Innovation Can Be Ugly #66 #cong17

By Billy Kennedy.

We like to think of innovation as a planned methodical process in a pristine environment with positive aims like business or societal enrichment.  Something that helps to push humanity forward with well meaning teams.  We mentally have pictures of whiteboards and people in white lab jackets against backdrops of a better future.

However, like it or not, a lot of the great innovations have come from war.  Even fear of war has sparked some of the biggest breakthrough at break neck speed and with a worrying precision considering their intended use.

The list is sizeable and some of the ones attributed to military over numerous wars (note some were invented earlier but only widely deployed after military use) includes:

  • Canned Food
  • Plastic Surgery
  • Sanitary Nakins
  • Duck Tape
  • Microwave Ovens
  • Digital Photography
  • The Internet
  • Sun Lamps
  • Tea Bags
  • Zips
  • Stainless Steel
  • Super Glue
  • GPS
  • Freeze Drying
  • Ballpoint Pen
  • Jet Engines
  • Dyno Powered Torch
  • Industrial Fertilizer
  • Margarine 
  • The Slinky

The list goes on and they all have fascinating stories of accidental, ancillary and purposeful development.  (The links below give a flavor of those stories) Many were just widely deployed during war before being embraced by wider society.

It not just war where innovation can have an uncomfortable origin.  Many of the developments on the internet from streaming and eCommerce were pioneered by the unsavory porn industry.  The drugs trade has propelled bitcoin, blockchain and the deep web.

The reality is that innovation happens all the time but during a time of crisis, fear or possible great enrichment/greed we deploy enormous resources that propel development.  Much of the time these innovations are focused on creating as much carnage as possible and it is only later in peaceful times that a positive societal use is found for them.

Like most things in life progress can be slow until there is a ‘burning platform’ or a very compelling rationale.   In war this can be fear, hatred, greed (or simply psychopathic tendencies) but these are intensely human emotions.  These are powerful forces. Scarcity, pressure and trauma can help us achieve some of our best breakthroughs.  

In my 70th year I often hope for a future depicted in Star Trek when humanity works for humanity sake but see little immediate stop to conflict.  In reality mankind has always had a dark side and as Joan Mulvihill discusses in her post this dark side can be where true creativity and innovation lies.

To wish for a pristine dream like innovation process is to divorce human emotion from the equation and like it or not these positive and negative emotions are what makes us special and had led our race to succeed where other species have faltered.

After pondering my submission for #cong17 I now try to see the endless conflict documented on our screens as possibly having a silver lining, knowing this is small comfort for those unfortunately enough to be caught up in it.

I also take comfort that weapons and technoogy design to eradicate other fellow human beings can be reformed into positive forces….I just hope those who innovated them can also be reformed 


CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie