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
meter that are sufficient for an informal discussion.
innovation is not
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
me refer to the speaker. The words
technique are used interchangeably and as
appropriate to refer to the thing whose innovativeness is in dispute.
- The idea advanced the state of human knowledge.
- The idea was an improvement over existing ideas.
- The idea improved the state of practice within its field.
- The idea was previously unknown.
- The idea was previously unknown to its creator.
- The idea was previously unknown to me.
- The technique solved a problem thought to be unsolvable.
- The technique solved a problem with no known solution.
- The technique solved a problem with no solution known to me.
- The technique solved a problem with no solution known to its inventor.
- The product was aesthetically pleasing to me.
- The product is entirely unlike any other product with which I am familiar.
- The product is exactly the same as some other product with which I am familiar.
- The product solved a problem more effectively than existing tools.
- The product made its creator the wealthiest living human.
- The product made its creator wealthy.
- The product made someone wealthy.
- The product reaped a huge profit for the corporation selling it.
- The product was bought by many people.
- The product was used by many people.
- The product was useful to many people.
- The product was useful to someone.
- I bought the product.
- The product was useful to me.
- The product was created by (some particular entity, such as Toyota or Apple).
- The product was not created by (some particular entity).
- The product is good. (NB: of course
goodis another ambiguous term with many definitions, one of which appears to be
innovative; the fun never stops!)
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
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
...but what about..? Which is why these
(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.