Innovation, Copying And Civil Disobedience

We recently took Jon Taplin to task for his comments insulting Nina Paley’s artwork, because he did not agree with her viewpoint that disobeying copyright law for the sake of making new art was a form of “intellectual disobedience.” The debate spilled over to Twitter for a while, in which it went a bit all over the map, before Taplin did issue what appears to be a sincere apology, along with a blog post, which he said he hoped would move the debate forward (unfortunately, that blog post contains yet another backhanded slap at Paley’s art — which he calls “what she claims to be art”).

That said, since we’re always about “moving the debate forward,” rather than arguing over old points, we might as well do that — and Taplin’s blog post, does in fact, bring some new things to the debate that are worth discussing. First, though, as a preamble, to those who haven’t been a part of “the debate,” I might as well catch you up by posting the in-person debate between me and Jonathan that happened a few weeks ago at the Tech Policy Summit (but was only recently posted online). It runs 45 minutes, starting off slow but gets more and more lively as it goes on:

Okay. Now that you’re caught up, the Taplin’s blog post reasonably asks if we’re losing our ability to innovate, as we become more focused on the ease of copying as an alternative. It’s an appealing thought, but one that I don’t believe survives significant scrutiny. However, let’s start at the top. Taplin points to an article called Infinite Stupidity by evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel. It makes some very interesting arguments, talking about evolution, and wonders if humans are evolving away from being innovative. The basis of this is as follows:

If I’m living in a population of people, and I can observe those people, and see what they’re doing, seeing what innovations they’re coming up with, I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why.

What this means is that social learning may have set up a situation in humans where, over the last 200,000 years or so, we have been selected to be very, very good at copying other people, rather than innovating on our own. We like to think we’re a highly inventive, innovative species. But social learning means that most of us can make use of what other people do, and not have to invest the time and energy in innovation ourselves.

Now, why wouldn’t we want to do that? Why wouldn’t we want to innovate on our own? Well, innovation is difficult. It takes time. It takes energy.

The fear then, is that, as a species, we become “docile copiers” rather than innovators. In fact, as he later argues (in the paragraph that Taplin highlights on his blog), Pagel questions if the internet is leading to a situation where “copiers are probably doing better than innovators” because we don’t have to innovate to get by. It’s an interesting theory from an evolutionary perspective, but not one borne out by economics or history, unfortunately, which have studied this particular issue much more closely. Of course, throughout history there are numerous examples of people insisting that we had reached the pinnacle of innovation and there was nothing more to be done. And every time, they’re proven not just wrong, but laughably so.

Innovation may be “hard,” but it’s also incredibly rewarding. If you want to read a very long, but absolutely fascinating and worthwhile book on the subject, I highly recommend Robert Friedel’s awesome A Culture of Improvement, which looks at the last thousand years of innovation to understand why do we innovate. The key finding? That we improve because we see a better way of doing things.

But — and this is the key point — the way that you see “a better way of doing things” is not to invent something new from scratch. But to see something — and, often to copy it and then to improve upon it. We, as a species, are always looking to improve. The argument that Facebook has made people perfectly docile suggests little understanding of what happens on Facebook all the time. Even just looking at Facebook alone, there are constant complaints about how it works, with suggestions on how to make it better. There are still companies launching new and different social networks, believing they can do it better.

Is there some copying going on? Yes, absolutely, but there’s no real reason to just copy for the sake of copying. It’s only if you can do it better. In fact, as the (also excellent) book by Oded Shenkar, Copycats explained, copying is often a very useful strategic weapon in figuring out how to innovate. What Shenkar’s work showed was that there is value in copying, but not merely for copying’s sake, but to take what’s been done, not to re-invent the wheel, but then to do the incremental improvements on it that can make all the difference in the world.

Going back to Nina Paley. Taplin suggests that her “art” is barely art at all, because she is one of those “docile copiers,” and thus not innovating. But this suggests a near total ignorance of Paley’s work, an incredibly innovative film, which you can see right here:

Is Nina copying? Well, it tells a variation on a classic Indian story, combined with a modern story of the main character’s own struggles. It also cleverly weaves in the music of Annette Hanshaw. Is there “copying” going on there? Sure, there are elements of copying, but it’s all for the sake of innovating. There is no way to watch that and claim that it is mere “docile copying.” Nina had a story to tell, and sought to tell it in a very innovative way. The story had certainly never been told this way. And tons of people have enjoyed the movie because of that innovation. If it were just a copy of “the same old story” people would not have enjoyed it.

And that, really, is what happens all the time. Copying is there — and it can make people upset — but it’s a key natural resource in the process of innovation. And that’s not just a random statement. As the research of many economists have suggested, it is the very nature of copying that leads to economic growth. Why? Because a copy increases the pie. Where once you had “one” copy of the resource, now you have two. And so on. It expands the pie, and makes it more possible to do things, such as innovating.

Caltech professor Carver Mead once talked about how, when things become abundant we have an obligation — not just a possibility, but an obligation — to waste that which is abundant. And that is because it creates new opportunities and expands the world and innovation even further. What is more abundant than what can be copied?

So, all of this fear of “docile copying” is, I believe, misplaced. All of that copying is generating the expanding natural resource base for further innovation, as people continue to build on that culture of improvement by saying, “hey, I can do that better.” Innovation may be hard, but when the resources are abundant, it cannot be stopped. It is our nature to seek to make things better, and when we share ideas and build and copy on our way to making things better, it is the inevitable progress that we find at the end.

I’m glad that Jonathan brought up this subject and is seeking to move this debate and discussion forward, and I look forward to continuing the back and forth — hopefully on friendlier terms.

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