Monday, June 30, 2008

In the Air

I have mixed feelings about Malcolm Gladwell. His writing is certainly clear and engaging and he manages to create impassioned interest in social science topics that would normally draw yawns. However, I cannot help but feel he receives credit better due to true academics for the volume of hard won research they produce and he neatly makes digestible. It is possible that his latest article in the New Yorker is no exception but it does give pause to reconsider. He may have some “new” ideas of his own.

The article is entitled, “In the Air: Who Says Big Ideas are Rare” and in it, regardless of intent, Gladwell provides a subtle yet powerful indictment of the current intellectual property system. The preponderance of the article itself is spent highlighting the many historical incidences of simultaneous invention/discovery (e.g. telephone by both Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray) and profiling modern day invention shop Intellectual Ventures co-founded by Nathan Myhrvold. What really is of interest is the digression into the nature of invention/discovery. The best summary of Gladwell’s line of thinking is made in the article itself with the observation - “Ideas weren’t precious. They were everywhere, which suggested that maybe the extraordinary process that we thought was necessary for invention – genius, obsession, serendipity, epiphany – wasn’t necessary at all.” The grand implication is that technology a process of discovery not innovation.

Why does it matter if technology is “discovered” verses “invented?” I would argue the difference is much more than semantics. In an invention paradigm, technology is brought forth by the blood, sweat, and tears of the inventor(s) along with their unique creativity and insight. Technology is direct progeny of the inventor and it exists in the universe as a direct result of inventors’ actions. In a discovery paradigm, the technology always existed. The laws of physics and chemistry -- even the social scientific laws of behavior -- were already there to dictate function and need. If Gladwell and others are drawing the right conclusion from years of simultaneous invention “multiples,” the discovery of the technology is also inevitable. In this paradigm an inventor, or better put discoverer, may apply similar effort and creative insight but does his or her discovery of technology justify monopoly protection offered by patents -- especially if discovery by somebody is already a forgone conclusion?

I do not know which, if any, of these paradigms are right but Gladwell’s questioning of invention provides some real food for thought. If technology is discovery based, what is the appropriate incentive structure to drive it? Would reorienting on a discovery mindset attract different personalities to work on technology? What should our expectations be about the speed of technology progress if all possible technology already exists, waiting to be discovered?