Copiers vs. innovators?

by on December 13, 2011 at 4:26 am in Economics | Permalink

Mark Pagel writes:

A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.

For the pointer I thank John Brockman.

1 andy December 13, 2011 at 7:06 am

Incremental innovation. If we didn’t have patents, that would be probably prevailing type of innovation…wait, most of the internet is actually not covered by patents. So that’s the prevailing type of innovation.

There is the famous Procter&Gamble innovation story about the nozzle for making washing powder(?). They used the evolution approach; tried several different pieces – chosen the best, tried small variations. And that is just happening on the internet. Only it is being done by different people.

It is very hard to do one big-chunk of innovation. There is a lot of small inovation going on.

2 Marie December 13, 2011 at 9:08 am

Agreed. The internet is a giant engineering firm. Everyone is working on different projects in small groups and constantly popping in on their friends’ projects in the next lab over. Facebook isn’t the lab where these things are happening though. The internet inventors are in different little corners in their own little engineering warrens. Every topic you could possibly imagine has a community with a forum of people arguing and hashing through the technical details of what’s going on in their garages. Check out some automotive forums where people are incrementally tweaking their race cars or modifying their hybrids.

Facebook, Google+, and all those sharing tools are the front office of the internet, that’s where the pretty people sit. The nerds are buried in the basement doing the work.

3 zrzzz December 13, 2011 at 10:08 pm

There’s been a bad meme floating around that we shouldn’t try to create breakthroughs because the chances of success are so small. That we should focus on humble, incremental, innovation. This is perpetuated by people not really involved in innovation, but rather ones who sit around and talk about innovation. Unfortunately investors listen to this rubbish and there’s been huge cutbacks in private R&D spending as a result. Don’t be so quick to shut down the innovation pipeline just because it looks “too hard”. There are a lot of capable people out there who are up for the challenge, and history has shown a steady pace of technology development over the last 100 years, right up until this misconceived notion began circulating.

4 prior_approval December 13, 2011 at 8:05 am

‘And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators.’
This is almost absurd – the point of the GPL, for example, is to allow everyone to share, thus allowing those that innovate to innovate, while using the best products of other innovators. The fact that the GPL (and similar licences and concepts) form the very foundation the Internet show how well that idea can work, even including forcing those that attempt to obstruct it through theft of others’ work to be punished – as Busybox continues to demonstrate.

But then, the innovation that is the GPL itself would not seem to fit into the above statement, though it can be rewritten to reflect a bit more of the actual science related to evolution – ‘because in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, it has never been harder to avoid the inescapable fact that only those that cooperate can continue to use innovation freely.’

This is as true of patent pools as it is of Linux.

What the GPL does is change the idea of ‘freeloader’ to those unwilling to share – and that is a revolutionary concept in a world where the cost of digital copying is essentially zero, including copying the best ideas of others as the foundation of continuing innovation.

5 draftnik December 13, 2011 at 8:25 am

there is a famous sentence from famous scientist and inventor that all thing that you can invent were invented before. )
This is true because to bring innovation in the world which really useful and attractive you should have enough experience which can get coping and trying and trying existing futures.

6 Rich Berger December 13, 2011 at 8:49 am

I think the Bible had it well before the famous scientist (Ecclesiastes 1:9)-

“What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.”

7 zrzzz December 13, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Sorry dude, but the ancient Romans did not have communications satellites or fiber optics or fuel injection. There is indeed innovation, and if you want to go quotug fairy tales, there’s an apocryphal anecdote about a turn of the century patent office director who wrongly proclaimed everything that could be invented has already been invented.

8 Ryan Langrill December 13, 2011 at 9:26 am

“Even innovation is accounted for by imitation. While there certainly are those who consciously innovate, there are those who, in their imperfect attemptsto imitate others, unconsciously innovate by unwittingly acquiring some unexpected or unsought unique attributes which under the prevailing circumstances prove partly responsible for the success. Others, in turn, will attempt to copy the uniqueness, and the imitation-innovation process continues. Innovation is assured, and the notable aspects of it here are the possibility of unconscious pioneering and leadership.”
-Armen Alchian, Uncertainty, Evolution, and Economic Theory

So how much innovation is due to conscious attempts to innovate? I.e., is it a selectable trait?

9 The Engineer December 13, 2011 at 9:34 am

There are engineering tools out there that use the evolutionary approach. Take a product, generate random changes to it, and test it against some predetermined regimens. It doesn’t seem to me that those tools are exactly taking the engineering profession by storm.

10 Rahul December 13, 2011 at 9:38 am

Some of the stuff he says in that interview is quite cryptic. e.g. I really didn’t get how Facebook “devalues knowledge”

The interesting thing with Facebook is that, with 500 to 800 million of us connected around the world, it sort of devalues information and devalues knowledge.

11 D December 13, 2011 at 3:23 pm

Not sure about Facebook per se, but the Internet definitely has a leveling effect. In a world where you can find all the details of Greek mythology in seconds on your phone, knowing all there is to know about Greek mythology is less valuable.

12 zrzzz December 13, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Facebook has proven that 10 million monkeys banging on keyboards can not, in fact, produce even one Shakespearian sonnet. People only get stuipder in large numbers.

13 Rahul December 14, 2011 at 12:02 am

If people got stupider wouldn’t knowledge be more valuable rather than less?

14 John December 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm

You should totally watch the movie Idiocracy.

15 Davis December 13, 2011 at 9:42 am

the real question is whether you’d rather listen to more albums by minor musicians, or more copies/frequent remixes of the best albums by the best musicians in the genre. if you aren’t the best, is it more innovative to write your own material, your own remix, or bringing your own style to a cover?

16 Don December 13, 2011 at 10:03 am

” more and more sort of docile copiers.

For the pointer I thank John Brockman.”

nothing to add? lol?

17 TallDave December 13, 2011 at 10:13 am

It’s not so much the Internet as the combination of the agricultural revolution and the welfare state. It has never been easier to not work hard, whereas even 50 years ago that often meant going hungry.

18 Dano December 13, 2011 at 11:05 am

As my mentor said, it is search and re-search.

19 Alex Hughes December 13, 2011 at 11:51 am

Docile copiers? Rather: bold copiers! Often enough, innovation is the product of clever copying. In the cases with which I am most familiar, music and philosophy, this is true.

20 D December 13, 2011 at 3:39 pm

Necessity is the mother of invention. No need, no invention. That said, think of how many novel methods of entertainment have emerged!

21 ezra abrams December 13, 2011 at 7:22 pm

That is because evolution requires a *lot* of trials to work.
So, you can do evolution type things only if you can do millions of trials.
Biotech people like myself have figured out how to do this using bio inspired tricks in the test tube; materials scientists are starting to do this with , say with microarray based approaches to surface science; organic chemists are starting to do this with combinatorial synthesis.
It doesn’t work for mechanical or electrical things cause you can’t make 1,000,000 different parts and then *select* the best one – with CNC and rapid prototyping (SLA, whatever) you could probably make close to 1,000,000 different parts, say tiny forks – but how would you evaluate them ?
the biotech tricks allow you to rapidly and cheaply sort thru >>1e6 different molecules, because molecules are small (you can fit a billion in a test tube) and because we have ways of doing the selection that are very efficient (eg, suppose you have a petri plate with antibiotic. If you spread 1mL of a solution with 10^8 bacteria ontop of the solid agar surface, almost none of the bacteria will live. On the other hand, if you add a piece of DNA (I won’t bore you with the technical details of how this is done) that encodes a gene that makes a protein that makes cells resistant to the antibiotic, then each individual bacterial cell that is resistant can grow, overnight, into a colony visible to the naked eye.
so , for a few bucks, you have sorted thru >: 1e6 different molecules to find one (or more) that makes cells resistant to antibiotic; this is so powerfull because the selective pressure is incredible; you can see one positive in >>1^6 negatives.
So far as I know, these sorts of systems are not yet available for hardware.
as we start to talk about nanotech, and start to make nano machines, it maybe be possible (eg, you could use a MEMS facility to make 1e6 different little machines.I can’t think, off the top of my head, of a way to run the selection, but there are a lot of awfully smart grad students out there

22 bleh December 13, 2011 at 9:28 pm

I think this a facile, short-sighted take on the issue. The greatness of humanity is built on “copying” the foundations of the past and rearranging or building them to meet current challenges. Simply dividing up behavior into “copying” and “innovation” would lead you to believe that prehistory was the pinnacle of human innovation, since no technology existed that facilitated easier copying, therefore everyone was constantly innovating.

On an individual level, this was undoubtedly true, one was coming up with novel, personalized solutions to every problem of life. On a historical scale, the opposite is true — the inventions of writing, the printing press, telegraphs, and all the rest, while making it easier to enjoy someone else’s intellectual labor above one’s own, coincided with a vast expanse of measurable wealth, health and prosperity. Monkey see, monkey do, may enable the lives of lowly plodders, but on a societal level it enables today’s geniuses to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Copiers are innovators. Non-copiers merely reinvent the wheel. I hope the world does become filled with copiers, learning from the past and one another, rather than people blindly striding forth in their self-assured novelty.

23 zrzzz December 13, 2011 at 10:28 pm

Many of the masters of the past had teachers you’ve never even heard of. Who did they copy? Their greatenss emerged spontaneously. Ok, maybe Einstein did not invent mathematics, but hew created something that did not exist before. And that… is not a copy.

24 Dalton Herrell December 13, 2011 at 11:16 pm

The thinking behind this is all wrong. This seems to suggest that one cannot copy and innovate all with the same product or idea. Yes the concept of “copying” does represent a concept that the world has come to hate, but the term innovation has two separate interpretations of the meaning; one is actually inventing something new and the second is a new way of doing something.
For example, the concept of a heavier than air flying machine was not the original invention of the Orville and Wilbur Wright. Samuel Langley was at the peak of discovering flight at the time the Wright brothers. They had taken a lot of idea and specs from Langley “copying” his blueprints but giving them a more innovative design with the introduction of wing warping.
So the idea of “copying” is not the opposite of innovation necessarily. If one can look upon the internet and see a product and realize a way to make that very same product just a little better, that is the same as inventing something all their own for the purpose of pleasing a consumer and for monetary gain. And if it were not for the copiers out there the market would be left wide open for all kinds of monopolies. Think about it, if apple was the only computer/phone/tablet producer the prices would be even higher than they are now without the innovation of the many similar yet different products out there.

25 Eric December 14, 2011 at 1:11 pm

If as meme theory suggests imitation is key to learning, then more copying wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I’d be happier if the bottom caught up more with the top (i.e. less relative spread between the really smart and really stupid) than if we had more overall innovation. However, I don’t think this is even a trade-off we have to make. The more people copy, the easier it should be for the innovator pool to grow. Innovation for the individual might be the case, but on the whole innovation as a group should be greater.

Also, I think it is rather limiting to think only in terms of big innovation as occurring via the internet. Big and small innovation occurs all around, it is just so much easier to point at the flashy online examples.

26 mk December 19, 2011 at 7:54 am

Think about the economics of the thing then: even if most of the econ activity consists of copying, what does that do to the payoff from copying vs payoff from innovation? The former tends to fall and the latter tends to increase… So it’s not so bad as the author makes it out to be. That’s not a new argument: for example, it used to cost $ millions to make software or internet startup: had to order big-house UNIX, buy expensive compilers, etc. Nowadays, you go to Paul Graham for $15K, download Linux and off you go. I remember my intro economics at univ clearly: one of the primary methods of boosting profits is market disruption via technological innovation. I don’t see why that should change.

One of the biggest boosts to economy was Italian invention of double-entry book keeping. Yes, the rest of the world copied this very efficiently. So what? In fact, that made banking and economics develop to the point that funding further innovation in science became much easier.

You don’t make innovation happen in everything you use. You buy or copy a 1000 things (book keeping at the company, paper, computers, software, etc) and innovate only in 1 and then sell the result of that single innovation to everyone else. Say, you invented a transistor. Why should you not “copy” everything else from other people you needed to make invention of transistor happen, by buying a car, fuel, food, construction materials and instrumentation? Why should Shockley produce all this on his own? We just needed him to make that 1 innovative thing happen. Now if we run out of “Shockleys” that’s a serious problem, but that does not have to have its origin in copying..

The author of that paper is a biologist IIRC, but I think he has not heard much or has not applied the idea of division of labor: you do not innovate in everything, you innovate only in what you specialize and copy everything else from other people… Copying is not the opposite of innovation in some cosmic dialectic opposition of forces. One feeds on the other in fact.

We do seem to run out of significant innovations. And that’s a serious problem. But we won’t solve it by misdiagnosing reality. IMHO, the sources are:

1. We have utilized big discoveries in physics from last 150 years, and produced few arguably since 1960s. For some reason, fundamental research just does not pay off, is not funded well enough, or I suspect what happened to it is over-governmentalization, over-bureaucratization, and extreme risk aversion. Howard Hughes foundation funds innovative medical research in bold, daring and risky ways. The payoff (in terms of citations, discoveries) seems to be roughly twice the impact of standard govt-funded research institutions. It’s probably because bureaucrats use typical bureaucratic approach: cover your ass, do not fund anything controversial – the safest approach not to get in trouble with naysayers, critics, parasites, political opportunists.

2. Risk aversion. E.g. VCs say they want innovation but in practice want the safest, the most currently fashionable and the safest route. They seem to be scared in my experience of anything truly novel. It becomes a serious cultural problem I think. Like my big three-letter-company, where managers’ every second word is innovation but when it comes to funding or risking it? Forget it.

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