Innovation isn’t about progress

I’m a huge fan of Robin Hanson. I think you should be to. Those facts about myself may provide valuable context for the following post. Anyway…

Robin thinks that if we had better IP law, we’d put way more effort into innovation. He’s gotten a lot of criticism for this, I think the most important argument comes from Matt Yglesias, who writes:

My own ideas on this particular subject (and of course other subjects) are deeply indebted to the thinking of others, and I like to think that in my work I’ve also influenced other people’s thinking. It’s all to the good that this pattern of mutual influence occurs without licensing agreements. The lack of “incentive” to innovate with new ideas isn’t holding me back nearly as much as I would be held back by inability to borrow ideas from other people.

In other words, if you make people pay for innovation, you make it hard to build new innovations on top of existing innovations, so IP can actually inhibit innovation. Go through the archives of Yglesias’ blog, and you’ll find a fair number of examples of how IP law creates inefficiency. (See also Will Wilkinson).

As best I can tell, Robin’s response is best summarized as follows: “Maybe my critics are right about the present and near-term situation. But we’d still be better off if we put more effort into innovation, and that means we’d be better off if we gave better incentives for innovation. And probably we could do that through some kind of stronger IP law. I don’t know how exactly we’d do that, but we’ll probably find a way eventually.”

To respond, I’d start by noticing that it’s counter-intuitive, but still probably correct, to strongly link innovation to IP. It’s tempting to think that “real” innovation is only a fraction of IP–after all, we’d think it was silly if a company bragged about being “innovative” every time one of its engineers or programmers made a tiny tweak to one of its products. But on reflection, when I think about what “innovation” really means, I think even tiny tweaks are a kind of innovation.

Similarly, there may be, somewhere, there may be a piece of genre fiction so utterly derivative that it fails to innovate in the slightest. But it’s clear that artistic types innovate all the time. If you decide that in your vampire novels, vampires are going to sparkle in sunlight rather than burn up, that’s a kind of innovation, even if it’s a stupid one.

If you wanted to count all the people in the US who are involved in some kind of innovation, you’d have to count most if not all of the engineers and computer programmers (even ones not doing anything glamorous), most if not all of the academics (who are expected to do innovative things in their research), most if not all of the writer and movie directors, and so on. You should also probably count the people who don’t innovate themselves, but who support innovators: the software testers and the university fund raisers and so on.

Counted that way, you’ve got a pretty good portion of the US economy dedicated to innovation. (I’d be interested to see someone estimate what percentage.) In fact, even relative to Western Europe the US economy is arguably pretty innovation-centric. We aren’t a big manufacturing country, but we’re a world leader in a number of kinds of IP, including summer blockbusters and new drugs.

Of course, the sort of innovations I’m discussing aren’t what Robin has in mind. So I think the observation that’s driving Robin here isn’t really “we don’t put enough effort into innovation.” Rather, it’s more, “we aren’t moving full speed ahead into a future world radically transformed by technology.” So the real question is why we aren’t moving full speed ahead into the future.

The answer, I think, is that there’s no money in moving int the future. As Robin has argued repeatedly, huge amounts of human behavior aren’t about their official purpose. Politics isn’t about policy. Rather, they’re about “status signaling” – in layman’s terms, being cool.

This seems to be true of innovation, even in the case of the our best-known tech companies. Google+ is innovative, but does it really represent an improvement in our standard of living? Maybe not, but at least it’s cooler than Facebook. Or, I’m not sure if my iPhone really benefits me on a practical level, but I’m still glad I have it because it’s so darn cool.

So in short, a pretty good chunk of the US economy is dedicated to innovation, but we’re not progressing as fast as we could, because we don’t care so much about progress. Innovation isn’t about progress. What we really want is for our innovations to be cool.

Leave a comment


  1. I’m happy to include all the people involved with creating and refining new products and processes in the innovation category.

  2. Daniel Almeida

    Hey, what do you make of Trent’s new blog post?

    I believe he (or Alexander Pruss) also mentions repeatedly that more atheists become christians than vice versa…

  3. 1. Justin Biddle and some other philosophers of science have been doing empirical work on the effects of IP law on scientific research. As I recall from the last time I saw him, (a) initial evidence suggests that current IP laws, if enforced, would dramatically limit research, and (b) the most popular argument that / explanation of why IP laws don’t stifle research is that researchers either blatantly ignore IP restrictions or don’t know about them in the first place. That is, current IP laws simply aren’t effectively enforced.

    2. Even granting that IP laws of whatever strength do provide incentives for innovation, they only provide incentives for *marketable* innovations. The pharmaceutical industry pours tons of money into research on diseases (real or fictional) of wealthy people, but basically nothing into research on diseases of poor people. Thus we have lots of research into new statins that are only slightly different from old statins, but relatively no research into inexpensive vaccines or treatments for cholera.

  4. Chris,

    I’m a co-patentholder on several patents in the fields of computers and communication-satellite technology, so I have gone through the nuts-and-bolts process of asserting IP{ rights several times.

    It’s a nightmare. The experience convinced me there is no objective way to delineate IP rights, so that it all turns into a horrible legalistic mess, where engineers have trouble knowing when they are infringing, when they have innovated, etc.

    I and my co-workers did not create any of our inventions to get a patent, and, as far as I could tell, that is not why our employers had us do the patentable work. The best information I could get from management was that we got the patents to a) establish bragging rights (our XYZ corporation is so innovative we were awarded 173 patents last year) and b) defend ourselves against suits from competitors (if you end your suit against us, we won’t sue you for infringing our thingamabob patent).

    As far as I could tell, the only reason real innovation occurred was because bright engineers got bored and wanted to try something new. This fits Tom Peters’ description of innovation in his old books on management, by they way.

    Having known Robin some years ago, I think it also fits Robin: i.e., I think Robin wants an innovative society because he gets bored easily and wants things to change. One of the things I have always liked about Robin, of course.

    Dave Miller in Sacramento

  5. daniel almeida

    Yeah, it was Trent that made that accusation. Here is a link where he does so (It’s in the comments section).

    I am curious at how you’d react to this argument.

  6. I just read this article yesterday:

    Funny how some subjects seem to be in the “noosphere”, appearing on apparently unrelated information sources.

  7. There has been a ton of research into this field concluding that IP Law will always hurt more than it helps. The most well known is this book:

  8. On another topic,
    Read your article on John Lennox: Closet creationist charlatan, I was looking for some proper criticism of it. Your one example of error (quoted below) seems like a complete fabrication. Endnote 23 of chapter 7 says the probability could be increased to 1 in 10 to the 65 which is still “vanishingly small”. A far cry from the 1 in 1000 that you claim. I hope this is an honest mistake.

    I would have commented on the article directly had the comments been open.

    Quoting your article:
    In at least one case, it’s clear Lennox knows damn well his claims have been refuted: he claims that the probability of generating a particular 100 amino acid protein at random is 1 in 10 to the 130. In an endnote, he admits that actually the calculation behind this is based on a false premise, and the correct number is actually only slightly less than 1 in 1000, but hey, they’re both small numbers.