I’m sorry this sounds a bit glib, but the real answer is probably something like:

“Innovation affects social systems unpredictably.”

In general, we can define a real ‘innovation’ as a series of organised new events and organisations which were not predictable to begin with (as opposed to an ‘improvement’) – otherwise it would not be an innovation. Given this, it is hard to say what will happen with innovations in general, in any area.

To add to the problem, as I point out ad nauseum, social, technical and ecological systems are what are called ‘complex systems’ – these are systems in which individual nodes modify themselves, or are modified by other nodes, in response to interactions and events elsewhere in the system.

Complex systems seem to be inherently unpredictable in detail. We can often predict trends, but it’s impossible to predict detail. We know winter will generally be colder than summer, but not by how much. The further out we look from the present time, the harder these systems are to predict with accuracy.

If we alter complex systems through the innovation (or through the cumulative effects of normal practice), then we may disrupt the way they work, or their equilibrium points and attraction points may change, and prediction gets even more difficult. Although we can probably predict the systems are not likely to function quite as we expect, they may change, or if the disruption is bad enough, they may function erratically or even break down.

Human based innovation, more or less by definition, will occur in a social, technical, ecological or other form of complex system. The innovation will change, at least part of, the ways the innovation’s system behaves, and that may well effect the ways other systems behave, which in turn affects the originating system. Even small changes can, theoretically, have large unpredictable consequences.

We can expect (as a repeated trend) that dominant social groups (in the English speaking world, likely corporations) will try and commandeer, alter, or suppress, the innovation, if they see it is powerful or changing the system. Not all innovation is allowed to be acceptable, or is even found to be acceptable. However, by the time the people attempting to stop it, notice it, the changes may have already begun.

Perhaps new businesses, new corporations, or new modes of life, have already evolved around the innovation, and they become too strong and established to challenge by the time they get noticed. Perhaps social life has changed, and attempts to put it back by force are resisted, perhaps we get social separation or even civil war, perhaps we get increased social functionality…. again we cannot tell exactly what will happen as a result.

While the ‘free internet’ became the ‘corporate internet’, as a series of innovations it still changed the ways corporations work, and the ways they exert power and exchange products. We did not predict this 30-40 years ago, and the process has probably not finished. Up to you whether you think the changes were ‘good’ or not.

Some innovations become so ingrained into life, say like fossil fuels, that they appear to be normal or essential. We can say that the innovation of modern social and economic life has been generated or helped by the innovation of fossil fuels and easy to find hyper-cheap energy. As a result, many people would rather not deal with some of the consequences of fossil fuels, than attempt to change, or diminish those consequences. Change is scary, and again unpredictable in detail. In this kind of case it is likely there will be efforts to suppress innovation that removes the need for fossil fuels, because so much established power and habitual behaviour is tied up with the original innovation. One surprising thing we have not observed, given the mythology about corporations, is fossil fuel companies being innovative in replacing fossil fuels. So change and innovation in energy sources may still proceed slowly.

Sometimes we may hope for innovations to arise out of nowhere to preserve our current order (the Bill Gates solution to Climate Change), but there is nothing to guarantee those innovations will have to arise, or that they will have simple and stable consequences.

The best way to find out how innovations work, is probably by studying them as they happen , and the ways that the unexpected materialises…. That way we get to understand what people expected and what happened, before it all gets normalised, but my bet is that, on the whole, the we will still be in the position that the results of accepted innovation will not be entirely as expected.