Collectivist and individualist innovation

I have been reading Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. It’s a series of essays critiquing the economics of a planned society, arguing instead in favor of markets and individual choices. Hayek argues that the ideals that give rise to socialist or collectivist thought produce a new set of ideals as the effort to create a planned society moves from ideals to practical matters such as enforcement.

This transformation, from roots in liberal democracy to a demand for central control–because such control is “right”–represents a fundamental danger to liberal society. All the more so for innovation in a liberal society. How can one innovate in  an orderly and just way without the approval of central planners? Without the approval of the power brokers of the status quo? Without university officials “acting in the public interest”? 

For Hayek, hallmarks of individualist society include things that tend to mitigate the differences among individual beliefs and practices—kindness, a sense of humor, a modest sense of one’s own position. Those of a collectivist society emphasize objectivity, amoral accounting, obedience, and docility. I am reminded of the University of California’s recent addition to its “ethics” policy–that it is unethical for employees to do anything for a “higher purpose”! There is no higher purpose, apparently, to central planners, than to serve central planning. Bureaucrats as producers of sacred text, for which the individual’s duty is docility. Nothing like capable docility to make the heart of a bozonet denizen leap up with joy.

If we look at US university technology transfer as it stands today, we find that it is strongly collectivist. It champions the interests of the “university” and the “public” over that of the individual, uses compulsion as its primary means of obtaining what it wants—inventions “trains” faculty with the expectation that the “system” of technology transfer will work if everyone is “on the same page”; and emphasizes that the purpose of policy is to treat everyone “equally”–that is, its own form of centrally administrated social justice. Its primary professional organization–AUTM–advocates a monoculture of practice, repressing alternatives to its chosen agenda. The workings out of this repression are evident in the amicus briefs in Stanford v. Roche. Whatever the decision in that case, a whole lot of university bureaucrats showed their collectivist character.

These patent bureaucrats claim that innovation will arise to challenge the world. It is foolishness, but in its way, it is dangerous foolishness.

Merely pointing out that US technology transfer is fundamentally collectivist—totalitarian, if you wish—in its approach to innovation does not get at its defects. To get at the defects, one has to push toward how autocratic institutional control of new ideas tends to suppress rather than cultivate those ideas; that systematic approaches to research inquiry tend to miss the very best ideas precisely because those ideas rarely are positioned to develop in the hands of bureaucrats. We would also have to show that the thinking on which bureaucrats make decisions is not that of individual investigators and entrepreneurs, and that bureaucratic decisions are by and large unlikely to result in innovation, except by mistake.

We will save all this for later: autocracy has the attractions of order, of strong leaders capable of imposing their will, of planning and process, as if a big machine with a capable operator is performing a function, all parts working harmoniously together. If that’s one’s attraction, then it will take some serious words to snap one out of it.

The alternative is not a broken machine, but rather an approach that does not rely on the concept of the machine to stand in for the choices and actions of individuals working in the context of incomplete information, differing perspectives, and changing circumstances. The alternative is a recognition that we don’t know a whole lot about the world, and the things we are able to observe and find patterns in are only a small sample in the great run of things, and fixating on these patterns leaves us vulnerable to missing the rare event, or being blindsided by it.

The innovation that matters to university research is not that of incremental efficiencies that entrench existing practices of those already in power. Nor is it to antagonize these folks with shakedown moves with patent rights. Now I am sure some of my collectivist colleagues will argue that there is no evidence that collectivism in technology transfer is bad, or that incremental efficiencies entrench current practices, and the like.

The social reality is that innovation generally moves against the status quo, from various directions. How this gets done is generally not a matter of central planning, and therefore is not something well suited to the bureaucrat. The takeaway message is that for universities to be a force for innovation, they must adopt IP policies that favor individual action over collective or institutional action. Put another way, the IP policy should authorize institutional action when requested by individuals, rather than require individual action when demanded in the name of an institution.

My argument is not that university administrators should not be involved in technology transfer–there are some really keen roles for them to play–nor that universities should not own IP–there are good reasons for them to own IP–nor that inventors always make the best choices–they don’t, but then, neither do administrators or most anyone else when it comes to how the spark of innovation moves from discovery, invention, epiphany, or chance encounter to action.

No, what I am arguing is that the present systematic, compulsory approach to IP disrupts the potential for innovation available distinctively to university personnel–affiliated with institution, having access to substantial resources as compared with unaffiliated investigators, and able to move in directions independent to the status quo.   The disruption is the problem. The breaking up of non-market networking (as Steven Johnson calls it), substituting a fixation on institutional “commercialization,” a focus on money, monopoly, and order.

Which American universities will be the first to kick out the money-changers and move toward an approach to innovation that starts with the smarts at the periphery, the individuals doing the discovery work, collaborating, futzing and noodling?

This entry was posted in Bozonet, Policy, Social Science, Technology Transfer and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.