July 10, 2014

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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.

Comments

  1. Copyfight says:

    On Innovation – How Holy Is the Grail?

    I know Tim Wu blogs no more @ the Lessig Blog, but he did it so well, I’m forced to backpedal for a second look. Who Cares About Innovation? is provocative yet perplexing. Wu appears to posit two tiers of…

  2. Free2Innovate.net says:

    What Good is Innovation?

    Edward Felten mulls the value of innovation in response to Tim Wu’s guest commentary on the same topic here at Larry Lessig’s blog. Felten:Often, we seem to be drifting toward a rule in which new technologies are, by default, banned,…

  3. Free2Innovate.net says:

    What Good is Innovation?

    Edward Felten mulls the value of innovation in response to Tim Wu’s guest commentary on the same topic here at Larry Lessig’s blog. Felten:Often, we seem to be drifting toward a rule in which new technologies are, by default, banned,…

  4. Jordan Vance says:

    I was going to ask for an example of something that has been killed by restrictions on innovation, but then I figured that it’s probably difficult to say what has been killed because it might not have made it very far along. For instance, the VCR (now incredibly important, but losing importance) sufferred attempts on its legality, and the courts held, perhaps erroneously, that VCRs were legal. Instant messaging (which may someday be more important than email) has only suffered for two reasons. One, there was not a single protocol/design in place (much like Betamax/VHS). Secondly, businesses have to treat it much like they do email; instant messages in certain industries must be logged and kept in case of business wrongdoing and other regulatory codes. This is not a bad thing. Nobody said, however, that instant messaging would ever be banned. I’m not well versed in the laws of the US (although someday I might go to law school) regarding innovation and technologies and communications, and while Adam Thierer promotes a point of view that the power companies are governed by laws more than half a decade old, I think it’s more important to realize that these laws have been on the books for that long and if the time is ripe for changing them and increasing the availability of these innovations, then the P&L lobbies should start working harder to change the course. It’s a very difficult battle, and as evil as one may say the telco’s and cableco’s may be, there’s no evidence that power providers will be any better or forgiving if they have more, well, power.

    On an interesting sidenote, I saw that Bill Gates said there needed to be a Sputnik-like event to promote software development and innovation in the states again. I would say this innovation spurt has already passed. The bubble has burst. There was a huge spurt of innovation and ideas at that time, and for the most part, the good ones are still around to this day (and some of the bad ones too). Furthermore, I would charge that Microsoft has stifled some innovation on its own by making it very difficult for others to compete. Whether Microsoft is culpable for this is up to others. Laws are not the only hinderance of innovation.

  5. unmediated says:

    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 b…

  6. Steve @ PM-Style.com says:

    If one takes a social constructionist viewpoint, you can easily argue that all accepted technology innovation is a product of society’s interests. Therefore, technology that has been “snuffed out” is merely repressed due to social will. To a social construction, there is nothing wrong with that outcome.

    In my view, the Internet is a tool which enables:
    1) Information abundance
    2) Lower marginal cost transit of information.

    If we consider the ‘tool’ within this broader spectrum, we can predict many of the applications which have been successful. Because, for thousands of years, humans have adopted tools that save us time and allow us to use our mind to pursue the things that are uniquely human — the use of excess processing capability in our brains to appreciate art, music, and to think about the value of innovation.

  7. John Glube says:

    I would not blame the feared reality on government civil servants, or technology managers in large corporations.

    Rather it is the function of maturing industrial development.

    The mantra may be free markets and open competition. The reality is business prefers a monopoly.

    Competition gives rise to creative chaos. Monopoly leads to stability.

    Why risk rocking the boat?

    America has held its lead through continued technological innovation.

    Let’s look at an example. Last year Congress made the decision to regulate email, without banning unsolicited bulk email.

    The anticipated results?

    * Two industry standards for sender authentication, the first being Sender-ID, the second being Domain Keys as RFCs by the IETF; and

    * The granting of a commercial monopoly on anti-spam technological development controlled by a corporate coalition lead by Microsoft.

    The only question is whether the regulatory agency with authority to ensure competition will actually bust up this potential monopoly?

    If not, will we see continued stiffling of innovation within this maturing technological sector?

    Or will creative chaos continue, but through the development of other channels for instant online communication, ultimately breaking email’s monopoly.

    John Glube
    Toronto, Canada