A Comment on Lessig’s e-G8 Talk

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

[An earlier version of this article was posted in ETCJ as a comment to “e-G8 – Lawrence Lessig: ‘Outsider Innovation Threatens the Incumbent’” on June 8, 2011. -Editor]

In his e-G8 presentation, “Fostering Innovation: How to Build the Future,” Lawrence Lessig asks, “What unites all of these [Netscape, Hotmail, Google, Napster, Youtube, Skype, Facebook, Twitter] innovations?” His answer: “They were all done by kids, dropouts, and non-Americans. Outsiders.”

Well, Lessig pushes the facts just a bit. Facebook was done by a student who ended up dropping out. Microsoft was, too, and is not an Internet business.

Nevertheless, he has a point. The mentality of those who do innovations tends to be the “outsider” mentality, the person who distrusts authority and resists regimentation.

The Internet has opened up the opportunity for such people on a more worldwide basis so we see more non-Americans. Kids, at least those in reasonably well-off households, have more time to experiment with ideas and don’t have the demands of making a living or raising a family. Younger people are more likely to challenge our preconceptions as well.

You won’t find many innovations from high school dropouts, and most, if not all, innovators who drop out of college do so after getting the innovative idea and beginning to pursue it. Suddenly, they discover that pursuing a dream is more fun than taking classes and may be more rewarding in other ways. So, I don’t buy the dropout theory.

The second part of the discussion makes an excellent point as well. The biggest and most powerful organizations can spend enough to influence our government. Even delaying action can help them immensely. The biggest companies have a structure that rewards stasis and discourages innovation. So, innovation comes from outside and threatens them. But change is accelerating and raising the threat level further than ever before. Someone like Steve Jobs understands (at least in recent years) how to ride this wave of change, but most corporate CEOs view it as a tsunami to build walls against.

While the government’s policy should be, as Lessig says, “the public good,” it’s never that simple. Also, minimalism tends to benefit the status quo as it allows the powerful to control things. Would you prefer that we not inspect food preparation facilities and so have more E. coli outbreaks? A government that allows “free and open” Internet would be allowing those who have the power to control the Internet free reign to control it for their own profit. We the people lose.

I contend that the government must intervene to ensure free and open access and neutral networks. Without government action, the Internet becomes a sort of “wild West” where those with the most power take as much as they can from the rest of us. Of course, government can be manipulated to help the powerful suppress the weak. That’s where we have to hold them accountable and not be fooled by propaganda coming from companies or politicians. It’s our duty as citizens to THINK.

That important bottom line is why I was so surprised by Rupert Murdoch’s comment that our education system must teach our students to think. Too many people believe that big corporations simply wish that our schools would produce robot graduates for them to exploit in some may. But, they need to hire thinkers to keep them competitive in the world. I believe that Murdoch recognizes that fact and seeks to make hay at the same time.

I think that Lessig misses the critical issue on both points. Innovations are made by thinkers, many of whom happen to be those turned off by traditional schooling. The transistor was not created by a dropout, non-American, or kid but by some real thinkers. BTW, thinkers do not necessarily think correct thoughts.

Government intervention is required to avoid chaos, but it must intervene properly to avoid oppression. Government minimalism fails to promote the public good by abdicating responsibility to do so.

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