The Perils of Overinnovating

A trip to the white coat ceremony of Harvard Medical School’s newest students left me wondering: is “innovation” really a core qualification?

Last week my wife and I attended the “White Coat Ceremony” of Harvard Medical School’s latest crop of doctors-in-training. After watching all 167 of the new students file onto stage, don their professional garb, and announce their names to applause, the Dean of the school reminded the students that “the ground is changing underneath our feet.” He then invited the students to recite their class oath, collectively written in the days prior to the ceremony. “We, the entering class . . . commit ourselves to the principles of this oath,” the students recited. In the page-long pledge, the Class of 2017 said some nice things about collaboration, nurture, humility, idealism, and confronting injustice. At the end of the vow, the students solemnly declared, “we strive to uphold this oath that we may heal, innovate, and lead.”

It struck me as odd that a promise to “innovate” would hold such a position of primacy on the oath of a medical student. Healing seems to be quite an obvious thing for a doctor to attempt. Leading I can certainly understand too, as the doctors I have seen in action are always orchestrating the efforts of talented nurses and technicians for the good of the afflicted patient. Innovating is different though. These medical students were solemnly committing themselves on a path toward the profession of Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine and its secular saint for 2,500 years. These young people, most of whom are fresh out of organic chemistry classes in undergrad, are already promising to innovate in the medical field. It got me thinking: Do we emphasize innovation too much?

Let me be clear on two points. First, I have nothing but respect for the scholars in the Class of 2017 who have started their tenure at Harvard Medical School. My wife and I were there to support one of our best friends, a brilliant and thoughtful man who will, I’m quite sure, eventually become the United States Surgeon General or the President of the World Health Organization. He and his classmates have selflessly committed their lives to the service of others, and I am grateful for their example.

Second, I have nothing against innovation properly understood–that is, change that pursues a moral good. This true innovation has brought us many of the comforts of modern medicine, including antibiotics and the vaccine. (The HMS ceremony was, I hope fittingly, in a building on Louis Pasteur Avenue in Boston.) I am simply worried that our generational obsession with innovation is exchanging material progress for cultural harm. Overemphasizing innovation has two deleterious consequences.

The first effect of an obsession with innovation is that it causes us to ignore the commonplace. Ashton Kutcher has recently garnered collective internet kudos because of his tough love speech at the Teen Choice awards. Kutcher, who is quite the innovative star himself, reminded his fans that life is not all about innovation. “Opportunity looks a lot like hard work,” says Kutcher, before reciting a litany of mundane jobs that he worked on his way up the ladder. For Kutcher, those jobs weren’t placeholders. They were “stepping stone[s] to the next job.” The young Kutcher wasn’t obsessing about innovating. He was working hard, going about things the orthodox way.

Dustin Moskovitz, the co-founder of Facebook and tech startup Asana, recently made waves when he warned college-aged kids against trying to follow in his footsteps. “Every time I meet someone who says, ‘I really want to be an entrepreneur’ but has no idea what they want to do, I really just think: ‘This person is totally aimless.’” If I can paraphrase Moskovitz: You can’t aim to innovate. You have to innovate for what you aim to achieve. And you’d better be prepared for 10,000 hours of hard work if you want to be the best at it.

But the second consequence of our innovation infatuation is that we begin to equate innovation with progress. “Surely there must be a better way to do X,” we say. Maybe we are right, but maybe we aren’t. Maybe, in some instances,  we’ve innovated ourselves away from the form of the good. Peter Thiel’s 2011 piece “The End of the Future” tries to address this possibility. Thiel, the founding CEO of PayPal, certainly knows a bit about innovation. But, he wonders, “how does one measure the difference between progress and mere change? How much is there of each?”

Here’s a different way of asking the question: does the mere fact that somethingcan be done also mean that it should? Nuclear bombs were innovative, but their use has killed hundreds of thousands. Facebook was innovative, but new research suggests that it makes us depressed. In the field of medicine, we artificially fertilize eggs, make babies in test tubes, discuss perfection throughreprogenetics, and are trying to make eggs from sperm. Surely these are questions of medical innovation that should give us pause.

We often use the phrase “reinvent the wheel” to refer to redundant innovation. Why? It is because the wheel, invented in the 4th millennium BC, is a “final form.” We can improve the way we build wheels, increase their durability, and enhance their effectiveness, but our wheels remain simple circles. A car rolling around on ovals is, and always will be, a bad idea. We should draw analogies between the wheel and other parts of life.  How can we prevent ourselves–in science, philosophy, sociology, politics, and religion–from innovating away from the “final forms” that should be? This is not an anti-progressive question. It is a reminder that genuine Progressivism is especially conscious of the morality of its goals.

Even though Hippocrates and his contemporary, Aristotle, were deprived of the “human right” of internet access (good grief, Zuckerberg), they had a few things to say about innovation and progress. As Harvard’s promising medical school students begin their careers, I hope that they heed the humility evident in the Hippocratic oath, and pay due attention to Aristotelian teaching on the telos, or purpose, of our activities. The Nichomachean Ethics is particularly conscious of the ends to which we strive: all of our activities, Aristotle reminds us, are necessarily in the pursuit of some aim. With this in mind, we should make sure that our innovation is in pursuit of a worthy end. Let’s not innovate ourselves into oblivion.

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