What qualifies as true innovation?

The article, “Diffusion of Innovations” (Rogers and Singhal), began with these words: “What is diffusion?” I would like to start instead with the question, “What is innovation?” I ask because I think many of us are a bit quick to confer such high status to mere evolutionary progress, to incremental advances, to mostly consumer products that, in fact, fall far short of being truly innovative.

iphone.pngIs the iPhone, for example, truly an innovation? Does it, or has it, in fact transformed the way we communicate? Who we are? Our understanding of telecommunications and Web use? (Hint: No, no and no.)

The hybrid corn seed was truly an innovation. What about Facebook? The bionic eye?

In communication, as the article pointed out, we are interested in diffusion as a “communication process, independent of the type of innovations that are diffused.” This is why, just for funsies, that we are the department of communication and not the department of communicationS, because it is a process.

Think through, then, what has to be true for some thing, some new device or method or process, to be innovative. Next, think about how that device or method or technological innovation has changed how we communicate, the process of communication, perhaps even who we are.

Next, as you think about where you are on the adoption curve, consider the article’s valuable point about adoption (or diffusion) as at least partly a social process, something we’ve really keyed on in Intro to Digital Communication. Think about how much social interaction, peer groups and influencers have impacted how and when you adopt a new way of doing something, especially online. In other words, how do your interpersonal networks influence what you buy, what you adopt, when to change how you do something? (These are rich questions given the fact that the Internet has become such a thoroughly social tool or enabler.)

Now the most difficult question and, therefore, the most important: So what? Are these innovations in the end progress? Are these new devices, methods and technologies taking us all to a better place, or merely to a different place? To prompt us: In the 1950s, it was wholeheartedly believed that technology would produce the three- or four-day workweek, that increases in productivity would yield vast amounts of found leisure time. We’re working harder — and longer — than ever.

(My apologies for the difficulties most had in commenting to last week’s post. I’ve checked around at WordPress.com and cannot find a systemic reason. Perhaps Berry’s IT quirks have struck again. It does appear that changing your posting name and/or email however slightly does the trick.)

17 Responses to What qualifies as true innovation?

  1. As another followup, we mentioned some really terrific variables or influencers on the adoption process. I’ll present that list here. Feel free to add to it.

    age (old or young, with younger adopting more readily)

    risk (how much is at risk by adopting)

    convenience (the more convenient, the more likely to adopt)

    cost (how much does it cost to switch)

    income/socio-economic demographics (how easily can the cost be borne)


    social recommendations

    peer group activity/adoption

    tradeoffs (what could I gain? what would I lose?)

    potential payoff (related to the previous)

    culture of innovation (v. tradition)

    politics (Betamax v. VHS and the porn industry)

    media attention (or hype)

  2. Chelsea says:

    I think that for something to be categorized as a true innovation, it really has to be something that makes a profound impact on the way that we live our lives. Trusty old wikipedia says that an innovation “must be substantially different, not an insignificant change.” Otherwise, innovation wouldn’t be so slowly to be accepted by society.

    I feel like perhaps the change of pace in our society has made us expect innovation. But at the same time, I wonder if a lot of people have a certain threshold of how much innovation they allow into their lives. Take for instance the bionic eye. I feel myself reacting most basically that it’s just a little too much, and I couldn’t see myself using it. At times it can be a little scary, and I think Technology has enough of it’s grimy hands in my life, and perhaps I just need some grass and sunshine. I’ve already established a robust need for the internet in my life, and it just seems a little overwhelming to incorporate more techonology. I think perhaps it’s probably harder for some to accept innovation after a certain age, because you’ve already established a lot of routines in your life.

    Some innovations, though, I feel like the nation for the most part is really ready for. For instance, I think of the American car industry now. It feels like there has been a huge hype about alternate fuel sources, but I wonder when we’re going to reach the point where it’s affordable and practical for the middle class to buy fuel efficient cars. The Tata NANO, which I think was released earlier this year in India, costs about 2,500 dollars and if I’m correct will get about 50 mpg. This seems like a more bottom up approach to introducing an innovation, but to me it seems like a better way to introduce an innovation. If it’s innovative and is significantly cheaper than the old technology, it seems like it would have a greater chance of catching on more quickly.

  3. Stephen says:

    Innovation is an “it” word in our society, and I absolutely agree with the post that it is misunderstood and overused. Innovations should cause paradigm shifts for those who they influence. They should not simply be a new or better way to do something. It should be unsettling and foreign at first. Without a doubt, farmers who decided to use they hybrid early on were nervous and uncertain about this technological advance. Innovation should conjure up these emotions and cause us to rethink everything.

    The iPhone is a perfect example of this. Certainly it is convenient to have the power of the internet with many additional features and a cell phone in one highly portable device. But is it truly anything new? What happens when you are at an office with a PC and a cell phone by your side? These same processes and end goals are met by other devices.

    If progress is meant to save time in the end, then no, clearly technology has not saved us time. Certainly it is faster to buy anything, research anything or communicate with anyone, but I would contend that everyone is just doing more and more of all of those things because of innovation. I would argue that we are going to both a different and a better place. Knowledge of our world is expanding every day. However, certain things have been sacrificed in the name of innovation. Interpersonal conversation is suffering. Our environment is in trouble. Innovation, in order to be truly successful, must be new and unsettling, while maintaining a link to its the past.

  4. Sarah Kohut says:

    I agree that with all of this improved technology people seem to be losing some of their basic communication skills. And as Stephen says I think we need to maintain a link to our past.

    One way I have come to adopt some of these technologies and communication methods is simply because we have to. I do not see another way to go… we are expected to know how these things work and use them effectively. As a communication major we need to know how to use various tools like InDesign and Photoshop. At first when I began using both of these they seemed a bit daunting but now they become more and more normal every time I use them. It is hard to say if we have an actual choice for the advancements in various technologies. We may have a choice of wether or not we want to learn or use them but we may not have a job if we decide we don’t want to use them. I think a lot of jobs would laugh at you if you did not want to use a cell phone because most employers want to be able to contact you all the time.

    Overall we have come to a better and more technologically advanced place. Researchers have so many more tools now and I know the medical profession has grown by leaps and bounds simply because of things like the internet. The way in which surgeons are able to perform surgery now so much more advanced. I think it would be nearly impossible for us to go back to the 1950s and our technology then. Still they had a lot better communication skills then so they definitely had some things right.

  5. Tracy Kase says:

    I agree that in order to be an innovation it needs to have a substantial impact on people’s lives. The bionic eye, for example is an innovation, whereas I would say Facebook is not. Facebook just gives us another way to keep in touch with friends- however, without it we could still keep up with those friends, just not as efficiently. The bionic eye, though, is something we’ve never really experienced. The things the bionic eye is capable of doing is something that is completely new, and if successful will have a huge impact on the lives of many people in the world.

    I think our society gets bored more quickly with things and as more ideas come about and technology advances boredom just comes faster. Because of this, we’re constantly looking for something new. I was at my brother’s house last weekend and he just got a brand new 52” HD television. While we’re watching basketball his friend tells us they’re coming out with a Super HD television in a couple of years. It blew my mind that as we’re first experiencing this new TV we were already talking about the next thing that will come out.

    I definitely think these changes are bringing us to a better and different place, but for the most part they are only bringing us to a different place. Most of the time things are not getting done more efficiently because we have so much stuff to take up our time. Personally, I think it was better to communicate in person as much as possible. Conversation through email and texting often causes confusion because you can’t read the emotion or tone behind the message. It’s too easy these days to communicate through email in order to avoid face to face communication and I think that is sad. Sure, it may be more efficient but that interpersonal relationship is something that I hate we are willing to give.

    Lastly, on the adoption curve I find myself being a late adopter. Going back to what we discussed in class, most of my life this has been because of income reasons. My family would always have to wait until costs went down to buy stuff, so gradually that is what I’ve become accustomed to. I find myself wanting to try something new but having to hold off until it’s more affordable- sometimes just because I can’t justify spending the money. Also, I’ve noticed myself having to make time for new things in my life. Before I’m going to add something that is going to consume my time I want to make sure I can handle it. Even with Facebook, I did not sign up for a long time because I knew it would be something I would end up putting a lot of time into. When I was ready to fit in that time I signed up. I think my peers make me wish I had some things, but not to the point that I run out and get them as soon as they come out. Other factors play a bigger role in my decisions of what to adopt and when.

  6. Amanda Powers says:

    Progress, as I think we’ve agreed, is not necessarily innovation. And what is the point of technologically progressing if it doesn’t save us time or money or add years to our lives or make our lives richer in some way?

    Chelsea makes a really good point about alternative fuel for cars. An affordable fuel-efficient or alternate-fuel car would be innovative because it’s beneficial to the environment and to consumer’s wallets. What would make this really innovative is that is is something that the majority of people (at least in America) use. It’s not an iphone. Nobody NEEDS an iphone. And yes, it can be argued that nobody NEEDS a car, but this country functions on cars and trucks. A new, innovative car would reach a much wider audience than just a new computer. Young and old drive, and young and old care about how much necessities like cars and gas cost.

    I believe that in the diffusion article, it mentioned that doctors who were more connected through social groups and networks adopted the tetracycline innovation more readily than isolated doctors. Like Chelsea mentioned, many people have already established routines in their lives and may not adapt as well to change or innovation. But our generation has (basically) grown up with the internet and we have begun to expect change on an almost daily basis. We make routines of getting on facebook, checking our e-mail and visiting different niche groups or Web sites online. All these things connect us to each other, constantly. It’s our routine to communicate with everyone all the time, thus making us more ready to adopt a new “innovation.”

  7. Amanda Dean says:

    For something to be innovative it really needs to change the way we live our lives. It’s hard to say which communication tools have been truly innovative. People still wrote letters even when the telegraph was invented, not everyone had a phone when it came along and radios and TV sets were expensive. These items eventually changed the way we communicate but cost, convenience and perhaps fear of complicated technology kept people from rushing to make these products a part of their lives right away.

    I think expense (which is tied up with education which is tied up with class) plays a key role in adoption of new communication technologies. By the time something becomes cheap enough for everyone to use it may be “out of style” and the next big thing has come along. Age may be another factor, but then again my parents and both sets of grandparents use their computers and the Internet just fine. Peer-pressure (social networks) may play another role, however people can still communicate with friends via phone or letter, computer and Internet is not necessarily a necessity.

    I think new communication technology makes life easier, but not better (well let’s just say far from “best”). We are in a different place, but only those who can afford the technology have taken that trip. When the technology is available to everyone then maybe we’ll be on our way to “better.”

  8. Leigh H. says:

    To Amanda Power’s point, progress is not entirely innovation. And wow, if progress were innovation, I would be stressing a lot less because so much more could be done for me instead of having to do it myself.

    As most of us have determined, Facebook cannot be considered innovative. Communication with others was not changed (except for the fact that there is less face-to-face interaction); it hasn’t changed who we are (unless someone decides to create a new person on their profile); it hasn’t transformed our understandings of web use.

    Of all the factors we mentioned in class, I feel that cost (Which, like Amanda D. says, is intertwined with education and social status. However, it also encompasses social recommendations made by peer groups, tradeoffs and potential payoffs.) is the biggest influence on a consumer’s decision to buy. Again, once something becomes affordable to most Americans, the next big thing will have been introduced.

  9. Laura Price says:

    I think for something to be a true “innovation” It has to be something that no one has ever thought of or anything that we have now. In otherwords it is something that no one has really ever seen before. It is a break through in progress. I agree with Amanda in that progress is not an innovation but progress I think might could lead to an innovation. As people learn about different things they gain more knowledge and therefore can come up with new ideas.

    I think that innovations do change how we do a lot of things in our life. A good point for this would be the computer. Before email people sent snail mail now you can just email somebody something and they can have it in no time to where as mailing took longer.
    I also like what Amanda and Chelsea said about the car. Yeah people do need cars I think in this world but they dont have to have one that has specail fuel. That is just something different though that is being offered.

    I think that online peers and groups can have a huge impact on people about what to buy or what to do online. Because people like to see whatever one else is doing and like we talked about in class the first person to get the telephone it was werid at first but then as more people get stuff then it becomes something normal and everyone wants it. I think it is kinda like DVDs people slowly changed to having all DVDs instead of VHS but it was something that even places like blockbusters did over time to allow people to see the change and follow others. On the adoption curve I see myself as being a slow adopter. I did not get a DVD player until almost everything went to DVDs.

    One the last question I think that these innovations are taking us both to better and different places. I mean the computer helps a lot of people by saving so much time but then things like the iphone. I mean no one really needs an iphone but it does allow people to go a different way and gives people more freedom. So I think it has to do with what technology device you are talking about to say if it is making it better or different.

  10. Caitie Jones says:

    I agree with all of the above about the definition of “innovation”. it should not be something that’s merely cool or created for the sake of introducing a new gadget onto the market to charge ridiculous prices for. It should be something, intentionally or accidentally, created to enhance our lives or our world in a tangible, and vital way. The telephone, radio, movies, and television fit this criteria in my mind. These things, when they were first introduced, caused a fundamental shift in our way over viewing the world and interacting with other human beings. The iPhone in no way accomplishes this task. As Stephen said, it merely combines several existing ways of communicating into one handy, shiny, status symbol. (Pardon the liberal paraphrasing.)

    When it comes to adopting new technology, I tend to fall into the late adopter category. I refuse to rush out and buy something the minute it comes out because 1) the sheep mentality goes against my personality, 2) new technology is prohibitively expensive, and 3) new technology is bout to have bugs that make it obnoxious and difficult to use in many cases. By waiting I am more likely to get a quality piece of technology that has evolved to be more user-friendly, and is at least fairly reasonably priced. This waiting period also gives me time to do research and to hear from my friends about the usefulness or benefits of a certain piece of technology. I tend to like a lot of feedback (both from online sites via reviews, personal testimonies, etc and from friends in the flesh) when it comes to gadgets. For me, it is not worth spending the money to buy every new thing on the market unless it is relevant to my life and my needs.

    As for the direction in which technological advancements and true innovations are taking us…I feel it’s a mixed bag. Things like the telephones and such that bring people closer together or improve the quality of life (ie, artificial hearts) are definitely positives things, however, technologies that serve only to alienate people from each other or to make social interaction a dying art (ie, cell phones, iPods, blue tooth headsets, etc) are taking us in a direction that I do not necessarily believe is a beneficial thing for society. Used in moderationa nd appropriately, these are great entertainment and social networking tools, but used continuously and without regard to setting or politeness, they can prove dangerous and alienating.

  11. Katie L says:

    Innovation is a term that is easy to toss around without stopping to think about all the weight that it truly carries. To me innovation implies that is a) new, b) has the ability to change lives. I would also tend to think of innovations more in a general sense. To me cell phones might qualify as an innovation; however, the specific i phone would not. To me television is an innovation, but HD tv is not an innovation.

    As far as my own adoption patterns go, I’m probably close to the middle of the curve. To me, your social networks have a huge influence on when you first learn of innovations; however, because of the different factors (money, education, areas of expertise, etc.) that each individual must evaluate in deciding when to adopt an innovation, there is probably more variance.

    Lastly, the so what question. Obviously asking if innovation leads to a better life is completely subjective. And I don’t think the answer to the question lies in the innovation itself. If a cell phone is able to serve as a life saving device to call for help for thousands of people a year, then obviously it led to a better life for them. However, for the people who misuse cell phones and neglect personal relationships, or their own safety in driving, then obviously the innovation made their life more technologically advanced, but not better.

  12. Christina Saul says:

    I don’t think innovation is always a good thing, at least not necessarily good. I would say the Internet and the web are innovations because they have changed the way we process the world to a degree, but does that make it good?

    Take email for example, it is faster and easier to communicate with people, but you take out the face of the person. My dad often says people are losing the art of conversation and to a degree I think that is true; conversation and the ability to relate to people are learned things, so is innovation helping some areas of learning while hampering others?

    I think whatever we miss out on because of innovation would be the grain of salt. We move forward, but what do we leave behind?

  13. RebekahL says:

    In order to be innovative, I think a device must be new enough to not just be a second generation from a past “hit” invention. Most of its qualities must be different enough from past inventions, in terms of the way it’s used or the limitations allowed, and it must cater to a luxury that humans have never had before. But, I also think it would need to be something a little strange and skeptical to most people (because of how new it is). There would need to be a division for a while between who would accept it and who would not because if it was accepted by too large of a group, then that might mean that it is too similar to something invented before. Since each new innovation of communication has changed so much about how we communicate with the world and each other, it would need to be this different.

    I’ve always considered myself someone who isn’t easily swayed one particular way just because many people around me like something. I’ve valued my uniqueness in these instances. However, I cannot help but notice how much already influences me even when I don’t know it is. If I see, smell, eat, touch or breath it enough, I’m sure I get sucked into many things more often than I think I am, just because the media is so good at setting an agenda: not telling you what to think, but suggesting what you think about. I’m a believer in that because it happens inevitably all the time.

    I don’t think these innovations are the end process by any means. I think that, as history has proved, newer and newer innovations are springing up every century, decade, and, I think it’s coming to, every year. As long as there are people who continue to search and create newer and better things from what we already have, there will be innovations. And, depending on the innovation, I think that each can take us to better places. Some of the greatest innovations in our world have sprung up because of conflict and war. Innovations like the movable metal type, news papers, photography, radio, television and computers have all benefited mankind immensely, and I hope that they continue to do so the more ideas people develop and experiment with.

  14. Elizabeth C says:

    nnovation comes from the Latin word innovare or innovatus, which means “to renew or change,” from in- “into” + novus “new.” http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=innovate&searchmode=none

    An innovation not only enhances our lives, and I believe an innovation’s intent should be to enhance our lives in a positive way. This is of course a bit subjective because what might be positive enhancement for one person might not be to somebody else.

    A good innovation impacts a lot of people. Although, actually, a good innovation might not always be good. The atomic bomb was an innovation that completely changed the face of war, but it would certainly be considered to be a terrible innovation by most people.

    Today most people associate innovation with technology, but innovations are not limited to cars and iPhones. For example, language was an innovation. It opened the door to human communication. The printing press was an innovation, the telegraph was an innovation, the radio, the television, the internet. All of these were serious innovations, that truly altered the way we communicate in the world today.

    I think it would be difficult to label the iPhone as an innovation because it actually merely combines other innovations. But it is progress. The establishment of a new way of using an innovation, is an innovation. Really all the aforementioned technologies (radio, TV, etc…) are just extensions of language – the ultimate innovation.

    Innovations are progressive. However subjectivity comes into play when determining how progressive a certain innovation really is.

    I relate a lot to what Tracy said about the adoption curve and feel that I am also a late-adopter. I think perhaps a lot of people in the middle-class are late adopters. Innovations always come at some kind of cost, whether “good” or “bad”, and sometimes the cost is too high when they the general public first becomes aware of them.

  15. Laura M says:

    I remember sitting in Druck’s writing for the mass media class talking about how the world is waiting on the “perfect” pocket-sized media device (with phone, internet and computer capabilities). Now, just a few years later, we’ve got things like the iPhone. I wonder for a minute if this could be the “perfect” device that we talked about. It certainly meets all of our criteria. But then I remember how rapidly technology changes and that in a few short months something bigger and better (or, more likely, smaller and better) will come out.

    I like what Amanda Powers said about the difference between progress and innovation being about need. Does the world need this “perfect” device? Probably not. Actually, I would go as far as saying definitely not. But then you take a look at the worlds real needs, gas Chelsea mentioned, world hunger, poverty and clean water and at the small steps that have been made toward solving them. This is innovation.

  16. Hannah W says:

    I think a possible example (and I could very well be wrong here) of a somewhat recent technological innovation would be the online calling program, Skype.

    Through this program, you are able to make free global calls to any other person with an Internet connection and a headset. It creates, it my opinion, a change in the traditional process of communicating through telephone. Although the person is still only speaking as they would on a regular phone, it allows the inclusion of video, and frees the users from exorbitant cell phone rates. It also has a AIM- type feature, and allows for call-forwarding to personal cell phones, and extremely cheap rates to call landlines in other countries. This changes the traditional process of long-distance communication by enabling users to speak more often with more people, and maintain friendships and relationships, in a faster, easier, cheaper, and more dynamic manner than would be possible with traditional phone-to-phone communication.

    I believe Skype has, as Dr. Carroll stated it, changed our understanding of telecommunications and Web use, using the web not only as a tool for instant written communication, but also instant verbal, and sometimes visual, communications, with all other parts of the world. In this way, I would also argue that Facebook, against the opinion of some, was an innovation. It did change people’s idea of the communication process, and even some people’s concept of making/maintaining friendships.

    Before Facebook, no one would have thought than an occasional poke would qualify as friendship. I even had a very bizarre experience the other day when an old friend called me, someone who I hadn’t spoken to in over 2 years, who was wondering why we were no longer Facebook friends, because that was how they had been “keeping up with me” and how is was doing. I mean, seriously?? It took the end of a Facebook friendship to get a phone call? I’m sorry, but that to me is definitely a sign that Facebook has changed the communication process for many, as well as some people are as individuals.

  17. We seem to agree that true innovation should be unprecedented in important ways and that it should have a profound, substantial impact on the ways we live our lives. This came up over and over. As such, as Stephen pointed out, it likely will be unsettling at first.

    Tracy raised the question, “When is TV truly innovative?” When it goes high-def? No, says Katie. TV was an innovation, she says. We might agree that an entirely new medium, like the advent of TV in the 1940s or radio in the 1920s, is an innovation.

    Amanda posited that progress is not necessarily innovation, and in my original post, I posited the converse, that innovation is not necessarily progress. Amanda also pointed to an important point in the reading, which is that a social network can substantially accelerate the adoption process — doctors and tetracycline. For us, students as we are of social networking online and the transformation of the Web into what is primarily a social tool, this is an important fundamental.

    Sarah reasoned that most employers would laugh at someone unwilling to use or “adopt” the mobile phone. The reasoning: “most employers want to be able to contact you all the time.” My response: Whose problem is that? Not mine. I don’t want to be contacted at any time, and I think this level of control is entirely up to me. Were I a physician on call or a safety worker at a nuclear power plant, maybe I’m not allowed that choice. I question, though, the supposition that employers should consider it their right to contact employees at any time, from anywhere. I’m laughing, too.

    To me, this expectation, if in fact it is pervasive, is a prime example of the illusion of progress, much like the home office. There was a time not long ago (early 90s) when most people left their office and went home to an environment safe from intrusion from or of work. No computers at home. No home offices. In the last 15 years or so, we’ve seen a blurring and blending of work time and personal time, work space and personal spaces, and I think to our detriment as a society. Where is the balance?

    Off topic, but interesting nonetheless.

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