Mike Masnick at Tech Dirt has a great
piece up about the concept of idea redundancy in which he
responds to a conflicted Malcom Gladwell
article that praises Nathan
Mhyrvold idea-tank company Intellectual
Ventures, which makes money by conceiving and patenting
hundreds of ideas, while at the same time noting that ideas are
likely to pop up simultaneously in different brains.
Whereas Gladwell writes that, “Good ideas are out there for
anyone with the wit and the will to find them, which is how a group
of people can sit down to dinner, put their minds to it, and end up
with eight single-spaced pages of ideas,” Masnick critiques that
“if these ideas are the natural progression, almost guaranteed to
be discovered by someone sooner or later, why do we give a monopoly
on these ideas to a single discoverer?”
Being a bit of an idea junkie myself, I have often contemplated
the notions of idea formation, attribution, ownership and
profitability, both from an individual and social context.
Fundamentally, I agree with Masnick’s argument that “in giving
monopoly rights to Myhrvold and his friends [in addition to
gigantic corporate actors, universities and other patent trolls],
we make it much more difficult for others (even those who
discovered the same things totally independently) to help actually
make them useful.” That being said, I also realize that the patent
system that we currently have was and is needed to protect the
rights of inventors and encourages many people to invest time into
the innovation of concepts.
From a broader systems context, it seems to me we should be
striving to find the “sweet spot” for social progress. This entails
using the most cost-effective means to most accurately attribute
ideas to their rightful creators (whether those be multiple
individuals, social groups, long historical chains thinkers, or
even biological systems themselves), while ensuring that they
benefit us in the short-term and long-term through 1) their
execution and diffusion, and 2) by profiting the creators
appropriately to raise their standard of living and encourage
additional innovation directly at the source. (cont.)
Google has been the Golden City of Silicon Valley and indeed the whole world wide web for the past several years. The savvy start-up that grew from a garage in Menlo Park to one of the biggest companies in the world in less than a decade is not only a business wunderkind, but a cultural icon whose name has become a verb for finding information on the Internet. Yet as Google’s rise to fame attests, the Internet is a fast and fickle place where a good new idea can change everything.
In a recent interview with Mad Money host Jim Cramer, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that Google can avoid the flat-line in growth that eventually plagued it’s high tech giant predecessors IBM & Microsoft. Google will accomplish this, Schmidt says, through increasingly targeted advertising, breaking into new businesses and keeping to the mantra of not being “evil.”
Is this a realistic forecast? Can its very size and success be a detriment to Google’s innovation? Can it really conquer new markets? Though the company’s stock has consistently outperformed expectations and grew an impressive 26% last quarter, there are some tell-tale signs that Google’s empire is not immune to the forces of time or economics.
Innovation by Acquisition: By Schmidt’s own admission, Google will need to innovate at a high rate to remain competitive. The company has released several products in the last few years including Gmail, Google Earth, Google Docs (which I am using to type this article), Google Calendar, Knol, and most recently its web browser Chrome. But much, if not the bulk, of the company’s innovation has been generated through acquisitions. While many of the purchases have been a big boon for Google, i.e. DoubleClick is estimated to have brought in $90 million dollars for Google last year, several of the innovative companies acquired have mysteriously entered the ever widening Google black hole. Jaiku, a twitter-like micro-blogging company was purchased in October of 2007 and is still closed to new users. GrandCentral a site the allows you integrate all your phone numbers and voicemail boxes into one account, accessible from the web, had a markedly similar fate. Even Blogger, once the king of blogs, has withered from lack of development and upgrading since being acquired. It now seems doomed to forever live in the shadow of it’s successors Wordpress and Movable Type.
A quick look at this comprehensive list of Google’s acquisitions reveals many great ideas that either are dead in the black hole, being developed by Google, or in use but just not being promoted. It’s hard to say which, but considering how old some of these acquisitions are and how quickly the Internet world moves, even in the best case scenario of “development” Google is proving it simply hasn’t been able integrate and develop it’s acquisitions quickly enough.
How can the power and scope of social networks, combined with human capital metrics, be used to facilitate shared creation and innovation?
Contests have been picking up steam thanks to the web and new social media technologies. Their next generation could facilitate an increase of economic output, innovation, happiness, leisure time and broader social efficiency.
Games and contests are powerful frameworks for idea and behavior selection that have played a big role in the human learning process. Because communication is key to organizing large complex games, it should come as no surprise that the rapidly quickening web is catalyzing an explosion in competitions of all sorts, including robust new innovation contests. It’s interesting to contemplate how these might evolve as bandwidth and web intelligence continues to accelerate over the next decade.
Humans have already deployed large-scale positive-sum innovation contests pertaining to private space flight, the manufacturing of more fuel-efficient cars, a wide variety of energy goals and even broad world changing ideas, just to list a few. Companies are increasingly turning to games for logos, commercials, machinima, and so forth. Nimble little social media companies are launching myriad contest websites for all sorts of content.
It can also be argued (and I am doing so) that web powerhouses like Digg and Stumble Upon, or even RSS Lists like Techmeme (many tech bloggers customize their content to increase the likelihood it will get picked up here) are fundamentally contest-based. The cool part is that they also represent a big leap forward in web content organization.
That being the current state of things, how can we then expect contests to evolve over, say, the next 10 years?
Contests as Work: As the web gets more reliable, robust, and broad, people will perform more work via remote connections. It will then become possible to add effective, proven contest structures to these efforts (think the next generation of contest sites) that will reduce the need for oversight and up prouctivitiy and output.
Invisible Contests: As the web gets better at quantifying human behavior, certain companies, groups and governments will want access to this data. One way (out of many) of getting at this data will be hosting contests that people can win (wholesale or incrementally) and benefit from on a regular basis. Just do what you do, and if you do anything that the system really likes (perform an efficient new search algorithm, fall into a personality category ideal for a certain study, etc), it will reward you for it. This way you can be playing many games without having to divert your focus from your interests.
Hierarchical Contest Structures: Companies like Google already have a game-like hierarchy built in to their corporate structure. Expect these models to evolve as new companies based more exclusively on gaming are born and then scale. It is possible that such “automated” companies (with the right human and software assets) will be able to move far more quickly than traditional companies.
Intellectual attribution is far from perfect, but as we systematically quantify the nature of the vast Idea Sea in which we swim, we will also create a more effective and equitable market for new innovations.
Last week a pair of Nobel Prize winning scientists conceded that much of their research had been based on an earlier study by a geneticist who now drives a shuttle for $8/hour just to keep food on the table, but of course didn’t go so far as to offer him a share of the $1.5 million prize they’d been awarded. This example clearly brings into focus the limits of our current idea attribution economy, a system that clearly isn’t encouraging a Nobel-caliber scientist to continue innovating for broader social benefit.
But rather than jump on the IP- and patent-bashing bandwagon as many bloggers tend to do, I’d like to explore how our idea attribution system might evolve over the coming decade.
First, let me be clear about my definition of the term “idea”. Ideas can more specifically be broken down into memes – “ideas or behaviors that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation”, memeplexes – “groups of religious, cultural, political, and idealogical doctrines and systems”, and temes – “information copied by books, phones, computers and the Internet”. These structures co-evolve with humans to ultimately form a massive sea of what we commonly refer to as ideas. Though individuals often combine memes into valuable new memeplexes, no one person can ever truly claim total ownership of a concept that is essentially an outgrowth of the idea sea.