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August 23, 2004
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 innovation -- "useful" innovation, such as the kind that results in applications like email, and (presumably) less useful innovation, such as the kind that results in, say, VoIP over powerlines:
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 think Wu know that we wouldn't have email at all if we didn't have an environment/circumstances that allowed the kind of people who reinvent, redestroy, and finally write the perfect debugger (a.k.a. geeks) to do just that sort of thing. He writes that email "was an invention, and required the right environment for it to come about." Yet he goes on to warn "innovationists" that supporting innovation should be about its connection to human ends, not only "the abstract beauty of new technologies."
If I'm interpreting Wu correctly, I see things a bit differently. If there is beauty to be cherished and preserved here, it's in obsessive debugger-types (a.k.a. geeks) being free to do what they want without focusing on anything but improving the technology. Why? Because that's how creativity works. You pursue something you're passionate about, and you don't let go -- even at 3:00 a.m. If the work is embraced and becomes "useful" to others, that's terrific. But often that embrace is a happy accident.
I suppose that in the context of public debate about innovation, it's important to talk about the "useful" fruits because that's what the public plucks from the tree. But the true "innovationists" are more like environmentalists than anything else -- they encourage a healthy diversity of crops, not just the ones we (ultimately) find broadly useful.
Later (August 24): Edward Felten weighs in: "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."
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