Innovation is not progress

The word innovation has become the biggest buzzword of our time, and nowhere is this more evident than in the area of technology.

New hardware and software seems to be launched every minute by tech companies, and the selling point for any new product is almost always how innovative it is. Technological progress is the new religion of our age, led by Silicon Valley and its shiny new objects.

The faith of this new religion is that innovation is what we should always strive for and the future is full of promise. This belief has been adopted by many people outside of the tech world, including those pushing for change in the legal profession. Lawyers are constantly being told they need to be more innovative, that they are at risk of being disrupted unless they adopt new technologies. Become more tech savvy, we are told, or risk being left behind.

So it may be a bit disappointing for the most fervent tech evangelists to read our technology issue and find many voices warning about the effects of technological innovation. We hear that adopting new technology in legal services often increases the “digital divide” between rich and poor. We look at cybersecurity and the need to control data at law firms to avoid a breach. Departing Supreme Court Justice Thomas Cromwell tells us that balancing privacy with the capacity of technology will continue to be a key area for our courts to grapple with. Innovation in financial technology is creating a headache for regulators who often find it difficult to keep up with new business models that may put consumers at risk. Employers are now told they are responsible to monitor social media to protect their employees. Privacy and technology experts warn that new cybercrimes should not necessarily mean police are granted new powers. Our back page column reminds Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, who wants to modernize the justice system with new technology, that past failures were about turf wars and a poor workplace culture, not bad technology. And even the industry leader of LegalX, a legal innovation incubator, warns that “innovation for innovation’s sake is a dangerous, internecine game”.

All of this skepticism, however, should not be seen as a sign that lawyers are not advocating for progress. Innovation is often a means to achieve progress, but they are not the same thing. New technologies that are highly innovative may have a negative impact.  Progress, most lawyers would agree, includes better privacy and consumer protection, as well as improved economic opportunities. Tech innovators will tell you these things are important, but they are often an afterthought, not a goal. Many lawyers, however, spend their days with these goals in mind.

In fact, even the tech world is reacting against the idea that unbridled technological innovation is a good thing. A new book called “Weapons of Math Destruction” by data scientist Cathy O’Neil, who worked for Wall Street and tech startups, argues that the mathematical models that pervade modern technologies also threaten to rip apart our social fabric.

Like any religion, tech innovation has something to teach us. But like all religions, it can be taken too far. We all want progress, but we don’t necessarily always want innovation.

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