October 19, 2021

Archives for August 2004

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.

Nurturing Innovation

Tim Wu, near the end of his stint as guest-blogger at Larry Lessig’s site, offered a typically thoughful entry, entitled “Who Cares About Innovation?“. The gist was that although “innovation” is the mantra of anti-regulation technologists, it may not be clear to the average person what good innovation does. Here’s a sample:

Consider a question that professor Brett Fischman asks his class about the internet, the central monument for innovationists: “What actually makes the Internet valuable to society?”

This question stopped me for awhile. Measured in social value, surely some of the oldest applications, like email, relatively untouched by innovation, produce most of the network’s present social value. Sure, I think VoIP over powerlines would be pretty cool (thanks Adam Thierer). But compared to finding old friends, staying in touch, and everything else that email does, there is no serious comparison. Logic like this suggests that faith in innovation is a faith out of touch with human ends. Perhaps making what is obviously useful – like email – reach more people is more important than constantly reinventing, redestroying, or finally writing the perfect debugger.

I do think the criticisms can be rebutted. Email, after all, was an invention, and required the right environment for it to come about. Innovationists don’t always think about nothing else. But those who share a faith in the importance of innovation should be sure that what we fight hardest for is not just the abstract beauty of new technologies, but ideals that actually have some connection to human ends.

Tim has a point here, but I worry more about the opposite error, in which we don’t bother to protect an innovation because we can’t see an immediate use for it.

Internet email was invented in 1971. Back then, could you have found even one single person in Washington who would point to this fledgling technology as one day being important to the average American? No way – anybody who said that would have been dismissed as a nut. Even two decades later, very few policymakers recognized the eventual importance of email.

Often, we seem to be drifting toward a rule in which new technologies are, by default, banned, unless some functionary can be convinced that they have merit. That’s a dangerous rule, not least because we may never know which potentially world-changing technology was snuffed out at birth.

Paper Trail Allows Venezuela Recount

On August 15, Venezuelans voted in a national referendum on whether to remove President Hugo Chavez. The (Chavez-run) government announced afterward that 58% had voted to keep Chavez in office. The opposition claimed fraud.

The election was held on electronic voting machines. Fortunately, the machines generated a voter-verified paper trail, so that there was some hope of recounting the ballots. Without a paper trail there could have been no recount, and Venezuelans would have had to take the result on faith, or reject it. With a paper trail, there is at least some evidence of how the votes were cast.

What evidence is there for fraud? The opposition says that the election results were inconsistent with exit polling, which they say went 58-42 in the other direction. That’s a big enough swing to raise eyebrows, but it’s hard to evaluate the accuracy of the exit polls based on the information available to me.

The opposition’s other claim is that the voting machines were programmed to cap the number of yes votes (i.e., anti-Chavez votes) recorded on each voting machine. In support of this, the opposition points to the data on machine-by-machine voting results, arguing that machines in the same polling place recorded the exact same number of yes votes too often, that is, more often than would have occurred by chance. That’s a claim that is amenable to statistical analysis. I’ll evaluate it in a future entry.