Eduard Aibar, philosopher of science: ‘There is a movement against children’s exposure to cell phones. The advance of technology is not so inevitable’

The Catalan thinker spoke with EL PAÍS about how he dismantles the myth of innovation and relates it to neoliberal ideology

Eduard Aibar
The writer Eduard Aibar, pictured in a Madrid hotel, in mid-November of 2023.Andrea Comas
Sergio C. Fanjul

The word “innovation” is everywhere. It has been fetishized so much that, depending on who uses it, the entire concept can seem suspicious or ridiculous. Eduard Aibar, 61, is a professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Open University of Catalonia, in Barcelona. He has examined this ideology in a book called El culto a la innovación [The Cult of Innovation], with a preface by fellow essayist and philosopher Marina Garcés. In the work, he finds connections with other ideas of our time — such as neoliberalism — along with the very functioning of economic cycles, which push us into an eternal flight forward based on technology.

He’s also interested in the interaction of technology with urban planning or governance, the use of Wikipedia in education and research, as well as the commercialization and privatization of science. He looks at how the neoliberal paradigm has produced transformations since the mid-20th century.

In short, Aibar’s objective is to contribute to our understanding of the relationship between society and scientific-technological development… one of the main issues of our era.

Question. Why did you break down the term “innovation”?

Answer. My initial impression was that [the term] had become fashionable. I began to see that there are some patterns which are repeated in the public discourse. [Innovation is discussed] in the most elaborate speeches and in talks by [tech] gurus. It’s actually more than a trend: it connects with certain ideologies and ways of doing things.

Q. You don’t write so much about innovation itself as about the ideology that surrounds it.

A. The cult of innovation proposes a very restricted idea about technology and tries to make that the only way to see it. It promotes the ideas of technological determinism and fatalism: technology defines society and its advance is inexorable. We have to adapt to it. And, furthermore, it makes other aspects [of society] and other technologies invisible.

Q. We tend to think that technology is the latest gadget, rather than a toothbrush or a book.

A. Historian David Edgerton focuses on the condom: it’s not usually included in the history of technology, but it has managed to stop epidemics, control birth rates and enhance sexual freedom. Instead, airplanes and computers [get all the attention]. Why? Because [inventions such as condoms] aren’t considered sophisticated enough.

Q. One of the things you criticize is the linear model of innovation. Roughly speaking: from basic science comes applied science, from there comes the technology that is commercialized, etc.

A. Yes, and this isn’t always the case, it’s much more complex and ever-changing. A classic example is the steam engine, which was created earlier and helped found the scientific field of thermodynamics. There are [already-existing] technologies that have motivated scientists to explain how they work. Technology isn’t always the result of science.

Q. We’re constantly told that technological advance is inevitable.

A. Gurus praise companies such as Airbnb, but then, when they cause urban planning problems, they remain silent. We saw the same thing with computers and cell phones: not so long ago, it was impossible to think of school without them. But now, there are countries that are removing them from classrooms, [since they have] worsened education. Silicon Valley leaders put their children in technology-free schools. In Catalonia, a strong movement has emerged against children’s exposure to cell phones. Things aren’t always so predictable.

Q. So innovation isn’t always progress?

A. It’s increasingly obvious that it’s not. We see that some of the biggest problems we face — such as climate change — are caused by the use of some technologies, such as fossil fuel combustion. Thinking that technology ensures social progress is unsustainable. Now, they tell us that the solution [to global warming] is also in technology. Evgeny Morozov (a Belarusian-American essayist) calls this “solutionism.”

Q. For example?

A. There are those who want to alleviate climate change without changing our way of life, through geoengineering: placing giant panels millions of miles away from the Earth, to stop the Sun’s light. It’s outrageous. [Many seem to think] that the solution is always more technology… but there may also be social or political solutions.

Q. Why is this discourse so successful?

A. Partly because it connects with other ideologies, such as neoliberalism. Neoliberals — and not only them — think that growth can be infinite. But when resources run out, how do we continue? Innovation offers a guideline: there will always be innovations, so we won’t have to face limits.

Q. Another common myth is that of the entrepreneur.

A. In the recent past, we associated technology with another mythical figure: that of the inventor. Now, there are innovators and entrepreneurs. They’re not crazy geniuses surrounded by gadgets — they’re just people who may not even have technical training, just an MBA. The subject of innovation has changed. It’s more linked to commerce.

Q. They have ideas and ask others to carry them out.

A. They’re what are called “visionaries.”

Q. In addition to the neoliberal drift, another older idea may be at the base of the cult of innovation: new is always better.

A. I don’t associate the discourse of innovation with the discourse surrounding novelty. It’s much more specific. Other technologies that aren’t new are made invisible, such as the fork or the book, which are so good that they don’t need innovation.

Q. What does the tech guru have to do with all this?

A. They offer to convert companies, universities [and other institutions] into centers of innovation. Some are very well-known, such as Ferran Adrià, who’s known as an innovative chef, considered to be the best in the world. I don’t understand why, but someone must have convinced him that he had the secret to innovation and he created something called the Sapiens Methodology. It [tells you] how to be innovative in any field, even in scientific research centers… [but] just because you’re innovative in one area (cooking) doesn’t mean that you’re capable of being innovative in another.

Q. How does the ideology of innovation generate inequality?

A. The technologies that are promoted have been designed in three or four places — including Silicon Valley — by the same type of people: white men with large salaries and similar political ideas. Even though they target the largest possible audience, they end up reproducing their biases and patterns.

Q. What’s going to happen down the road?

A. Today, innovation is applied in many areas beyond technology. As a professor, I experience this. But are the best teachers necessarily the most innovative? Increasingly, there’s awareness that the term has been exhausted.

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