Thursday, October 4, 2012

How Innovation is Like Genetic Mutation

Our system of intellectual property, especially the patent system for inventions, prioritizes innovation above other contributions to culture. The patent system (appropriately referred to, I think, as "intellectual monopoly" rather than intellectual property) attempts to allow an innovator to capture the profits that flow from his innovation, largely ignoring the contributions of those who copy and use the technology. 

The conception of copying and using an innovation as "theft" is fundamentally wrongheaded. In practice, throughout human history, copying and use (with slight modifications) is how technology has progressed. Use and copying with modification contributes more value than mere innovation, but is not rewarded (and is actually punished) by our current intellectual monopoly scheme. An analogy to biological evolution is apt: innovation provides the raw material upon which selection (copying and use) acts, in the same way that genetic mutation provides the raw material upon which natural selection acts. We would not expect large amounts of genetic mutation caused by radiation to result in better and better ecosystems; quite the opposite. Genetic mutations are mostly harmful, and even mutations that are successful for an organism can disrupt an entire ecosystem. Radical changes to the ecosystem must follow a major genetic change in any participant organism.

Proponents of the value of innovation would argue that unlike radiation, human innovators can think about the implications of an innovation, designing only those that would result in a beneficial change. This is, I argue, fundamentally hubristic. The ability of humans, even the smartest humans, to mentally project changes into the future is more limited than humans generally acknowledge. The most salient consequences of historical innovations were generally not widely anticipated. 

The success of an innovation is often not apparent at the moment the innovation is conceived. Only in an environment in which appropriate supportive technologies have developed, and after long use, can any particular innovation be considered successful. (See, e.g., the development of the rudder over the past two millennia.)

The problem of the failure to project the effects of innovation has been especially visible in the case of the design of human societies. Utopian societies of the 19th century failed to have an average longevity of even a single human generation, despite the careful planning and effort of concerned individuals. 

A related problem is the size and interconnectedness of modern systems. Many separate ecosystems adapting in different environments would offer some hope of hitting on stable solutions. A single, giant ecosystem, in which everything is interconnected and innovations spread throughout the system immediately, offers much less hope of happening upon a stable solution. Our megasystem limps along, gathering an ever-increasing load of dangerous innovations, and will do so until it no longer can. 

This is not to say that simpler, stabler systems are necessarily better. They are frequently quite awful. Interestingly, however, removing the salient awfulness of a particular simple system often (imperceptibly, over generations) also removes whatever was beneficial about the system. 

There is a fundamental problem with our extremely complex system. Not only has it failed to provide decent lives for its human citizens, but it is not even on a course likely to provide decent lives in the future. Our almost religious focus on innovation as a solution to our problems ignores the manner in which change occurs in large, complex system. 


  1. There can never be innovation in a universe that is completely meaningless because innovation merely hinges on the whole notion of desire/reward mechanic that lies at the very core of life itself. Its just a combination of matter that we call "innovation" but its irrelevant outside of human value system.

    With that being said, if we try to innovate, the innovation has to be decoupled from money, patents or any outgrowths of a capitalistic system because innovation is supposed to be developed for its own sake and spread around equally. The credit alone from someone who just happened to put a combination of matter in a certain way that yielded a human value judgement of "innovation" (surely by using ideas from someone else) should be sufficient for that person without resorting to compensatory reward or protectionist measures to shield the innovation from the competitors.

    Sister Y, don't you the Venus Project is truly the only way for human beings to REDUCE suffering (obviously it wouldn't solve any global questions of antinatalism, but it will at least help somewhat)?

  2. Don't you think the folks in each of the 19th century religious and secular communes felt the same way?

    I think genuine diversity is a good thing - people genuinely trying different ways of living, from Mormons in Mexico to hippies in Hawaii. But I don't assign much likelihood to any particular utopia project working out well.

  3. The Venus Project boils down to, "Let's abolish money and property everywhere in the world and replace them with [details unclear], and then let's rebuild every city in the world and do lots of other cool high-tech stuff. But remember, the important part is to abolish money!"

    People talk about money as slavery, but money is actually what empowers the individual. People don't hate having money, they just hate not having enough. How is Fresco's "resource-based economy" supposed to work? Whenever you want to do anything or use anything, what determines whether you get to do it - the central committee? the central computer? These details are completely absent, yet it's this cyberutopian antipolitics which is the Project's distinguishing idea.

  4. I think you are severely misrepresenting the venus project and since this thread is not about that topic, I don't want to hijack it with that sort of detail. The venus project FAQ page on their webpage would answer most of these questions. Did you even look at it?

    I will agree that not having enough money is part of the problem of money, but since society had proved to be unable to decouple livelihood from money and the majority don't have the money they need and they suffer horrible consequences as a result, that's essentially why money needs to be abolished.

    Money is an artificial mechanism that is nowhere to be seen in nature except with this species and its been nothing but the source of misery and hell for the human race and since we want to reduce suffering, abolishing a major source that contributes to that suffering is of utmost importance.

    We weren't BORN to be ENSLAVED by the world. Why is that thought so hard to understand? Free access to resources is the only way to unshackle the human race from having to earn their keep just because they were forced into this hellhole of existence

  5. I disagree that money has always been a source of suffering. Yes, it is artificial, but so are music and art and poetry and clothing and language. There are good arguments that money has been with us for hundreds of thousands of years, and was a necessary, even pleasant way for our ancestors to specialize in protein sources and trade with other tribes outside of the season when the protein source was plentiful.

    Ultimately, the problem is that resources are limited, but the "womb gate" has been wide open for a long time. Death has previously (horribly) balanced out our reproduction; now it doesn't, and we see the consequences in the cheapening of human life. Enslavement at least would mean everyone is taken care of and valued - that is far from the case now.

  6. Sister Y: if you take that approach, then life is the most artificial thing possible: nothing matters and its all a waste machine of need/desire as inmendham would say and undoing this sloppy artificial crap is the only rational thing to do.

    With that being said, assuming a different less pessimistic vibe, art, poetry, clothing and language do not require the artificial construct of money to be what they are: consciousness doesn't need money in order to think up any of that, but humans made it so that it is constrained in exercising its potential (in a metaphorical sense) if the money which is the means of livelihood is limited.

    The problem is limited ACCESS to resources. The venus project is attempting to get the social system up on the same level as the science is today instead of have it lagging thousands of years back. Money is an outdated concept that is no longer sustainable. The advent of nano-factories and other scientific ingenuities will hopefully lead to a post-scarcity society which will make the idea of money completely irrelevant.

    Money is what society determined is needed to have access to resources, but resources are your FUNDAMENTAL RIGHT, especially if you are to exist at all and rationing that access artificially and saying you have to work for a living or you have to do this or that is the biggest crap I've ever heard.

    Existence is one big fucking lie and money is just another layer of fakery embedded on this fabric.

  7. Well, there are a large number of issues here and I will try to contact you so we can discuss them.


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