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.