This is not an opinion piece, though I put it in that section because it really doesn’t belong anywhere else. I suppose I should add another section for “literature” or “book reviews,” specifically, if I end up making more posts like this. With that out of the way, let’s get to the books!
The books in question were both published this year: How Innovation Works, by Matt Ridley, and The Innovation Delusion, by Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell. I found out about them in the book review section of the AAAS publication Science, the 9 October issue, volume 370, issue № 6513, page 178. I haven’t read them yet, and I have no idea when I’ll get round to doing so, but I will add them to my reading list, simply because they present two different viewpoints about a critical modern issue, one for which I don’t have a solution, but is still at the forefront of my mind, given what I do.
While I could end this post right here, there is more to the story of why I find this particular subject so fascinating, and there are questions I hope to have answered in the books themselves. To begin, I shared a post written by Jacob Tothe on LinkedIn a while ago, and the comments I find are just as valuable as the body text of the article itself. Although the original discussion was about all the luxuries that we, in modern society, enjoy on a daily basis that were beyond the imagination a century ago, the comments are a discussion of how that very process of innovation has been impeded over the decades, and how the innovators themselves are, sometimes, their own worst enemies. The short explanation is that some inventors guard their inventions jealously, thus preventing others from building upon the original invention and further improving the technology. Of course, the story seldom ends there, because when one inventor doesn’t play nice, others will follow. Likewise, spectators take sides, particularly if the invention is one of great interest. If the invention is relatively mundane or its value under-appreciated, however, then such a story ends up consigned to the dustbin of history.
Moving from the litigious side of the innovation conflict to the social side, there is a passage from the book review that really piqued my interest. The following block is taken directly from the review article:
In their opinion, strategies to boost innovation, such as emphasizing STEM education – which, they argue, often advance “the interests of universities and corporations” rather than those of students – have led us to a misplaced focus on innovation for innovation’s sake. Moreover, this misguided emphasis ignores what matters most in a thriving society: maintenance.
Vinsel and Russell (“them” from the excerpt) are portrayed as rather cynical in the review article, and “sick of hearing what’s good for Silicon Valley,” which is one of the reasons I’d love to read what they have to say. However, I’m far more interested in their attitude toward STEM education, because, while I can see the case for it being far more beneficial for corporations than for students, the benefit to universities is much more tenuous. If they had said “technical colleges,” rather than “universities,” I wouldn’t have such a quibble (maybe they do, I haven’t read the book yet). What has me most interested, of course, is not what Vinsel and Russell have to say about the approach to STEM education, but on STEM itself, because I hold the position that STEM greatly benefits the individuals who have such educations, not just “society at large,” regardless of what “society” actually means to you. I have, after all, encountered people who believe that liberal arts colleges should remain “pure,” and free of any sort of technical education, never mind that the oft-denegrated “trade schools” are inappropriate environments to teach high-level science, advanced mathematics, or the highly specialised computer skills required for modern engineering, especially at the graduate level (and this is coming from someone who not only has a bachelor’s degree from a trade school, but is also entirely self-taught with numerous other skills).
I don’t expect to fully agree with one book or the other, rather, I expect to find valuable information and valid points in both. Perhaps if you, dear reader, have read either of these books, you can give me greater insight than the review that drew my attention to them in the first place.