated by imaginings of things to come.[3] We mean ‘relocating’ in the double sense, of putting future making in its place, and in that way making evident the multiplicity of places in which different, but also potentially related, future making activities occur.  Through this strategy we hope to help loosen the grip of unquestioned assumptions regarding what innovation is and where and how it happens, to make room for more generative and sustainable forms of future making.

Works Cited

Appadurai, Arjun (1986) Introduction: Commodities and the politics of value. In A. Appadurai (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective pp. 3-63. Cambridge, UK: CUP.

Gibson-Graham, J.K. (1996) The End of Capitalism (as we knew it). Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Newman, Susan (1998) Here, There, and Nowhere at All: Distribution, negotiation, and virtuality in postmodern ethnography and engineering. Knowledge and Society 11: 235-267.

Rosenberg, Daniel and Harding, Susan (2005) Histories of the Future. Durham and London: Duke.

Tsing, Anna (2005) Friction: An ethnography of global connection. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[1] See Newman 1998.
[2] This project was funded by The Leverhulme Trust, and ran from January 2007 through September 2010. See
[3] See for example the essays collected in Rosenberg and Harding 2005.