Steven Johnson: markets aren’t the only force for innovation

Steven Johnson, the innovation and science guru par excellence, used his keynote at Technology Review’s Emerging Technologies conference this morning [October 18th; I’m not sure why this didn’t publish then, though I remember having problems with the HTML] to gently bash the techno-libertarian crowd for its “tech exceptionalism.”

He set up four quadrants for innovation: Market individual, market network, non-market individual and non-market network. Non-market networks, where a technology like the Internet leads to the creation of something like Wikipedia, were what he called the 4th quadrant. “I’ve been trying to remind people that the innovative power of the fourth quadrant is much larger than the tech space,” Johnson said.
He used the seminal jazz album “Kind of Blue,” the tour de force by Miles Davis, as an example. We think of artists like Davis as mad lone geniuses (Steve Jobs, anyone?) appearing out of nowhere and changing the world through sheer force of personality and individual creativity. In fact, Johnson says,

“Works of art are not just made out of individual words and notes, but genres, devices and technology. Those are always 4th quadrant innovations, collectively built over a long time with nobody able to claim them.”

For instance, Davis was using a trumpet technology perfected 100 years earlier, and building on centuries of musical developments, including the evolution of jazz, to create the brilliant mash-up, Kind of Blue.

He also used the example of “The Miracle on the Hudson” plane crash, where no one died despite the plane losing both engines and falling into the Hudson River in winter, as an example of innovation taking place outside of the marketplace. Engine development driven by collective knowledge (the technology that prevented the engines from exploding into the fuselage and breaking up the plane came from NASA) and even government regulation helped ensure that the engines were far safer than they would have been decades earlier.

“It’s about a long history of collective work, of folks sharing ideas, building on other people’s ideas, government regulation coming in and making people’s lives better. All of it outside the marketplace,” Johnson told the audience. When he was done, they clapped in what I thought was a perfunctory way.

I rode the elevator down with Johnson and asked him whether it made him nervous to make such points to a crowd that was likely filled with market libertarians who would fundamentally disagree that non-market forces, and especially government regulation, can lead to innovation.

He said he actually goes out of his way to make these points when talking to tech groups, because he thinks they need to hear it. He told me (and I paraphrase and condense) that billions of dollars get spent to tell us about detergent, but governments don’t spend anything telling us about their innovations. We just expect that things like health care will work and never look at the actual innovations that take place, all the time, without the market. More on that in his next book.

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