Saturday, February 19, 2011

Good Idea Fatalism

These days, innovation seems to be everyone’s favorite solution to practically every practical problem facing the country. It seems that a bit of human ingenuity can overcome nearly every economic problems, and perhaps some of the non-economic ones too. There’s a convenience to nominating innovation to the status of chief problemsolver, because in the popular imagination it’s a kind of miracle-worker: one eureka moment and with the speed of thoughts, problems are solved and mountains moved. Besides the miracles, there’s a convenient amorphousness about where, exactly, innovations come from. From smart people, presumably. But where else? No one seems to know.

In the crudest imagination, the free market has something to do with it. Magic of capitalism and all that. That’s the genesis of intellectual property protections: you’re upping the rewards for perceived innovation; incentives matter; more innovation. This may be so, but it doesn’t answer why we seemed to have so little innovation during the past few years. Or else you’d be forced to explain why so many good ideas translated in to so little physical wealth…besides, you know, empty houses in Las Vegas and Phoenix and places like that.

That, at least, is something like The Great Stagnation thesis. I just finished reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, and he seems to take a more cheery view of things, though he doesn’t commit himself to the Singularity-is-Coming viewpoint.

But if you’re interested in concrete steps large numbers of people can take—whether it’s policy or market-based—reading The Great Stagnation and Where Good Ideas Come From will make you less rather than more cheery.

The Great Stagnation’s prescription is to raise the social status of scientists. Cowen thinks scientists don’t get enough respect: few people dream of growing up to become a scientist; few people want to date or marry one, etc. etc. As to Where Good Ideas Come From, the last line of the book is a good summation:
The patterns [of coming up with good ideas] are simple, but followed together, they make a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle, reinvent. Build a tangled bank.

Of these, nearly all of them are non-political and non-market. Only the last two really suggest politics (that is, of loose intellectual property laws), and the rest can only be stimulated very indirectly—perhaps by allowing for greater density, one can boost the kind of “liquid networks” that he’s referring to. (I’m guessing it is—Johnson is full of praise for Jane Jacobs.) Mostly, the list sounds like the innovation equivalent of all those self-help books. Which is certainly fine; what it isn’t, is a prescription of how we, as a society, can come up with more good ideas, except to try and provide the infrastructure and get out of the way. The problem of waiting for superman is that superman has his own unknowable schedule.

Probably that’s the right attitude to take. The main motivations we tend to throw around, these days, are monetary anyway. Yeah, there are medals and stuff, but when it gets down to it, we care about money. Which is certainly one way to reward people; for one, it’s neutral territory: there are very few lifestyles out there that are actively hostile to money. Indifferent, perhaps, but hostile, no. Good ideas may be one of those things that are relatively indifferent to money. The people who have good ideas; they have them because they like experimenting and creating. It’s not an accident that so many industrialists started out as tinkerers. It’s not an accident that the artists are starving. But if these things are true, and fresh ideas are the only way to advance under capitalism, it suggests that capitalism isn’t the all-conquering force we thought it was. It needs fuel, fuel it cannot really produce.

So what is capitalism good at? Well, I don’t think capitalism comes up with the good ideas; rather, I think it does a very good job of turning those good ideas into money, and employing people with them. That’s a very good thing, but somewhat less awesome than its advocates said it was. It means that much of the free-the-rich-free-the-economy rhetoric you hear from certain quarters doesn’t contain a lot of substance. What it does suggest is there’s not much we can really do except spend a fair amount of money, and wait until something happens.

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