Against the cult of innovation
To London, where I eat my way up what used to be “Murder Mile”, now annexed by some of the deftest young chefs and sommeliers. I am already feeling my age in the P Franco wine bar when I receive the harrowing news that Arsenal are to be coached by a man who was born after me. Memento mori upon memento mori.
If age brings a certain scepticism about the new, I am ahead of schedule. For instance, I feel it says something about the cult of innovation that, at or approaching 60, football’s grandest coaches — Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez, José Mourinho — must now take jobs a notch or two below their proper station. The trend among clubs is towards youth, less as an end in itself than as a supposed guarantee of fresh thinking. The Bundesliga’s coming force, Julian Nagelsmann, is 32, which is frankly impertinent of him.
In its neophilia, sport takes its cue from business and especially from Silicon Valley. “People over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas,” according to tech investor Vinod Khosla.
The problem here is not just the equation of youth with innovation. It is the worship of innovation itself. What we used to understand as a neutral thing, sometimes life-improving, sometimes destructive, often neither, has been reframed in this century as an unambiguous virtue. Perhaps the virtue. The staidest industries now have their Innovation Awards. The word has lost so much meaning through overuse that, upon the death of Prince, a musician who held out against sampling and streaming, who looked back to Miles Davis and James Brown, every blagging obituarist had him down as an “innovator”. It must have sounded like the right thing to say. That in itself is telling of the times.
History has allowed us enough chances to see innovation for the mixed bag that it is. The complex traded derivatives that did such rampant business before 2008 were innovative. The avant-garde music that almost destroyed the art form in the mid-20th century with atonal gimmickry was innovative. Without question, Finnegans Wake is innovative. It is also, in Martin Amis’s imperishable judgment, less a novel than a “700-page crossword clue, and the answer is ‘the’”.
Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist whose thoughts turned to the Bhagavad Gita when he saw the first atomic explosion (“I am become Death, destroyer of worlds”), knew better than most of us ever will that innovation is not an inherent good. The idea that all that is new is meritorious has always had a sinister following (think of the Mussolini-saluting Futurists) and still it endures among people who should know better.
If all the cult of innovation did was gloss over some terrible things, I could live with it. What makes it insidious is the corollary disregard for the non-innovator. Spotting this prejudice, American academics Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell came up with the term “Maintainers” to heroise, well, most of our species. The vast majority of human labour is devoted to the quotidian business of keeping things going. We do not have to imagine what a society that prizes innovation over maintenance would look like because we have downtown San Francisco, that Hogarth print come to life.
The premise of innovation is that the fundamentals are already in place. At that point, the eking out of extra gains though ingenuity really does make sense. It is less urgent when the fundamentals are the problem. I have seen well-meaning politicians fall for this mug’s game at close quarters. Governments that struggled to enforce basic standards in education or to tend to vital infrastructure have lost themselves in innovation task forces and the like, as though they were Finland, soundly run and just eager to keep their edge.
Arsenal are the ultimate case study. The club has declined these 10 or so years because it neglected the basics of the game. It was not a lack of innovation that caused it to have an exploding clown car of a defence. It was elementary incompetence. Hired as a pioneer coach, Mikel Arteta will only succeed as a stickler for the fundamentals. The lesson is for organisations far beyond. A “cult of maintenance” is an unglamorous notion, and no less essential for that.