dburrows/ blog/ entry/ The Dreaded I-Word

A popular and recurrent topic of conversation on the Internet has the following form:

Is (X) innovative?

I occasionally find myself reading these discussions; they have the same sort of macabre fascination for me that's often ascribed to train wrecks, messy divorces, and Usenet. Of course, the outcome (or rather the lack of one) is always predetermined. The only variable is how many pixels will be mutilated and how many absurd postures will be struck before the dust settles.

Why do I say the outcome is predetermined? Because in not one of these discussions does the person posing the question precisely define what innovation is. If the discussion concerned, say, whether an object was blue, or made of concrete, or 5 meters by 6 meters, this would not be a real problem: while any hair can be split, there are commonly accepted definitions of blue, concrete, and meter that are sufficient for an informal discussion.

But innovation is not blue, concrete, or meter. Different people have subtly, even radically different views of what constitutes innovation and how to measure it. Hence, any discussion involving more than one person quickly devolves into chaos. One person will say, X is innovative because of such-and-such, and another will reply, X is not innovative because of such-and-such unrelated reason. Both writers are correct by their own definitions of innovation; they are answering different questions, and so they end up talking past one another.

Although these discussions never go anywhere, I think it's entertaining and enlightening to catalogue some of the definitions of innovation that the participants use. I've listed some popular definitions below; feel free to email me with more suggestions and I'll update the list. Of course, since people rarely bother to define their terms, most of these meanings have been inferred from the statements people have made about what is and is not innovative. As a result, some of them are fairly absurd and may not accurately reflect the opinions of the speakers, had the speakers stopped to think about what they were saying. Caveat lector.

Conventions: Below, personal pronouns such as I and me refer to the speaker. The words product, idea, and technique are used interchangeably and as appropriate to refer to the thing whose innovativeness is in dispute.

A Contrarian View

This post charitably assumes that the purpose of the discussions I described, and the goal of the participants, is to arrive at a commonly agreed-upon answer to the opening question.

In reality, though, most discussions on the Internet, particularly when they involve many anonymous or pseudonymous parties, are just tribal wars. Individuals decide which side to affiliate themselves with, then search for arguments that will tend to support their side or undercut the opposition. Facts and logic are largely irrelevant, except as weapons with which to smack one's opponents, and a dismissive put-down is as good as or better than a reality-based analysis. Actually changing your mind based on the evidence presented shows weakness, and is to be avoided at all costs. If you have to assert that up is down, do it.

In this environment, using vague terms appears to be a bonus, since it gives you more wiggle room and opportunities to play gotcha!. If someone responds to your post with facts that rebut you based on the definition you were using, you can pick any other definition and say ...but what about..? Which is why these discussions (in which no-one is actually discussing anything) are both a fascinating window into human nature and a depressing commentary on human nature, and why I keep finding myself reading them.


PS: This post is the first long post that I've used ikiwiki to write. An advantage of my new workflow, where I write posts on the bus and commit them into a local git repository, is that I have a nice block of time to write down random thoughts that have occurred to me on the way to or from work; sometimes I forget what I was going to write over the course of the day, and when I get home I usually get deluged in email and real life.

It's always amazing to me how long it takes to write posts when I actually think about what I'm doing. This post has taken me at least an hour to compose, and I think probably more (especially counting the composition I did in my head while, e.g., walking from point A to point B). It's a lot harder -- which means, of course, that it's fun; if I don't get distracted by a coding project, I'll be trying to take advantage of my new workflow to post more often.