Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Toxins in the Innovation Kool-Aid

Two stories in the Business Report section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle provide a useful perspective on why it is that Barack Obama’s mantra about solving the interlinked problems of the current economic crisis and its corollary of devastating unemployment statistics through innovation is nothing less than the latest brew of Jonestown Kool-Aid. Both pieces are on the front page, and the one above the fold has a headline with the largest font on the page:
Solar market burnout
The story is by Staff Writer David R. Baker, and he makes his point in the first three abrupt paragraphs:
The solar industry stands at a point that renewable energy advocates have yearned for - and feared.

Solar cell prices have plunged, making the technology affordable to a growing number of homeowners and businesses. Sales are soaring as a result.

But as last week's surprise bankruptcy announcement from Solyndra showed, fast-falling prices mean that some solar companies are going to die.
As Baker goes on to observe, Solyndra was supposed to be Obama’s poster child for innovation that would make the world a better place while solving the unemployment problem at the same time. He may have gotten it right about solar energy beginning to have a positive impact on the global environment; but, like it or not, the unemployed are more interested it getting a good day’s pay for a good day’s work than they are in the climate conditions of the planet. Solyndra plans to file for bankruptcy, and that latter noun may become stuck to Obama as a metaphor for his efforts to solve the jobs problem.

Below the fold is another take on the prevailing technocentric obsession with innovation. This one is by Olga Kharif and Ashlee Vance, who write for Bloomberg Businessweek. Their headline, in a somewhat smaller font, reads:
Puppet, Chef ease transition to cloud computing
This headline may be deceptive to those who live outside the technology bubble, because Puppet and Chef are actually the names of recent competing software tools, some of the first to emerge as support for the infrastructure of cloud computing. The bottom line is that those who have mastered at least one of these tools will probably not have to worry about finding a good job, at least in the immediate future. We have been here before more times than can be numbered. All that changes are the names, whether it is Microsoft .NET, XML, Perl, or, for those willing to admit their age, COBOL.

The mastery of a software tool, whether it is a programming language or a development environment, is, without a doubt, a labor skill. However, it is a skill that is narrow as it is valuable for only a limited period of time. The same innovative thinking that has put Puppet skill at the top of every employer’s needs will probably render that skill obsolete before we reach the middle of this decade. In other words the future of this new burgeoning generation of “Puppet masters” is no more promising than that of the dedicated staff of Solyndra, 1100 of whom are now data points for the latest unemployment statistics. The overall lesson that comes from taking these stories together is thus that the very innovative thinking is just as good at taking jobs away as it is at creating them.

Isn’t it about time that the Obama Administration back away from the Kool-Aid, smell the coffee, and drink enough of it to straighten out what has revealed itself to be highly warped judgment?

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