Monday, July 20, 2009

Innovation, Outering & Equilibrium

Any innovation threatens the equilibrium of existing organization. In big industry new ideas are invited to rear their heads so that they can be clobbered at once. The idea department of a big firm is a sort of lab for isolating dangerous viruses. When one is found, it is assigned to a group for neutralizing and immunizing treatment. . . . No new idea ever starts from within a big operation. It must assail the organization from outside, through some small but competing organization. In the same way, the outering or extension of our bodies and senses in a "new invention" compels the whole of our bodies and senses to shift into new positions in order to maintain equilibrium. A new "closure" is effected in all our organs and senses, both private and public, by any new invention. Sight and sound assume new postures, as do all the other faculties. (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media)

I could, I suppose, draw comparisons between this observation by McLuhan about the politics of innovation and Jesus' observation that "only in their own towns, among their relatives and in their own homes are prophets without honor" (Mark 6:4 TNIV)--but given my recent effusion over McLuhan here and elsewhere, that would probably cause some people to worry that I'd joined a cult. Here, actually, I'd like to argue that what McLuhan sees as a pitiable reaction against innovation is actually a constructive approach.

If sustainability is a reasonable goal for organisms and institutions, which I think it is, then equilibrium--a steady stability that fosters harmony and even predictability--is a reasonable value. That value is of course held in tension with what I think is also a reasonable value: innovation--the impulse to change our circumstances for the better. Sustainability implies an ongoing flourishing even as the environment we inhabit changes, which almost demands innovation even as it seeks equilibrium.

So then, what do we do when innovation and equilibrium, as competing values, clash? We can do a couple of things:

1. We can cordon off the innovative impulse, setting up the lab McLuhan suggests as a way of filtering potential changes until they are rendered reasonably innocuous--not to mention isolating the innovators who might otherwise get their peers riled up about the need to change something right away.

2. We can send innovators away, either temporarily or permanently, so that their tinkering with the status quo doesn't mess anything up.

It's worth noting that both of these are options for the innovator as well. Sarah Palin, supposedly, has left government in order to change government from the outside. Barack Obama, presumably, has charged any number of people in his administration to change the financial and industrial infrastructures of U.S. society. In both cases, the desired outcome is equilibrium, the promotion of the general welfare and the securing of blessings of liberty. Equilibrium + innovation = sustainability.

Most of innovation, at least in media as defined by McLuhan, exists in this notion of "outering," whereby we deputize wheels for the functions of our feet, television for the function of our eyes, newspapers for the functions of our ears and, he foreshadows, the Internet for the functions of our central nervous system. We are actively outsourcing our intellects and sense perception; we are persistently employing external hard drives for all our information. We are actively outering.

The hidden notion in McLuhan's comment above is that we find being acted upon easier to manage than acting ourselves. It's better, for an example from my industry, publishing, to wait for Amazon or Google to force the issue of digital publishing than to actively and unilaterally pursue a digital publishing program. But we are always, arguably, "innering" as well--observing our changing environment, reflecting on its significance for us, calculating an appropriate response that will lead us not into perplexity but deliver us to equilibrium. So, like seemingly everything these days, we're not talking about things but processes: even equilibrium is not static by dynamic.

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