Innovation and the Failure of the Great Man Theory

We tend to think about innovation as inventions and particularly about the inventors associated with them: Newton, Edison, Jobs, Archimedes, Watt, Arkwright.  This Great Man Theory of incredible technical innovation is mostly implicitly held by quite a few of us, celebrating these great men and their deeds.

Matt Ridley, the author of The Rational Optimist and The Evolution of Everything among other credentials, has spent a lot of time and effort in recent years arguing against this theory. In his recent Hayek Lecture to the British Institute of Economic Affairs he convincingly outlines his case: so many independent innovations take place roughly at the same time by different people. The Great Man Theory leads us to believe that  hadn’t it been for Edison, we’ll all be in the dark and humanity deprived ofall the benefits that came with the innovation.

Not so. There were a great number of contemporary inventors who came upon versions of the lightbulb (Ridley cites 21 or 23 or them, depending on whom you include) around the same time as Edison. The story can be repeated for most other great inventions we know of: laws of thermodynamics, calculus, most metals, typewriting machines, jet engines, the ATM, Oxygen. Indeed, the phenomenon is so common that it has its own term: simultaneous invention.

It seems, in complete contrast to the Great Man Theory, that history provided a certain problem, a sufficient number of people working on solving it at a certain time, and eventually similar inventions taking place around the same time. The process is, Ridley concludes, “gradual, incremental, collective yet inescapable inevitable […] it was bound to happen when it did”.

Interestingly enough for those of us schooled and fascinated by spontaneous orders and bottom-up social and economic phenomena, the Great Man Theory is remarkably similar to other beliefs about the world. It is a symptom of the same reasoned short-comings that makes us humans susceptible to believing in zero-sum thinking, top-down organizing and “design-implies-a-designer”. Instead of grasping the deep insights of gains from trade, spontaneous order or evolution, we are tempted by the militaristically directed organizations that we believe we understand rather than the emergent order of many independently acting individuals’ trials and errors.

Precisely this bias makes us susceptible to the mistake Mariana Mazzucato has become famous for wholeheartedly embracing: the idea that, whatever the innovation, government probably did it. That government innovation is productive – or at least more productive than is commonly presumed – and indeed societies can greatly benefit from ramping up government R&D spending. Nevermind incentives, track records or statistical robustness.

Indeed, what Ridley points to is precisely that valuable and life-changing innovation cannot be directed. Admittedly, some innovation does occur in labs, but only a vanishingly small part. Mazzucato and other top-downers could have benefited greatly from listening to Ridley (or reading his book The Rational Optimist; or reading Demsetz’ devastating 1969 article ‘Information and Efficiency’).

Coming full circle and espousing the Hayekian insights, Ridley notes that the price is everything. Specifically the reduction in prices is what matters for innovations to be spread and adopted rather than the ideas themselves. Very little happens in terms of adoption and transmission until prices start to fall dramatically (hint, hint, Bitcoin… or nuclear energy, or renewable energy…). Like the printing press and the steam engine, interesting things start to happen when prices fall – not because an innovation is particularly cool in some subsection of society.

Innovation is a deeply decentralized yet deeply collective process. We face similar challenges that occassionally come to similar conclusions – and history would in all likelihood have progress exactly the same had we not had a Newton or Edison or Jobs.

Antes do feminismo existe o indivíduo. E o que ele pensa?

Outro trecho do ótimo Rational Optimist, do Matt Ridley:

When shown a photograph of an attractive man and asked to write a story about an ideal date with him, a woman will say she is prepared to spend time on conspicuous pro-social volunteering. By contrast, a woman shown a photograph of a street scene and asked to write about ideal weather for being there, shows no such sudden urge to philanthropy. (A man in the same ‘mating-primed’ condition will want to spend more on conspicuous luxuries, or on heroic acts.)

Ou seja, a psicologia evolucionária nos mostra que homens ou mulheres (ou qualquer outra coisa no meio destes dois aí) que pense, não o faz conforme a doce visão romântica e engraçada das crônicas publicadas no jornal de domingo. Não, antes disso, existe um belo de um auto-interesse.

Por exemplo, isso significa que aquela mulherada toda na passeata não pensa apenas em termos benevolentes, sob um suposto “altruísmo” (cuja discussão nos mostra ser um conceito para lá de falho e enganoso…).

Claro, continuo recomendando o livro.

Ah, se tivessem dado ouvidos às evidências científicas…

Lembra de todo “auê” em torno do Fome Zero? Aquele slogan bem breguinha de que quem tem fome quer furar fila, e tal? Pois é. Aí veio a POF de 2003 e descobriu-se que não havia tanto motivo para a choradeira. Muita gente calou a boca e saiu com o rabo entre as pernas, outras apelaram, etc.

Aí você pega um bom livro para ler, como o Heavy!  (HEAVY!: The Surprising Reasons America Is the Land of the Free-And the Home of the Fat, Springer Verlag) do Richard McKenzie, e encontra:

Today, the distribution of the country’s weight problems across income classes has reversed, as excess weight problems are disproportionately concentrated among the poor.

Como está no kindle, não tenho a página. Mas digo uma coisa: as evidências empíricas não são novas. O motivo de não se dar ouvidos às evidências é uma mistura de ignorância intencional (grupos de interesse) e não-intencional. Como sempre, a gente se lembra de como as más idéias também movimentam o mundo.

Evidentemente, não há nada de indigno ou de errado em faturar um hambúrguer de vez em quando. Como nos lembra Matt Ridley, em The Rational Optimist (P.S.):

Fire and cooking in turn then released the brain to grow bigger still by making food more digestible with an even smaller gut – once cooked, starch gelatinises and protein denatures, releasing far more calories for less input of energy. As a result, whereas other primates have guts weighing four times their brains, the human brain weighs more than the human intestine. Cooking enabled hominids to trade gut size for brain size.

Sim, também no Kindle. Bom, Matt Ridley está nos dando uma interessantíssima evidência de que o processo digestivo, hoje glamourizado pela comida barata (obrigado, produtividade elevada! Obrigado, mercados!) e farta que, sim, chega à mesa de muito mais gente do que no passado, pode ter sido uma das causas de nosso progresso.

Parece que teremos muito o que aprender (e comer…moderadamente) até chegarmos a um nível de compreensão mínimo acerca dos efeitos da ingestão de calorias em nossas vidas. Em verdade, em verdade, eu vos digo: nunca chegaremos a uma compreensão completa (Hayek!) e, portanto, muito mais cuidado e humildade deveriam ter nossos “iluminados” reguladores de agências governamentais: eles mesmos não sabem direito o que fazem (tal como nós). Ora, então porque lhes dar tanto poder para decidir sobre nossa dieta? Podemos votar livremente, mas devemos ser limitados no que desejamos de sobremesa? Não, obrigado.