January 5, 2012

When ideas "have sex", knowledge recombines

On Wednesday, syndicated reporter/commentator John Stossel offered a provocative essay entitled “Ideas Have Sex, and We're Better for It”:
An idea walks into a bar. She meets another idea. They get together, and nine months later (or maybe it's nine minutes or seconds? It's not clear how it works with ideas), a new idea is born. A baby idea with the best traits of both parents.

When this happens a lot, everyone gets smarter and the world gets better.
Does this man realize how twisted this is? Apparently he has some glimmer:
Did you know that ideas have sex?

It's a weird concept, but the more I think about it, the more right it seems. I learned it from British journalist Matt Ridley.

Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist, says the reason life gets better is that ideas have sex.

“Ideas spread through trade,” he told me. “And when they meet, they can mate, and you can produce combinations of different ideas. I think a good example is a camera pill, which takes a picture of your insides on the way through. It came about (during) a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer ... a process very similar to sex in biology, because through sex, genes meet and recombine, and you get new combinations of genes. That's what causes innovation in biology, and innovation in culture.’
(Sure enough, Ridley himself aired these ideas 18 months ago in a TED talk).

After quoting the original source, Stossel — the anti-government, unabashedly capitalist (but anticrony capitalism”) libertarian — brings the story back to his ongoing leitmotif:
This didn’t happen because of central planning. It’s the spontaneous market generated from free individuals that sets and keeps it in motion.
However, thinking about this later, the catchphrase “ideas have sex” seems just a provocative metaphor way for standard academic jargon: “knowledge recombination.”

Democratizing InnovationProvocative language aside, the Stossel (Ridley) view is in many ways parallel to that of Eric von Hippel in Democratizing Innovation. Both would advocate policies to promote decentralized invention and individual initiative, with the belief that this would encourage harness widely dispersed creativity and innovativeness. That said, I can see at least two crucial differences.

First, Stossel (being a money-grubbing Austrian-loving capitalist) probably assumes these ideas will be disseminated by new companies, whereas von Hippel is best known for the idea that users solve their own problems without help from companies (even if some of these ideas are later freely revealed to companies). The Stossel view is actually quite consonant with user entrepreneurship — created by two MIT doctoral grads of the user innovation school — although I’m not sure Stossel has heard that term.

The other difference is that von Hippel has a strong preference for weaker intellectual property protection in at least some cases, as in Chapter 8 of Democratizing Innovation. He makes arguments that parallel (and cite) those of Larry Lessig in Free Culture, with both emphasizing the value to society for consumers to have the right to adapt and modify the works of others.

Such a policy would help some companies and hurt others, so it’s not clear how Stossel would come down. Unlike some anti-patent libertarians, Stossel hasn’t taken a strong position either way on IP — other than a strident 20/20 commentary last summer against junk patents and trademarks. Certainly it’s possible to find examples of patent excesses that nearly everyone (even the SCOTUS) would condemn, but others are more controversial.

Still, I see at least one paper here — trying to combine the “ideas have sex” popularization with the “knowledge recombination” scientific literature. This would be a idea recombination that both Stossel and von Hippel should welcome.

No comments: