March 24, 2018

Nurturing Innovation (II)

Yesterday, following Tim Wu, I wrote about the use of “innovation” as a slogan by advocates of the freedom to tinker. Today I want to probe further the rhetoric of “innovation” as used in public policy debates.

True innovation occurs in both high-tech and low-tech settings, and it is practiced by everyone: large companies, small companies, other organizations, and individuals. Yet sometimes the term “innovation” is coopted, to stand only for product development by big companies. This is what Microsoft meant with their “Freedom to Innovate” slogan during the antitrust case, and it’s what VeriSign means when they call their troublesome SiteFinder product an innovation.

This narrow view of innovation is especially common in Washington lobbying, where big companies often have disproportionate influence. Yet many of the most important innovations don’t involve big companies, at least not at first.

Consider Tim Wu’s example of Internet email. When email was new, nobody thought it would ever make anyone rich. There was no business model anywhere in sight. If “innovation” means commercial development, then email was not an “innovation” in the 1970s, and a pro-“innovation” policy process would have been indifferent to it.

That’s one of the reasons I like “tinkering” rather than “innovation” as a buzzword. Nobody expects tinkering to have a short-run payoff, but a pro-tinkering policy will allow sleeper technologies like email to be born and to incubate until the commercial world is ready for them.


  1. Jordan Vance says:

    I’ve never been in a public policy debate outside of the classroom, so this is entirely uninformed:

    The one problem I have with using tinkering as a buzzword replacement for innovation is one of semantics. I imagine tinkering to be performed on something that already exists; if you don’t like the power on your vacuum cleaner, you tinker around with it to increase the power. If you don’t like the idea of VoIP on telephone and cable lines, you can take a big leap and send it over power lines. To me, tinkering doesn’t involve lots of design and development, just a lot of hard work and trying different things. And why would someone (other than those of us who love to tinker) want a “pro-tinkering policy?” It is very difficult for the government to say, we want you to tinker and maybe eventually you’ll come up with something that is a major innovation to such and such industry or something. Because the government is no different than a big company (ok, so it’s a lot different) in that it needs to see results. I’m sure in the early days of email, people saw a great use for it (maybe not commercially, but within certain business sectors). I just find it hard to believe that an innovation policy would differ all that much from a tinkering policy as long as there are bright people looking at the ideas. If your idea sucks, for the most part (cough cough spam cough), people won’t pick it up. But eventually, enough people pick it up that it reaches critical mass and presto! Major innovation.

    I think you can’t have tinkering without innovation, and you can have innovation without tinkering, but it’s more prone to failure. And I agree with you that companies misusing the word innovate is annoying, but it isn’t really misuse, it’s just a narrow, self-serving application of the term to promote their ends.

    Since I’ve left school (jobless) I feel a lot dumber. So this comment may lack the clarity of vision. I don’t have much experience, but that’s just what I see here. I think the issues go deeper than the commercial big business. Perhaps the problem is not so much that companies aren’t fostering innovation but that innovation from within the government has slowed down. DARPA is now focusing on driving cars across a desert with obstacles. Perhaps driverless cars are the next big thing (in 25 years). Perhaps binocular computer vision is the next big thing (in 10-15 years). But we can’t be looking at big companies and saying we need major innovation, now! Very few innovations occur rapidly. But, since the boom, we’ve become accostumed to being flooded with ideas and innovations. (And now this comment doesn’t seem to fit here, but oh well). I think the biggest, most important fact, is, like you said, that we protect innovation. But I am not too afraid. You may not have found anyone in Washington 30 years ago who said look out for this email thing it is going to change everyone’s life, but I bet there were some people there who said, boy we could use this to make communication within the office a hell of a lot easier.

  2. Is Is Still “Innovation” If It’s For Profit?

    Edward Felten prefers the word “tinkering” to “innovation.” He’s pro-tinkering….

  3. Jay Gischer says:

    Well, I say never underestimate either the importance of vocabulary, nor the ability of entrenched interests to coopt your vocabulary. If “tinkering” becomes hip, Microsoft will start saying that that’s what they do.

    But your distinction is still a useful one.