Lessons from The Sound of Innovation: Lesson 1, On the Border

In The Sound of Innovation: Stanford and the Computer Music Revolution, Andrew J. Nelson recounts how John Chowning and others developed digital music while working in between the cracks of computer science, music, and electrical engineering. Nelson emphasizes this situation as a matter of “multivocality.” The idea is that the history of Chowning at Stanford is a diorama of evidence in support of a social sciences concept. Two be good at two or three things at once is strangely not part of normal academic depictions of people. Can’t be a banjo player and comedian/actor, say. Perhaps it’s something about how academic credentialing works.

But there’s another way to look at people who have skills in multiple areas, or who can do a number of things and don’t bother to try to keep those things separate, as public life and  private hobbies, or as professional expertise and amateur messing around. We might see them as capable people on a fringe of institutional domains where being able to do multiple things is not particularly valued.

I know the feeling, having come to the study of literature from math, physics, and computer programming. My dissertation involved, among other things, writing a program to parse transcribed text and re-present that text in different formats, depending on which settings one enabled in the transcription coding. (Hey, my program was written up in a short note in Omni magazine in the early 1980s.) But a code-writing graduate student in a department of English didn’t much matter, other than that a number of grad students and faculty liked the Middle English and Anglo-Saxon fonts that I developed for my dot matrix printer (yes, that long ago). It’s just that software was seen as a clever utilitarian thing, useful for writing journal articles, not as a means to explore literary interpretation.

In Investigations, Stuart Kauffman works through ideas about what the simplest forms of life must look like. He proposes that the most likely simple system of life consists of two cross-catalytic systems, each taking as inputs the outputs of the other. As he models these sorts of arrangements he comes to what he calls an “intuition”: “the most complex, coordinated behavior can occur in networks in the ordered regime near the edge of chaos” (166). We might then consider that John Chowning, inventing FM synthesis while composing digital music, worked as a capable person on the fringe of Stanford’s ordered academic domains, mostly getting lost between departments until it was clear that what he was doing mattered–by which time he had already relied on the bits and pieces of institutional support that he had managed to scavenge.

Our lesson then is that the fringe, the periphery, the littoral zones between institutional and personal, between institutional and public, between institutional and company, between institutional and amateur, where the institution and its values and credits grow weak and other values in comparison grow strong is where we might expect to find the most interesting activities, in the ordered regime, on the edge of chaos. It is not that creative folks might be multivocalic, but that they thrive–some of them–in the fringes.

Consider this lesson in the context of university IP policies and the administrative fixation on uniform procedures. Licensing is a process, according to nearly every university technology transfer office–disclosure, patenting, marketing, and then (mostly a fantasy but it sounds good) a license, product development, royalties, and (mostly a fantasy but it sounds good) public benefit. But from the perspective of activities at the institutional fringe, the IP policies and the people who expect compliance and uniform procedures can run counter to creative activities. An institution can thwart creative activities by making IP policies that demand institutional ownership of inventions, that insist that commercialization under an exclusive patent license is the first and perhaps only option for deployment, and that work to disrupt as “unethical” consulting relationships and open exchange with others.

If interesting stuff takes place on the fringes, and those fringes slip in and out of institutional control, then a typical administrative response is to try to bring order to those fringes, to invade as it were, and take over the governance of the space. Given that fringes can appear to produce assets that an administrator may find desirable to control, to the administrative mind, it makes sense to prevent these assets from “going out the back door.” Administrators simply cannot fathom the idea that these assets never got fully into the institution, and any attempt to force them in makes them become more covert and operate further from the institution. An effort to control the fringe destroys the fringe and with it the prospect for the most complex, coordinated behaviors.

We might think, then, that if one is to enter a fringe area, it is to become part of a fringe network, complex and coordinated. Not to own, not to impose institutional values, but to be something of another weak tie and see where it leads. That’s a tough lesson for administrators, not smacking of command and control, no standard procedures, no compliance, nothing made legible as “metrics” and money received.

The most interesting technology discovery and transfer may well take place in fringe activities of an institution, not in its political and administrative center. University technology transfer, starting with Research Corporation in 1912 and on, was until the 1980s mostly a fringe activity, operating outside universities. The “technology transfer” office was a concept popularized by Research Corporation in the 1970s to motivate university administrators to help inventors send their inventions to Research Corporation for review. The “transfer” of the technology was from the inventors to Research Corporation, from an institutional fringe to an external institutional center–the Congressionally created foundation called Research Corporation.

As university administrators took technology transfer activities internal, such as the University of California in 1960 creating its own patent licensing office (but voluntary disclosure/assignment of inventions to the University), the administrators disrupted the fringe activities where they were getting interesting and complex and fringe-networked. In this way, the rise of the university-based patent licensing office, modeled on Stanford’s TLO, marks the move by university administrators to take control of fringe activity. According to the prevailing idea behind university IP and tech transfer policies, there cannot be any advantage to being in an ordered, institutional regime but on the edge of chaos.

Henry Kissinger, in Diplomacy, points out that a repeated historical response of a country with trouble on its borders is for the country to invade and take over the troubling area. University technology transfer offices are akin to field offices for occupying forces–of administrators asserting control over trouble (inventions not offered to the university! people making money! worse, people deliberately not making money!) on the borders. Rather than see the rise of OTTs as a sign of the great productivity of university-based research or a confirmation that federal research funding dished to universities has not gone to waste, it may be more relevant to see the creation of internal OTTs as the invasion by institutional controls of the ordered regime on the edge of chaos. Once the fringe has been taken, it is next to impossible for administrators to give up the territory, and new fringes develop elsewhere, away from the university, away from IP, away from extramural research.

If creative life happens on the border, then a university ought to make more border rather than less, or at least leave its borders almost entirely alone.

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