Want to read Slashdot from your mobile device? Point it at m.slashdot.org and keep reading!


Forgot your password?
NASA Space Science Technology

Neal Stephenson On 'Innovation Starvation' 437

Geoffrey.landis writes "In an essay discussing the space program, author Neal Stephenson suggests that the decline of the space program 'might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done.' He suggests that we may be suffering from innovation starvation: 'Innovation can't happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable.'" Though the context is different, this reminds me of economist Tyler Cowen's premise that the U.S. has for decades been in a Great Stagnation.
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

Neal Stephenson On 'Innovation Starvation'

Comments Filter:
  • Re:You bet. (Score:4, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:42PM (#37613964)

    But if you check their lives you will see they got that way by taking a lot of risks

    You obviously haven't. There are a few poster examples but most of them were born rich.

  • Re:You bet. (Score:4, Informative)

    by RazzleFrog ( 537054 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:02PM (#37614252)

    If you read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers you'll find that the rich got rich by being at the right place at the right time and having important friends to help them.

  • by cpt kangarooski ( 3773 ) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:38PM (#37614692) Homepage

    Intellectual property laws protect innovation - not deter it.

    Well, that statement is overbroad and wrong anyway.

    Trademark, copyright, trade secret, publicity, etc. all fall under the umbrella of 'intellectual property' but have nothing at all to do with innovation. You're really only talking about patents, and it would help matters if you'd say so more clearly. The whole term 'intellectual property' really just adds confusion; it's best avoided.

    In any case, what patents are meant to encourage is the invention, disclosure, and bringing to market of useful, novel, nonobvious inventions that otherwise would not have been invented, disclosed, and brought to market, whilst placing no or minimal restrictions on the public in terms of scope and duration, all in order to provide the greatest public benefit for the least harm to the public.

    But make no mistake; patents can discourage innovation:

    For example, patents aren't free; it costs a fair bit of money to get a patent. Thus, an inventor who comes up with numerous patentable inventions, all of which he could invent, disclose, and bring to market, might have to spend time and money seeking a patent, thus reducing the resources he has available to spend on his inventions directly. If the inventions he chooses to pursue first turn out to be duds, he could be left unable to pursue the others for a lack of resources.

    Another example is that patents don't confer a right to practice the invention, or build devices embodying it, etc. Patents are a negative right, and only allow a patent holder to prohibit other people from using the invention in certain ways. Thus, if Alice invents something, and Bob invents some improvement to that thing, they can both get patents, but Alice cannot use Bob's invention without Bob's permission, and Bob can't use his own invention without Alice's permission, and neither of them is obligated to grant permission to the other. This means that an invention can exist, and be well-known, and be entirely kept off of the market for many years (perhaps longer than it's of any value, if the later invention is eclipsed by things that are better still), depriving everyone of most of its value to society.

    Only in a perfect utopian world would patents have only beneficial effects. In the real world, they cause both good and ill, and it's important not to lose sight of that, lest you become unable to steer the system so as to produce the most good effects and the fewest bad effects.

    And you make it seem like patents are something new but it existed during America's greatest years of innovation.

    Not so much as you think. Patents existed, sure, but a patent is just a piece of paper. You have to go to court in order to enforce it on someone else, and for many long stretches of American history, courts tended to find against patent holders for various reasons. From, oh, the 1930's to the creation of the Federal Circuit in 1982, a patent holder stood little chance of success when suing an infringer in the US. I wouldn't go so far as to say that patents may as well not have existed during that time, but they were vastly weaker than they are now. It certainly didn't seem to do much harm during some of our greatest years of innovation. Perhaps you'd agree that weak patents might not be such a bad idea after all?

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling