Innovation Starvation (by the rentiers of IPR)
Last month’s issue of World Policy Journal focused on innovation. It featured a provocative essay by science fiction author Neal Stephenson titled “Innovation Stagnation.” He begins by observing that, at the moment, he has lived to see both the exciting birth and banal demise of the US space program. He sees this as symptomatic of a general stagnation in both our imagination and follow through in terms of technological advancement: “I worry that our inability to match the achievements of the 1960s space program might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done.”
Of the “big things” we’ve failed to get done since then, he points to the fact that Jimmy Carter had proposed a national synthetic fuels industry in response to the oil shocks of the early 1970s.
Little has been heard in that vein since. We’ve been talking about wind farms, tidal power, and solar power for decades. Some progress has been made in those areas, but energy is still all about oil. In my city, Seattle, a 35-year-old plan to run a light rail line across Lake Washington is now being blocked by a citizen initiative. Thwarted or endlessly delayed in its efforts to build things, the city plods ahead with a project to paint bicycle lanes on the pavement of thoroughfares.
Big things could be done, but conservative cultural pressures prevent what is technologically possible. By conservative I mean this in two ways: first in a very broad sense of resisting social and material change, often out of fear or justified reticence (to paraphrase Williams, conservative in the sense of trying to conserve an entire way of life). This is may be somewhat reactionary, but it is informed by a certain embodied perspective that is worth considering before we rush headlong into a new innovation before fully considering its implications. Stephenson, who may be too jaded by his genre to think much of the average human or just too hooked into a long view of history, sees most of the pushback against potential innovation as caused by this kind of conservatism.
But there is also a second kind: that of the blunt, ideological forms of conservatism that have colonized much of our political discourse for the last generation. While it may stoke the kneejerk reactionary feelings of the public (light rail initiatives failed in 1968 and 1970; but the current plan was approved in 2008) its true intention is to shape policy according to a rigid set of ideological and political economic dictates: in the case of the 30 year-old light rail project Stephenson refers to (called Sound Transit), it is the conservative anti-tax activist Tim Eyman who is at the head of the initiative (called I-1125) to block the funding of the project. Eyman has a long history of such initiatives along purely ideological lines and in this case his resistance is bankrolled almost completely by one of the largest landowners in Bellevue, Kemper Freeman (an appropriately villainous aristocratic name) who objects to government programs of any kind.
Stephenson doesn’t mention this political atmosphere, instead offering two other hypotheses about what is blocking the big things from being done. One is that the risk aversion of the institutions responsible for creating this innovation. This aversion is partially created and reinforced, ironically, by the ready availability of information. On the one hand, he says many of the scientists and engineers who might think of something new are more easily discouraged from trying new things by the lack of what Stephenson (adapting from Tim Harford’s book Adapt) calls Galapogan Isolation. In short, if engineers or scientists get an idea for an innovation, they can easily search on Google to see if it has been tried yet, whether it failed or succeeded.
If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.
Had the “barrier to information” been higher—if the researcher had to go out to the library and laboriously find the precedents, “When the precedent was finally unearthed, it might not have seemed like such a direct precedent after all. There might be reasons why it would be worth taking a second crack at the idea, perhaps hybridizing it with innovations from other fields. Hence the virtues of Galapagan isolation.” In looking at the history of inventions like what we know today as the photograph, the radio, the television, and the personal computer, there is certainly something to this. Researchers and hobbyists in a variety of places were all working furiously to come up with what they, in their isolation, imagined was a solitary pursuit. In Harford’s estimation, it is the ability of the system of innovation to absorb many failures in building up to the success that makes innovation thrive. Stephenson sees fear of failure as the key to the risk aversion of the average manager.
On the other hand, the risk aversion of the current environment is less about the failure of actual innovation (in real terms of it simply not working) and much more a consequence of a fear of success—but success which is stymied by patent and other intellectual property trolls who might undercut any potential innovation before its costs can be amortized. He hints at this in his closing remarks,
In the legal environment that has developed around publicly traded corporations, managers are strongly discouraged from shouldering any risks that they know about—or, in the opinion of some future jury, should have known about—even if they have a hunch that the gamble might pay off in the long run. There is no such thing as “long run” in industries driven by the next quarterly report. The possibility of some innovation making money is just that—a mere possibility that will not have time to materialize before the subpoenas from minority shareholder lawsuits begin to roll in.
Not only does the quarterly focus of innovation in corporate and even grant funded research make long term projects seem impractical, but the legal environment favoring incumbents of all kinds makes it hard to let imagination and inspiration lead the way. This is roughly where Stephenson lands up in his essay, but I want to bracket this for a moment to consider the second hypothesis about what’s blocking those big things from getting done—one that targets Stephenson himself as a source of inspiration and imagination who is “slacking off.” After considering this, I’ll return to both the risk aversion and political atmosphere elements above. In many ways, I will argue, they are all connected to one another. I’ll demonstrate this in relation to a real world example of potentially stalled innovation: the library.
This more stimulating (and personal for Stephenson) hypothesis emerged from the his session of a New America Foundation Future Tense Event, Here Be Dragons: Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future. They involve the role Science Fiction has played in inspiring the innovations in the sciences. In his essay he summarizes these two hypotheses:
1. The Inspiration Theory. SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers. This much is undoubtedly true, and somewhat obvious
2. The Hieroglyph Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. A good SF universe has a coherence and internal logic that makes sense to scientists and engineers. Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.
I don’t see these as necessarily separate. It is the phenomenal possibilities spelled out in the Hieroglyph that inspires the potential scientists. Either way, the Hieroglyph theory seems sound. It gives a recognizable and agreed upon target for scientists and engineers to shoot towards. Stephenson implicitly agrees that more recent science fiction has had less of these big picture “techno-utopian” visions of what he calls the “Golden Age of SF.” More recent work, by contrast, “is written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone. I myself have tended to write a lot about hackers—trickster archetypes who exploit the arcane capabilities of complex systems devised by faceless others.”
There may be something to this argument. Perhaps more recent SF work has focused on the “destructive side effects” of already existing technology—or of technology that was thought of by those earlier, golden age, writers. In any case, it is undoubtedly true that the Science Fiction genre serves as an inspiration for not only scientists, but the investment in science. It is no coincidence that the first space shuttle was called the Enterprise. As Constance Penley discusses in her book NASA/TREK, the popularity of the science fiction narratives of space travel was often used by NASA to bolster public support for the funding of its projects. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine Star Trek the TV series didn’t benefit from the massive, imaginative projects of the early space program. The cultural circuit is dialectical in this regard.
In any case, Stephenson doesn’t give himself enough credit on this issue. He surely focuses on people manipulating these complex systems, but first he demonstrates their imaginative complexity. The latter is the source of inspiration, even if the narrative requires the former to pique our interest. Snow Crash, for instance, produced an inspirational vision of the meta-verse, something which isolated scientists might have been working on, but which required this coherent vision to really inspire innovation. The result, for good or bad, has been virtual reality platforms like Second Life, who’s inventor cites Stephenson’s breakthrough novel as his inspiration.
Around the same time, Neal Stephenson’s science-fiction classic Snow Crash swept through the tech community. The novel takes place across two worlds: the real world, and the global, highly realistic online space called the Metaverse. [Second Life inventor] Rosedale’s wife bought him the book, and he was inspired. ”I concluded the Metaverse was going to happen but not yet, not at the time,” he says. The Internet wasn’t robust enough, connections were still mostly dial-up, and PCs didn’t have sophisticated 3D graphics. “I told friends I would work on something else and wait.” The wait ended with two events in 1999. Nvidia released a significant advance in computer graphics with its GeForce2 card. And Rosedale attended Burning Man, a free-spirited, anything-goes desert festival. He came away thinking Burning Man was the template for an online world — a place where people could be whatever they wanted to be
Though Stephenson points to the lack of new adventures in space travel, it may be the developments on the ground that have shifted the location of the new and exciting “final frontier.” It may be hard to see enhanced digital technology as on par with space exploration, but in a response to Stephenson, Kevin Drum argues that this is the biggest innovation of the twentieth century: “The key to innovation is the exploitation of really big inventions. Computerization is as big as it gets, and it has a much longer tail than electrification. We’re not even close to mining its full potential yet. ” In other words, the problem isn’t so much that we lack imagination—or that SciFi writers are failing to inspire. People like Stephenson have helped give us new ideas about the very technology that has the potential to create a completely different world: unfortunately, the world we live in is not ready for those innovations.
Science fiction remains a good place to look for inspiration, but the results of the earlier hypotheses—conservative cultural and political reaction on the one hand, and quarterly focused risk aversion on the other—undercut its potential. On both sides of this equation, we can squarely blame the current legal environment of intellectual property rights, which favors current property owners and pushes potential innovators towards risk averse licensing that only enhances those property owners standing. Case in point is the idea for a library that also appears in Snow Crash. It is a revolutionary idea for how a library could work. And, like the Metaverse, at the time it would have been somewhat unworkable technologically. But as we approach the stage when it could happen, it is mostly the IP concerns that prevent it. This is certainly the case with the library of the future, one iteration of which is featured in Stephenson’s Snow Crash.
For those who are struggling to remember, the library in this case is wholly contained in a data card that the aptly-named Hiro Protagonist’s colleague (Juanita Marquez) gives him within the virtual reality space of the Metaverse. Hiro accesses the enormous library contained on the card by way of conversing with an AI librarian. It appears as an avatar, but is actually a computer program that has been written to organize the data within its collection. The data itself was collected by another person (Lagos, who lifted the data from the collapsing Library of Congress before it was privatized) and who was killed before he was able to finish his analysis of it. Hero enters the Metaverse and queries the librarian; the librarian can give Hiro a batch of data—including video, audio, news clippings, etc.—supply Hiro summaries of data within a collection, and is even able to give him a sense of what Lagos thought was going on in the data, the arguments the librarian (computer program) thought Lagos was considering based on the patterns to the data itself, his queries of it, and his paths through the data. In this way, the librarian acts much like Vannevar Bush’s memex (1946)—both collecting all the data in one place and mapping pathways through it—but with the added social component of allowing a user to see connections made by previous users. This helps Hiro pick up where previous scholars have left off, but to take slightly different pathways and figure out what they missed.
In terms of interface this is a very useful exhibit of a library of the future. Likewise, it seems that what the librarian does in this scenario is give us a sense of the kind of things librarians (i.e. the flesh and blood people that work in our libraries) could do. Stephenson also lays out a significant infrastructure for how knowledge is organized. As with most of the novel (pace his own description of the interest in “dark side effect”) it is a quite dystopian infrastructure. It is organized along lines that would be favorable to the most adamant among today’s tea party: a world which operates similarly to the society of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. This means that most all property is privatized and there are almost no common pool resources. People are citizens of (and protected by) competing private housing developments or mob-run pizza franchises. Most importantly for the library (as hinted at above), all knowledge and intelligence gathering is also privatized. With the breakdown of the federal government, the Library of Congress and the CIA are merged and privatized (into the Central Intelligence Corporation). All knowledge is therefore available only for a fee. Hero works part time as a stringer for the CIC, uploading bits of intelligence, for which he is paid by people who want access to it. Corporations, governments, and private citizens alike can all pay for access to this information, but it must be bought.
In some ways what is most significant about this utopian library in a dystopian setting is the way it is not subject to any of these infrastructure controls. The creator of the library worked at the Library of Congress before it was privatized and pulled an Aaron Schwartz before taking off. The data would normally have been prohibitively expensive to access in this completely open way and defied all the privatized protections to which it would normally have subject. Hiro is given the data set and the librarian as a gift, suggesting that one of the best possible routes to facilitating the interface and user practice for the library of the future is to steal all the data and give it a way for free.
When Stephenson wrote this novel, the idea of an immense library stored on a virtual data card - much less the AI daemon used to access it - was the stuff of fantasy (or, in this case, science fiction). Now I could fit about 20,000 books and articles on my 16GB thumb drive (my “books and articles” folder on the hard drive has about 9,000 items in the 8GB of storage it takes up), though in the book, the exchange of data is really more of a cloud computing endeavor: the data card is virtual and it sits on Hiro’s virtual desk in the metaverse. Either way, that component poses almost no problem.
Content: Then periodicals were barely online, if at all; no videos, audio, or other forms of multimedia; and while the text of entire books might be online (or available in digital form, via Project Gutenberg) the prospect of entire libraries being available was fanciful. For Stephenson’s library to be possible all of this material would need to be digitized: not only the new, born digital stuff, but everything.
In the last few years, it has become closer to a reality. Digital humanities projects are quickly digitizing and transcribing special collections materials. Amazon—a private company—scans a good number of its books, which can be searched if not read online. JSTOR and other journal providers have scanned back catalogs of their journals, mostly using OCR so they can be indexed and searched. Many other collections (of books, videos, newspapers, audio and even webpages) are live on the Archive.org site as well as in smaller repositories around the web. But the most ambitious, if controversial, is certainly the Google Books and Hathi Trust endeavors to scan the contents of the five largest research libraries. Were all these projects to be merged under one umbrella, the only real technological hindrance would be the creation of virtual librarians. Since we still have real librarians, this seems less necessary. If only they had unimpeded access to the content, which could be freely exchanged in the cloud, then the utopian library so essential to Hiro’s role as a protagonist would be available to anyone with a PC. In fact, with smart phones, tablets, smart TVs and so many other devices, the range of interfaces with the library are far greater than even Stephenson imagined.
The components of creating this revolutionary library are quickly lining up. As Kevin Kelly mused in his New York Times Magazine article on the Google Books project,
Turning inked letters into electronic dots that can be read on a screen is simply the first essential step in creating this new library. The real magic will come in the second act, as each word in each book is cross-linked, clustered, cited, extracted, indexed, analyzed, annotated, remixed, reassembled and woven deeper into the culture than ever before. In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages.
[I’m still editing/revising/completing below…but welcome comments so far]
Vaidhyanathan UC Davis Law Review article “The Googlization of Everything and the Future of Copyright”
As it turns out, the whole move toward universal knowledge is not so easy. Kelly’s predictions depend, of course, on one part of the system Kelly slights in his article: the copyright system. Copyright is not Kelly’s friend. He mentions it as a mere nuisance waking him from his dream of a universal library. But to acknowledge that a lawyer-built system might trump an engineer-built system would have run counter to Kelly’s sermon.
vaidhynathan objects that fair use is the flimsiest legal platform to launch this
Most of the recent disruptive innovations in the information sector—the mp3, napster, bittorrent, flash video sites like Youtube—are disruptive in ways that border on being illegal. If you had told media executives twenty or thirty years ago—as they tried to perfect the fidelity of the compact disc (and then sell people on it)—that the bulk of consumers would rather by lower quality tracks or lower quality movies so that they could watch and listen to them on handheld devices, they would have balked (at least at the first part). They continued to balk at this prospect well into the twenty first century—only their balking was also buffered by lawsuits and other legal means of limiting the disruption these innovations could cause to their business model. For the most part, this has worked, as the music industry has basically restored its profitability—though largely at the expense of their previous boondoggle: selling us entire crappy albums in order to get our hands on the one or two decent/popular tracks on them.
Apple was one of the leaders in making this disruptive technology work—between the elegance of the iPod, the convenience of iTunes, and the sleekness of their marketing campaigns—it took the kinds of risks Stephenson describes. For instance, when the iPod came out, there were plenty of other mp3 players on the market (or at least enough to meet the demand.) The mp3 was a fairly suspect technology, largely perceived as illegal: it was used for illegally distributing files through social networks. On a number of levels, the investment Apple put into the iPod—in terms of the care and thoughtfulness of the design, as well as the marketing and support they gave to it—was irrational. At the time, for a user to make the iPod work (legitimately) one had to rip store-bought media into the mp3 (or other digital) format. This thin patina of legality was (IIRC) subject to several challenges by the recording industry, but eventually (because of its size and the popular buy in) Apple was able to create its own platform to legally distribute this music. For a while, indeed, this was a less than perfect arrangement, with Apple agreeing to distribute with restrictive DRM controls. As many recent studies have shown, using DRM probably does more to increase piracy than the obverse. But in any case, it was a route to making this platform succeed.
I side with Stephenson on this and one option is to simply practice a form of civil disobedience. Since we don’t have a powerful state or a culture of top down implementation or innovation any longer (like the space program) the only real way to create change in this area over the long term is to adopt a civil rights perspective for information.
The alternative is to think about what actually caused the innovation in the past
thinking of civil disobedience, I’m reading the introduction to Albion’s Fatal Tree. It is an exciting history in and of itself. The history from which this history emerged was in important crucible. The context, in many ways, produced this history.
One of the concepts to emerge from these studies is the idea of “social crime” which, while technically crimes are condoned by the community in which they take place.