Twitter is a great place for bon mots, quips and dips. But the meals are not filling. I have to bring a line of questions here to have a chance of saying anything at all.

The question is about innovation, a word I get to hear in education all day, every day, along with bird calls, whoops and other sounds of the jungle. It’s a pretty sound, innovation. It sounds like somewhere they would visit in Star Trek. That may be why people use it so rapidly and vapidly.

Innovation exists, but it’s gone before you see it. It was there in a side room somewhere, ignored. Then somebody walking by was struck by the idea. They put it in words. Somebody else turned it into a set of principles. A lone wolf followed those principles in some private space, and was called a loopy or a visionary. More likely loopy, because the visionary is the person that tries the idea again in a larger space, dropping the bits that don’t fit the context. An academic ‘gets the picture’, they write a paper, they give a TED Talk, the idea is on TIME.COM, it’s being misrepresented in the newspapers, there’s a conference with a panel of visionaries that agree this innovative practice is exactly what we must put into practice everywhere no matter what.

By the time it’s hit ‘best practices’ as documented in Power-points by the Innovation Panel at the company executive level, the idea is a set of callisthenics for staff to learn in 2 hour training sessions. They make feeble attempts while preserving their experience gained over years of trench warfare. The new thing is absorbed into a wide folklore of practices, an archaeology of new things. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn’t, but the machinery has already spun off in pursuit of a new innovation.

Like most things it starts with action, and is turned into words because words are easily counted and peer reviewed. The words then replace the action.

I have been through this many times. Probably the easiest to describe is computing.



1979 dickhead. I think that’s a punch card on the shoulder for some dickhead reason.

I was the only person in my high school or anywhere I knew that had a personal computer. I used it to make simple art and music. Other students called me a dickhead. In 1980 I enrolled at university in mathematics, because I had a vague idea about making computer based art. There was nothing there either which made me a depressed failure, so I switched to history of science, because that was more fun (but also I’ve since realised that universities are good for hearing about people like yourself that are dead.)

Somewhere in that period Time Magazine declared The Personal Computer Revolution. I was now a pioneer dickhead.

I got drunk, did music and kept making computer art stuff, meeting up with a small bunch of other people who were also reject dickheads. By the end of the 1980’s we dickheads were starting to show up in galleries and exhibitions, the curators of which happened to be walking by. This caused some academic somewhere to ‘get the picture’ and spout the name ‘New Media’ which was an innovation that must be defined, funded and taught. Much words were penned about electronic media, cyber arts, linkages and French philosophy. By 1990 there was one computer at the university that ran PhotoShop and way too many journal articles.

The early 90’s were a fun time for me, playing the tame dork, ready to explain computer stuff to the Common Man over the TV, radio, newspapers and conferences. Oh the conferences; to be sitting on a panel with my fellow cybernauts, telling the audience of educators and funding bodies about this innovation that was going on, hurry hurry, get with the system. I was no longer a dickhead – according to one newspaper I had geek chic.

This tame media geek role was something new. I’d just waddle onto the telly, predict online sales or DVD and wander off again, feeling cheerful because no one had called me a dickhead recently. But others ‘got the picture’ – what if you charged the audience to hear this futurism? What if you made it REALLY expensive and only CEOs could be there? What if you called it TED? You would have the innovation industry,

I was outclassed by the late 90’s and had to go and get a real job. But being knocked down can knock a bit of sense into your head. Cut to the chase; here I am now, an academic in charge of a media arts degree. When I went to university in 1980, what I wanted was not even a glint in the vice chancellor’s eye. Not even peer reviewed. It was actually innovative, and no one had got it yet.

Innovation takes place in the underground. If you are reading about it in a newspaper or a university handbook, you are seeing the innovation industry, which runs about 3-5 years behind the thing itself. These can be good and successful things, but they are not the innovation itself. And that’s why any discussion about how the powers can support and develop innovation is baloney, because they can’t see it. Creativity, maybe, creative industry sure thing.

Once an innovation leaves the underground, you can’t put it back. So the idea of revisiting the innovations of the past to try regain inspiration are doomed to failure. Retrofitting the past can be pretty, but it’s well said that the past is foreign country.

Relax. Some kids are out there doing it for you. You just can’t see them.

3 thoughts on “Innovation

  1. Almost as good as the punchcard on the shoulder in picture one, is the pack of Disco biscuits in the background.

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