Warning: Part 2 contains a philosophical discussion of innovation that is a bit dense. If you’re here for the comic jabs at “The Muppets”, you may want to skip to Part 3. My apologies.
(Editor’s note: Because the author was so expansive, I have divided Part 2 into two parts. So, what The Fat Man refers to as Part 3 will actually be called Part 4.
The hypothesis I will posit and attempt to demonstrate in the next two parts of this humble correspondence has two main themes. First, that the America of the hundred to hundred and fifty-odd years ending in the nineteen seventies was in every way exceptional; second, that it was so because it had to be.
What gave birth to the ASB that catalyzed an array of naïve musical craft forms into a global cultural phenomenon? How could it be that slave and peasant musical traditions could be combined and transformed to such success? How did a string of still photographs projected on a screen go from peep show to a universal, dare we say, artistic medium? And how did both these forms descend into their own basements? Why even is the use of a phrase like “artistic medium” to be feared and derided?
What if the same dynamic could be identified as the driver behind the creation General Electric and The Bomb that obliterated those two Japanese cities. What if accounting for that dynamic could answer Peter Thiel’s most interesting questions, “Why are our cities strangely old?”..…”Why did the space program abandon Mars?”…..”Why does it take longer to travel between cities in 2020 than it did in 1970?” Put more simply, how can the America that stormed Normandy and called a moonshot in 1961 “by the end of the decade” with Ruthian certainty end up frightened by Antifa?
To answer all these questions, we first need a definition of innovation that helps to describe some common process to all the unlikely triumphs we have mentioned, from Louis Armstrong to Robert Oppenheimer. We need a definition that comprises economic trends reflected in metrics like the GDP, and the commercial success of mechanical innovations like the production of replaceable parts in firearms; cultural phenomena like the art movements that come to be described as “universal”, or the emergence of global capitals like New York in the mid-century.
What is innovation
Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg. These names transcend words like discovery and invention. For human beings, the members of this class are, along with a few others seemingly from other fields, other names like Homer and Shakespeare perhaps Mozart or Beethoven, the ones that define our world. We don’t have to worry about their sins or similarities because they are like their creations, both real and unreal. There is no E in E equals MC squared in the real world, any more than the number one. E and one are exclusively human. There is no ideal realm where they reside outside of our minds. They are beyond the hills, the animal or mineral, shared only in the humanly conceived eternal. They are wholly ours and once invoked by anyone they join the patrimony that is accessible to all if we choose to claim it. We can choose, however, to lose treasures like F equals MA or “it is the east and Juliet is the sun” or Euler’s identity. We can forget or revise or misattribute or commit a hundred other crimes against history. We can break the chain of humanity that links all ages and places to every remembered and forgotten name with the new and the unborn. We can fail to imagine.
Lesser mortals do lesser things. They discover like Columbus or Curie; they invent like Edison and Bell. A lightbulb is not humanity but it helped humanity read. The telephone was not a part of us though they did at times seem attached. America is not Italy but someone had to sign the map. We remember these names and forget, revise, misattribute them at much less peril, perhaps some would say, at no peril at all, perhaps, even to our benefit. But the status of the names of our discoverers and inventors matter today if not tomorrow. We need them today to tell our story, even our history, but they are not immutable giants like the others. Because we all know who gets to write history, the stories beneath these names can change from discoverers today to slavers tomorrow.
Far below the Olympian pantheon of Newton and the discoverer’s Rushmore of Edison, in a stratum of the day to day, lives innovation. It has no name but certainly is more fun. Discovery finds things and invention makes things but innovation gets to do things. And nameless, it is free to beg and borrow, not caring who found it or made it so long as it can use it. Innovation is the doing with what was discovered, invented, invested, neglected or just plain forgotten.
Innovation has no name, or at least it shouldn’t. The artifacts of innovation are not important, but their impact is. What is a subway or a skyscraper? Who would care except that they move infinitely more people faster in a crowded city than any combination of horse and car or fit infinitely more people to live and work on a half-acre than possible in any other urban plan? But innovation does not only serve the visceral. The long line of innovations that culminated in the gothic cathedral are nameless. But at some point, in the 11th or 12th Century, they lifted whole societies to spiritual consensus. Yet there is no name associated with the Gothic Cathedral except Chartres, Cologne or Notre Dame. In fact, subways, skyscrapers, cathedrals, choirs or even particular iPhones change as we use them and disappear when we don’t. Innovation doesn’t have his fun alone, we get to join in.
In the sense that innovation is not discovery or invention we can also say that it is not exclusively human. Because it is nameless is also, to the extent it is distinct, not aware. Innovators manage the details of their initiatives and even at times claim to plan their applications. But no one ever knows when they cross the boundary between an improvement or invention or discovery and true innovation. So as anyone who has ever seen the cat finally achieve the canary knows, animals innovate as well. Nor does one individual even ever really innovate. Beyond the clichés about standing on the shoulders of giants, innovation relies primarily on feedback loops whether from a market or a metabolism. And beyond animals, all biological systems possess in their ontogeny the mechanisms of not just change but proliferative innovation. From this perspective, no doubt, it is conceivable that by their ability to determine natural existence, the laws of physics in their constants and relations and limits do as well. Or at least one could probably find a business-minded physicist to agree. So, it is also cliché to say innovation is collaborative or diverse or possessing of secret ingredients, let alone genius. Innovation emanates as all phenomena do, that is to say, through itself.
This view of innovation is useful in a number of ways. It avoids the sociology of science associated with the Olympian creations that began our discussion. Newton’s human creations like numbers and letters truly are human constructs, artifacts. Concentrated matter moving through space is no artifact. The novel phosphorylation of a bioactive molecule that confers a replication advantage is a fact, observable, unaware, unstoppable. Humans can only participate in innovation; they cannot originate it. We are lucky when we properly observe it.
If innovation is not human then it must be free from the requirements of human logic. Innovation is not consistent or moral or balanced or meaningful beyond the very next step. Innovation is productive change and with that single modifier, alone it is unconstrained in ways no human system can be. It can comprise blitzkrieg and washing machines. It moves along paths that cross all boundaries and all borders. It can change its products, landscapes and even man-made literary forms. Innovation is free to impinge on domains that are aware and self-constrained without being so itself.
All we have said so far describes what innovation is not and qualities of its nature. But what is innovation? Economists define innovation as the translation of an idea or invention into a good or product that creates value as reflected in the customer’s willingness to pay for it. So, innovation in this context is the occurrence of a new offering to generate sales. But innovation is also a larger concept usually best measured by the economic idea of dynamism. Dynamism is defined as the creative destruction in an economy that reallocates resources across firms and industries according to their most productive use. Presumably this destruction can at least in part be bottom up, unplanned or subject only to market guidance.
In its broadest sense, as we have discussed it so far, we might simply define innovation as productive change. Change that moves in a self-defined positive direction. A successful virus is essentially a protein shell with an innovation factory coded into its genetic material. Its sole function is to continually make slightly inexact copies of itself so to ensure that some of its related progeny can survive the immune systems that act as it’s feedback loop. To that virus this is productive change or innovation.
So, when is change productive or destruction creative? The laws of physics and biology seem to imply these are oxymorons? Science holds that all change is random, certainly all destruction must be, so how then can it be productive and creative? Does not its anonymity and randomness exclude any notion of “positive”? The answer must be no, but only because reconciling these seeming contradictions leads directly to the question of intentionality and the origin of change. The origin of change is itself a question of first causes that, as we have said, is immanent yet unbounded by space and time. Even a physicist would agree that the universe is productive because of primal conditions whose own origins are inexplicable, partially observable, even describable, perhaps, but ultimately unaccountable. But where does the ineffability of productive change lead us in our search for its nature? It frees us. Clearly productive change exists as do distinct stars that convert matter to energy and men who turn forests to farms, so we are free to inquire and observe without accounting for first causes. In our investigation, we also can be dynamic along with others in our niche and join in the reallocation. But as human logical commentators, at least, we are obliged to make observations that suggest relationships, if not lessons.
So much for the ultimate source of change, what about proximate causes? What about their number and weight? This is not obvious yet it is the main business of our discussion. And although economics would seem to be the obvious framework to account for the proximate cause of innovation, those most familiar with that exercise commonly offer only very subjective, sometimes poetical explanations of even large changes in innovative trends. The great economist of innovation, Edmund Phelps, cites the loss of the “spirit of adventure and discovery” as chief among the proximate causes of the halving of the 3% annual growth in US GDP he attributes to American innovation going back two centuries before the 1970s. To understand the proximate causes of the end of American innovation in the 1970’s, we must first understand its proximate causes going back at least those two centuries and likely much earlier.