[A2k] Steven Johnson op-ed in the New York Times: Innovation: It Isn’t a Matter of Left or Right

Thiru Balasubramaniam thiru at keionline.org
Sun Oct 31 12:46:04 PDT 2010


October 30, 2010
Innovation: It Isn’t a Matter of Left or Right

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  

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”  

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.

Steven Johnson is an author and entrepreneur. His new book, “Where  
Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” was  
published this month.


Thiru Balasubramaniam
Geneva Representative
Knowledge Ecology International (KEI)
thiru at keionline.org

Tel: +41 22 791 6727
Mobile: +41 76 508 0997

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