Innovation is a Virus

We have been told by patent holders, mostly large corporations, that intellectual property rights encourage innovation.  Copyright laws have been extended from 14 years to up to life plus 70 years. Competition is said to accelerate creativity. Do these ideas serve innovation or corporate greed? 

As an artist I know that creativity is iterative, it’s built upon lots of versions, ever changing and constantly informed by the creative works of others. Art begets art. If you try to create art in a vacuum, you may get results, but you’ll get better results if you study art history, exchange ideas, techniques or critiques with others. The more open we are the more likely we are to be exposed to more interesting ideas and to see the big picture. Compartmentalization does not work very well for spreading ideas.   

We have this romanticized idea that innovation is the child of singular genius, that some few of us have an almost magical gift to have aha Moments – it makes for a better story.  Steven Johnson in his new book, Where Good Idea’s Come From: The Natural History Of Innovation, tells us that Innovation is more likely to come from a network of people working intrinsically, than from a single person working for profit. We certainly do have singular geniuses among us, but they are the exception, not the rule. 

The reason that people working together for the love of the work innovate at a higher rate is that they are more focused on innovation than making money. Copyrights, patents and corporate security act as barriers to creativity in order to protect wealth. Johnson doesn’t argue against intellectual property rights, just recognizes that they can get in the way of propagating new ideas. Putting walls up around innovation is like keeping someone with an infectious disease quarantined. It keeps ideas from spreading. 

Innovation is like a beneficial virus, the more an idea spreads the greater chance of its surviving and thriving.  If it survives, propagates and mutates, more interesting things and more failures will be the result.  The road to innovation is paved with mistakes. The best ideas, according to Johnson come from the Adjacent Possible, from the edge of what is now possible, not from giant leaps forward.

More innovation has come from informal talks at coffee houses than brainstorming sessions.  As Johnson says, “All of the patterns of innovation we have observed in the previous chapters… do the best in open environments, where ideas flow in unregulated channels.”