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Cheating is a form of innovation


Have you heard about the scandal with cheating on the SAT? It’s particularly prevalent in Asia with Chinese and Korean students being repeat offenders. The organizations behind the cheaters go to some considerable lengths to get the SAT questions. They send questions to phones by text and other means.

The stakes are rising though. Some cities in China are actually using drones to intercept these signals. So there’s actually a bit of an arms race going on between the cheaters and the gamekeepers with both using more innovative means to outsmart the other side.

If there wasn’t the ethical dimension here I am sure that the organizations supplying the cheating test-takers would otherwise be called innovative. Even the cheaters might be called innovative too. Of course it might offend many sensibilities to say that but nonetheless, it’s probably accurate.

I often cite Steve Jobs in this regard because he’s a really good example. He purloined his Mac interface from Xerox without distribution or payment. It worked and he got away with it. It was definitely innovative but it was almost certainly wrong or at least ethically challenged.

For some time all those millions of people who were using stolen downloaded music were lauded as heroes of the digital age even though what they were doing was criminal, as courts later ruled. If you called them criminals at that time you were seen as being old-fashioned or just plain stupid. But they were probably hopping on the innovation bandwagon in their own misguided way.

Grooveshark was lauded as an innovator with its Napster-like downloaded music model (it was actually located in my hometown until its demise). Yet it was basically engaged in a criminal enterprise. It thrived for some years on this model, and managed to stave off the companies whose music it stole until the courts closed it down recently. But while they were alive they were the darlings of the digerati. Innovators are as innovators does.

Finally of course ethics won, after a long hard fight though. Yet it was precisely this moral victory of ethics over fashion that allowed Taylor Swift to cock her snoot at Apple recently. Without this fight to defeat unethical innovators from the downloaded music area , stealing music might have become legal by default and artists like Taylor Swift would have lost their livelihood..

Frank Sinatra strikes me as being another example in this category. He was as innovative as they get in the music sphere. But he was a fellow-traveler of the Mafia and was basically a criminal himself, a story that Kitty Kelley tells in her pathbreaking biography of him “His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra.” To say he was tawdry and a very nasty person is an understatement. But he was certainly innovative.

The lionization of celebrities means we often turn a blind eye to their peccadilloes. If they are innovative, then we tend to remember the innovation part and forget about the rest. I suspect that the problem with the cheating Chinese students and the organizations behind them is that they are Chinese so it’s pretty easy to target them as cheats – which they are. But the innovation part is brushed under the carpet because they don’t have any redeeming celebrity status which would probably get them off the hook.

If you are an innovative celebrity or you have money it’s quite easy to do unethical things but fool everyone to think otherwise. You can pay public relations people to pull the wool over the eyes of the press and the public, as Steve Jobs did for so long. Or you can pay lawyers to hold things up in the courts, like Grooveshark did (and Napster before it), and enter into a long war of attrition that you might even win, thanks to the vagaries of the US legal system.

You can be innovative both inside and outside ethical constraints. It happens a lot in wars, tragically. But it’s still innovative even if it’s tragic and totally immoral. ISIS has clearly been enormously innovative even though without any doubt it is guilty of war crimes and the most terrible, inhumane and ugly acts possible.

We tend to equate the term “innovative” to being morally good. That’s one of the reasons it gets so much press. It’s so good to be an innovator right? Innovativeness is next to Godliness maybe?

But we forget that are brains are plastic. Our mental skills are often used as much for innovating in the darkest ways possible as well as in the greatest ways.

We just have to be careful that we don’t let our flawed, unconscious decision processes take over and confuse innovation with “the good”. When a celebrity or anyone else’s does something innovative that’s bad, we need to call them out. Otherwise we will end up extolling bad or even terrible acts by using a perversion of the term innovation.

Unfortunately that’s what’s trending these days.










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