Innovation: Together or Alone

It is very, very rare to find cases where somebody on their own, working alone, in a moment of sudden clarity has a great breakthrough that changes the world.
Steven Johnson

It seems that the determinants of success and creative achievement have become a matter of political debate. We have one presidential candidate who attributes it to individual initiative and one who says, “we succeed because we do things together," one who champions “Big Capital” and one who supports government and corporate collaboration.

In last Sunday’s Times (9/23/12) Steven Johnson, the author of Where Good Ideas Come From, writes about this issue by taking up the question of who created the Internet. In discussing this case, Johnson returns to his claim that, like so many other technologies,

“the Internet was created by—and continues to shaped by—centralized groups of scientists and programmers and hobbyists. (and more than a few entrepreneurs) freely sharing the fruits of their intellectual labor…”

I wrote about Johnson’s views here in discussing the culture of the coffee house and here in discussing Where Good Ideas Come From. I imagine he returns to these themes in his latest book, Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age.

In his Times article he claims that we live in a society that credits the development of the most important new products to corporations or government agencies. Johnson takes issue with this view:

“…the institutions responsible for the technology itself were neither governments nor private start-ups. They were much closer to the loose, collaborative organizations of academic research. They were networks of peers.”

They are not motivated by economic incentives, copyright protections, or centralized control of their work. Rather, they are primarily interested in sharing their ideas, and in collaborating with others in developing them further.

Johnson is concerned with “products” as he calls them, to a large extent, technological products. But surely there are other forms of creative achievement. What role do peer networks play in the arts, in writing a great novel or composing a memorable piece of music?

I doubt Tolstoy or Proust sat around with their buddies working on their novels or that Beethoven went down to the coffee house to try out his new compositions with his friends. Their “products” were creations of talented individuals, working alone, long hours, collaborating only with their thoughts and imagination.

Works of art are every bit an innovation as the technologies Johnson discusses. They constitute, at least, one important exception to his view. No doubt there are others that call into question the necessity of collaborative peer networks for creative achievements.