Innovation: It Isn’t a Matter of Left or Right,
by STEVEN JOHNSON
Published: October 30, 2010 - New York Times
AUTHORS quickly find a certain predictability to many of the questions they encounter on a book tour. But a few weeks ago, during the second stop on the tour for my new book, I found myself being interviewed in front of a Seattle audience and responding to an opening question that I had never been asked before: “Are you a Communist?”
The question was intended as a joke, but like the best jokes, it played on the edges of an important and uncomfortable truth. I had just spent four years writing a book about the innovative power of open systems that work outside of or parallel to traditional market environments: the amateur scientists of the Enlightenment, university research labs, open source software platforms.
In my research, I analyzed 300 of the most influential innovations in science, commerce and technology — from the discovery of vacuums to the vacuum tube to the vacuum cleaner — and put the innovators of each breakthrough into one of four quadrants. First, there is the classic solo entrepreneur, protecting innovations in order to benefit from them financially; then the amateur individual, exploring and inventing for the love of it. Then there are the private corporations collaborating on ideas while simultaneously competing with one another. And then there is what I call the “fourth quadrant”: the space of collaborative, nonproprietary innovation, exemplified in recent years by the Internet and the Web, two groundbreaking innovations not owned by anyone.
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that market forces drive innovation, with businesses propelled to new ideas by the promise of financial reward. And yet even in the heyday of industrial and consumer capitalism over the last two centuries, the fourth quadrant turns out to have generated more world-changing ideas than the competitive sphere of the marketplace. Batteries, bifocals, neonatal incubators, birth control pills — all originated either in amateur labs or in academic environments.
Now-ubiquitous technology like GPS was created by public-sector agencies for its original military use. And most of the building-block innovations that make GPS possible — satellites themselves, or the atomic clocks that let them coordinate their signals so precisely — were first conceived in nonmarket environments.
The fourth quadrant, however, is not locked in a zero-sum conflict with markets. As in the case of GPS, this fourth space creates new platforms, which then support commercial ventures.
In the next decade, we will most likely see a wave of profitable medical products enabled by genomic science. But that underlying scientific platform — most importantly, the ability to sequence and map DNA — was almost entirely developed by a decentralized group of academic scientists working outside the commercial sector in the 1960s and ’70s.
The Internet is the ultimate example of how fourth-quadrant innovation actually supports market developments: a platform built by a loosely affiliated group of public-sector and university visionaries that has become one of the most powerful engines of wealth creation in modern times.
Why has the fourth quadrant been so innovative, despite the lack of traditional economic rewards? The answer, I believe, has to do with the increased connectivity that comes from these open environments. Ideas are free to flow from mind to mind, and to be refined and modified without complex business development deals or patent lawyers. The incentives for innovation are lower, but so are the barriers.
The problem with the fourth quadrant is that it doesn’t fit neatly into our conventional left/right political categories. That’s why my Seattle interviewer wanted to know whether I had Communist leanings. Because these open systems operate outside the conventional incentives of capitalism, the mind reflexively wants to put them on the side of socialism. And yet they are as far from the command economies that Marx and Engels helped invent as they are from “greed is good” capitalism.
When we champion fourth-quadrant innovation, we are not arguing for top-down bureaucracies and central planning. Stalin would have despised Wikipedia.
My ideas about the fourth quadrant are themselves the product of open collaboration, building on ideas generated by thinkers like Lawrence Lessig, Yochai Benkler, Jonathan Zittrain, Lisa Gansky, Tim O’Reilly, Clay Shirky, Cory Doctorow and many others. I can say with some confidence that not one of these people is a Communist, either. But when you try to use the standard means of categorizing us — are we for unfettered markets, or government intervention? — the answer suddenly becomes very murky.
We are all interested in the crucial kinds of value that emerge outside of traditional market economies and ownership structures. But many of us have advised or created for-profit companies. And we spend very little time talking about — or arguing for — the benevolent wisdom of Big Government.
Consider a recent start-up called Kickstarter, which embodies many of these complex values. Kickstarter is a site that allows individuals to fund creative projects, like movies, art installations, albums and so on. Donors may get special gifts in return for their contributions — signed copies of the final CD or an invitation to the opening — but they don’t own the creations they help support. In just two years of existence, Kickstarter has raised more than $20 million for thousands of projects, taking a small cut of each transaction.
The economic exchange that Kickstarter enables between donors and creators works outside the traditional logic of markets. People are “investing” in others not for the promise of financial reward, but for the social rewards of supporting important work. The artists, on the other hand, are relying on a decentralized network of support, not government grants. And somehow, in the middle of these new models of collaboration, lies Kickstarter itself, a for-profit company that may well make a nice return for its own investors and founders.
So, no, I am not a Communist.
BUT the problem is that we don’t have a word that does justice to those of us who believe in the generative power of the fourth quadrant. My hope is that the blurriness is only temporary, the strange disorientation one finds when new social and economic values are being formed.
The choice shouldn’t be between decentralized markets and command-and-control states. Over these last centuries, much of the history of innovation has lived in a less formal space between those two regimes: in the grad seminar and the coffeehouse and the hobbyist’s home lab and the digital bulletin board. The wonders of modern life did not emerge exclusively from the proprietary clash between private firms. They also emerged from open networks.