Sunday, September 16, 2007

Book Review: The Myths of Innovation, by Scott Berkun

Whether due to its iconoclastic founding, its multicultural "melting pot" constituency or its extraordinarily protective intellectual property rights, popular wisdom has always held America to be a nexus of innovation. The serial entrepreneur has always had a place to flourish here, from Edison's Menlo Park to Sergey Brin and Larry Page's Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. The idea of invention as a source of wealth, recognition and success persists in our collective consciousness. As the last two seasons of ABC's reality show "American Inventor" have cringe-inducingly demonstrated, plenty of Americans think that they have the sorts of ideas that can earn them a place in history an the vast bulk of them are painfully deluded (and they're not the only ones...similar shows exist in Britain, Australia and Japan).

In part, such conceptions are based on what Scott Berkun debunks as the myth of the "Lone Inventor" in one chapter of his book The Myths of Innovation. Berkun asserts that the myth of the "lone inventor" reclusively toiling away is built up by history, which has a tendency to be rewritten by the winners. Berkun cites the popular conception that Edison "invented" the light bulb, while Humphry Davy demonstrated a working electrical "arc lamp" in 1909 and Joseph Swan attained a UK patent for an incandescent light far prior to Edison. Both men, however, were far less interested in perfecting and marketing electrical light than Edison, and it is Edison who is remembered. Rather than a single innovator, history more commonly sees contemporaneous co-invention, be it the calculus of Leibnitz and Newton or the controversy surrounding conception of the theory of evolution between Darwin and the less-memorable Alfred Russel Wallace.

Berkun notes that even Isaac Newton admitted that he had "stood on the shoulders of giants," and argues that the reason for the frequent synchronicity of inventions is that the tools to build them tend to come from other fields. MP3 players are a result of a confluence of innovations, with a genealogy spanning magnetic storage devices, PCBs, the waveform of sound, LCD screens, CDs, vacuum tubes, and the like, spanning all the way back to the Indian and Babylonian conception of the non-natural number zero. If any one of those elements had not been in place, an inventor would have needed to make huge leaps forward to conceive of an MP3 player. Once again illustrative of Berkun's claims, multiple creators issued digital music players around the same time, but the popularizer, Apple came far later--with better timing and superior marketing.


Posted by: Robert Blinn |

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