August 21, 2004  ·  Tim Wu

Technologists are divided in some ways, but united by a common faith. Stated simply, we worship innovation. Openist, deregulationist, libertarian, or cyber-anarchist all take innovation as deliverance. Our battles are mostly internecine warfare, fights about how best to achieve that common goal.

But how often do we ask ourselves: Why? What is the �end� importance of innovation? Is it more than just liking new stuff? How, if at all, does innovation connect with, say, human happiness?

There are certainly some answers to this last question. Joseph Schumpeter, patron saint to the church, gives among the most important. His idea is that constant innovation, and not price competition is what drives growth under capitalism. While thinking capitalism doomed, he nonetheless recognized as its virtue the �process of industrial mutation … that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.” So if we believe that economic growth is what makes societies happy, promoting innovation can be this way linked to human ends.

Another view runs like this: we are happier if we have reason to believe that the future will be better than the past. Stated simply, ongoing innovation makes us feel that way. When you read about a possible cure for cancer or that cell phone numbers are now portable, you think, one maybe day we�ll be free of disease, premature death, and cell phone extortion. And that feels nice.

Whether people really are happier now than in Ancient Rome or the Han Dynasty is somewhat irrelevant to this belief. We just want to feel like there is some ideal future out there, which we are slowly drifting toward, even if it is not necessarily attainable in this life.

A third, maybe the most obvious answer, is that the stuff invented, like hair-dryers or the electric toothbrush, makes our lives easier and simpler, and hence happier. That’s convincing, particularly in the field of toiletries, and particularly if you’ve spent any time in the developing world.

But what is still missing — what none of these answers do is ask how valuable innovation is compared with other priorities. At its worst, innovationists can beccome obssessed with change for change’s sake, and addicted to the thrill of the new. Which would be fine, except for these days technology policy and public policy have merged. And Wired magazine is hardly Cicerco. A teenage fascination with new stuff isn’t necessarily so great when the happiness of the many are at issue.

Consider a question that professor Brett Fischman asks his class about the internet, the central monument for innovationists: �What actually makes the Internet valuable to society?�

This question stopped me for awhile. Measured in social value, surely some of the oldest applications, like email, relatively untouched by innovation, produce most of the network’s present social value. Sure, I think VoIP over powerlines would be pretty cool (thanks Adam Thierer). But compared to finding old friends, staying in touch, and everything else that email does, there is no serious comparison. Logic like this suggests that faith in innovation is a faith out of touch with human ends. Perhaps making what is obviously useful � like email � reach more people is more important than constantly reinventing, redestroying, or finally writing the perfect debugger.

I do think the criticisms can be rebutted. Email, after all, was an invention, and required the right environment for it to come about. Innovationists don’t always think about nothing else. But those who share a faith in the importance of innovation should be sure that what we fight hardest for is not just the abstract beauty of new technologies, but ideals that actually have some connection to human ends.

  • Alexander Wehr

    “Another view runs like this: we are happier if we have reason to believe that the future will be better than the past. Stated simply, ongoing innovation makes us feel that way.”

    I propose that the internet has tremendous societal value beyond simply email. The one common thread, weather it be controversial downloading, email, blogs, chats, etc.. is that people now have the ability to publish things more easily and quickly than ever before, and to access other’s cultural expression more freely than ever before.

    Anyone who collects international titles will likely tell you how capitalistic forces conspire to make obtaining information and posessions not marketed to “your culture” ever harder. The internet opens these boundaries, and removes major physical impediments to communication.

    This is a social benefit which can never be understated, but sadly most of our elder generation seems incapable of fully comprehending how revolutionary and infinite the potential of this new medium is.

    History shows that such generational tensions have usually resulted in unrest, even war or revolution. It is both unnerving and relieving that this kind of unrest has yet to occur today despite similarities with other eras of change.

  • tatere

    That’s like asking, �What actually makes society valuable to society?� Without people, the net is just a bunch of dead wires.

    Email untouched by innovation? Heh. How many spam mails did you get today? Finding a new way to do things is not about being “better” in a higher-purpose, moral sort of way. Creating more lethal varieties of poison gas is innovation too.

    I’m not sure, but it seems that you are reserving the concept of “innovation” for “relatively meaningless tweaks in non-essential aspects of life”. Me, I’m kind of glad for sanitation, refrigeration, antibiotics (the ones we have left, at least) and microwave ovens. Figuring out a kind of car + energy source/infrastructure that will let people in China go tooling around without drowning Bangladesh, that would contribute pretty solidly to happiness too.

    A big reason for trying to give innovative thinking and practive as much room in society as practical is simple humility. We don’t know what’s coming next. We don’t know if this clever little gadget will fade from memory in 5 years or change the lives of thousands. We don’t know what kind of problems we’ll need to solve tomorrow. We can make good guesses, maybe, but we don’t know. So, you know, Expect the Unexpected.

  • Macneil

    Price competition is important for making capitalism work, however: it’s what makes people *want* to innovate in the first place. Thus, competition causes innovation, which causes growth.

  • Philips

    I would like to make two points. One related to last post by McNeil and one based on my thoughts.

    > Price competition is important for making capitalism work,
    > however: it�s what makes people *want* to innovate in the
    > first place. Thus, competition causes innovation, which
    > causes growth.

    If you are going historically backwards, you will notice that primitive communities have had no money. “Price” is irrelevant for innovation. What you describe is merely “role of innovation in capitalism.”

    If you will ever deal with innovative people what will strike you is that they do not care about “price.” It is only later after innovation comes into Real World and gets implemented – you need money for deployment – things get material and they got they price.

    Money and price in modern world used to organize things, while innovations are used to destroy old system. This is not chicken and egg problem – money and price were by themselves innovation long time ago. Quite revolutionary innovations. They helped to steam exchange of goods. So here I come to my another point.

    Exchange of thoughts & goods seemed to be the most popular explanation for Internet.

    Compare out lives in tribes many centuries ago to our modern life. Community vs. privacy, common living quoters vs. private apartments, health of community vs. private interests, etc. On course of development of our society we leaped from mostly open society to mostly closed one. Appearance of Internet for me is the sign that our society is starting to make a leap in other direction. Internet helps us to be closer to each other. Now, without leaving you private apartments, you may have lots of friends around world. And we making friends by sharing out intimate moments with them. Sharing – not exchange.

    Sharing – not exchange. It is important to notice that difference. Our capitalist society is based on “exchange” ideology. Yeah, you might loosen the that by “credit,” but still it (exchange) is reflection of out capitalist thinking. And Internet helped to spring up “sharing” – we do share what we have without losing it. Sharing of a kind of thoughts sharing. That really contradicts to ideology of capitalism with its exchange and price tag attached to everything. Internet (just like roads many millennia ago) helping to connect anyone to everyone.

    Some NLP guys might be better explaining the difference between words attached to capitalism and internet.

    P.S. To McNeil: Innovation doesn’t mean growth. Innovation as P2P networks do damage recording companies in long run. Destructive innovation. They (P2P networks) help society at large, spreading our culture even further – but they have no price interests. Since we are measuring all things by they price, P2P means stagnation – it produces no *direct* value.

  • Sepp Hasslberger

    It would seem that the only constant in this universe is change, meaning that nothing stays the same for any extended length of time. Things either degrade or they improve, if ever so slowly.

    If we have to choose between the two, degradation or improvement, innovation certainly is the preferable way to go in my opinion.

  • raoul

    “How, if at all, does innovation connect with, say, human happiness?”

    We could connect the two via Socrates round about definition of �justice.� Admittedly, he (Plato) never comes out and defines justice. However, if my memory serves me correctly, the common understanding of Socrates definition of justice is something like: If people (citizens) are allowed to truly be who they are, and allowed to do what they do best, then people can truly contribute the greatest social benefit to society and to themselves individually.

    Innovation is a component of evolution. Evolution and the core of our existence are intertwined. Thus, for people to be who they truly are, the must be allowed to evolve. Otherwise, people will not be allowed to be who they truly are, disharmony and injustice will result and human happiness will not be achieved.

    Placing unnatural restrictions on human evolution will thwart happiness. I believe that it is beyond dispute that the entire notion of Copyright exists outside the philosophical construct of �natural law.� It would be a tough sell to argue that God granted man the unalienable right to publishing royalties.

  • Macneil Shonle

    Philips wrote: “P.S. To McNeil: Innovation doesn�t mean growth. Innovation as P2P networks do damage recording companies in long run. Destructive innovation. They (P2P networks) help society at large, spreading our culture even further – but they have no price interests. Since we are measuring all things by they price, P2P means stagnation – it produces no *direct* value.”

    Actually, P2P networks bring lots of value: people will be saving money, bandwidth will be much improved, and people will be happier. As a result, they can spend the money they saved on *new* items, like the iPod. “Gifts” of innovation create more innovation because they free up money for people to buy new things that currently don’t have a market. If people keep spending money on the same old thing, there won’t be very much growth.

    But my point is that competition is a strong incentive to innovate; and conversely, earning money is a strong incentive to follow through with innovative ideas. If by working 80 hour weeks for several months with thousands of your own savings spent to work on a new idea was only rewarded with compensation of savings lost, there probably wouldn’t be too many entrepreneurs.

    But competition does mean it’s a tough game: in capitalism, you can never rest unless you want to be overtaken (think of how Apple didn’t innovate much in the 90s and let Windows surpass them; they rested on their laurels too long). The record companies either have to get into the new markets, or just “cash out”. Maybe someone could say that capitalism hurts the human spirit because they always have to keep on working, but maybe that helps it more than it hurts. Eitherway, allowing people to save money seems to be a just solution to the problem.

  • Derek Slater

    Judge Posner,
    Continuing on this thread, I wonder if you’d speak to the following issue. Given that innovation is not an end in itself and must be balanced against other social priorities, what is the role of the courts in doing so?

    -Derek Slater

  • Derek Slater

    Hm, looks like Tim Wu posted that – got confused by the Judge Posner bit below it. Heh. My mistake!

  • Ross Mayfield

    Tim, sorry about confusing your name with Larry’s on the M2M post. One suggestion would be to author names in a clearer color for each post.

  • Robert Young

    A couple of posters touched upon this, but it seems to me that *generational* effects are probably the most significant drivers of the types of innovations that go commercial and gain market acceptance. I’m sure we all know many people (both business and academic) who often point to teens, or the “next generation”, as the most critical success factor when discussing innovation. In fact, most of the studies of p2p (a great innovation imo) demonstrate that younger generations are much more active filesharers than the older.

    But isn’t this simply a case of “rebels without a cause”? But now technology allows the rebellion to go beyond just parents, and to the entire copyright regime.

    Not trying to be combative here… just attempting to see the other side… as peace often requires ;-)

  • Brett Frischmann

    We all care about innovation. Innovation is a particularly important type of economic activity that we ought to care about and promote, but it is not the only type, nor is it the most important type in all contexts. Innovation is productive, and at times destructive, and it is evolutionary. It is a critical aspect of the competitive process.

    While necessarily an integral part of the network neutrality debate, innovation ought not be the linchpin upon which end-to-end architecture of the Internet hangs. Innovation is too narrow conceptually because of its traditional economic connection with the competitive process and commercial markets. Like many other infrastructure resources, the Internet facilitates a wide range of socially valuable downstream activities that are not really innovative.

    What is the social value of the Internet? It is very difficult to estimate the full social value of the Internet, in large part because of the wide variety of downstream uses that generate public goods and non-market goods. Despite such difficulty, we know that the Internet is transforming society. The transformation is similar to transformations that we have experienced in the past with other infrastructures, yet things are changing in a more rapid, widespread and dramatic fashion.

    The Internet environment is quickly becoming integral to the lives, affairs and relationships of individuals, companies, universities, organizations, and governments worldwide, and it is having significant effects on fundamental social processes and resource systems that generate value for society. Commerce, community, culture, education, government, health, politics and science are all information- and communications-intensive systems that are being transformed by the Internet. And the transformation is taking place at the ends, where people are empowered to participate and are engaged in socially valuable, productive activities (including but not limited to innovation).

    I am developing these ideas in an article focused infrastructure resources generally. I hope to post the draft on soon. I gave a talk about this at Stanford in the spring � audio recording at

  • brian

    think you’re not seeing the forest for the trees.

    Or that you’re looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

    Yes, innovation does become an end in itself; debate that all you like, I don’t care. What I do care about is that I am an innovative creature, sharing thereby in the nature of the Creator, and take great joy in it. It is a very important part of who and what I am.

    Beyond that, as someone famous said: necessity is the mother of invention. In other words: I see a need, I think of a way to meet it. In the process, many people benefit.

    If anything threatens innovation generally, it is unequivocally bad, because the above benefits to the individual and society as a whole – while not necessarily having a higher priority than other things – could never be outweighed by any possible benefit to their suppression.