Ideas Are Everywhere… So Why Do We Limit Them?
from the gladwell-missing-the-point dept
Malcolm Gladwell is a truly fantastic writer. However, sometimes he gets so interested in making a story sound good that he misses the real point. His latest piece for the New Yorker starts out as a puff piece on Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures (which gets way too many puff pieces), but then turns into a much more interesting article about how just about every major invention or scientific or mathematical discovery came from multiple, entirely independent people at almost exactly the same time. As Gladwell points out — rarely is it about “genius,” but about the fact that all of the previous work in the field naturally leads to this end result — and if it wasn’t one person discovering it, someone else would. The article lists out big name invention after invention that all have “multiples” — multiple entirely independent individuals who came up with the same thing at the same time. Not only that, but almost always the person who gets credit for the discovery isn’t actually the person who discovered it. In fact, someone even coined a term for it: Stigler’s Law: “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.”
Gladwell uses this to talk up what Myhrvold is doing, suggesting that Intellectual Ventures is really about continuing that process, getting those ideas out there — but he misses the much bigger point: if these ideas are the natural progression, almost guaranteed to be discovered by someone sooner or later, why do we give a monopoly on these ideas to a single discoverer? Myhrvold’s whole business model is about monopolizing all of these ideas and charging others (who may have discovered them totally independently) to actually do something with them. Yet, if Gladwell’s premise is correct (and there’s plenty of evidence included in the article), then Myhrvold’s efforts shouldn’t be seen as a big deal. After all, if it wasn’t Myhrvold and his friends doing it, others would very likely come up with the same thing sooner or later.
This is especially highlighted in one anecdote in the article, of Myhrvold holding a dinner with a bunch of smart people… and an attorney. The group spent dinner talking about a bunch of different random ideas, with no real goal or purpose — just “chewing the rag” as one participant put it. But the next day the attorney approached them with a typewritten description of 36 different inventions that were potentially patentable out of the dinner. When a random “chewing the rag” conversation turns up 36 monopolies, something is wrong. Those aren’t inventions that deserve a monopoly.
What Gladwell misses (though others have discussed it in detail) is that while ideas may be a dime a dozen, executing on those ideas is what’s difficult. Innovation isn’t idea generation. Innovation is taking an idea and making it do something useful. Yet, in giving monopoly rights to Myhrvold and his friends, we make it much more difficult for others (even those who discovered the same things totally independently) to help actually make them useful.
In the end, the Gladwell article inadvertently makes the best case against Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures, while hyping up the company at the same time. It’s a strange disconnect, and it’s too bad that Gladwell, like so many others, fell so under Myhrvold’s spell, that he missed the real story he held in his hands.