Given that I spend a lot of time thinking about technology policy, I am often asked to suggest major regulatory changes that will improve the quality of innovation. The problem with this kind of query is that it assumes a rectilinear correlation between innovation, on the one hand, and statutory or structural barriers, on the other. In my experience, there is no reference. In fact, I believe it is impossible to predict what it takes to turn an idea into a successful innovation.
Let me tell you a story. Johannes Gutenberg is widely considered the father of mobile printing and, consequently, the modern era of innovation. The Gutenberg press has democratized access to information like no other technology has done before. The written text, which until then was the exclusive property of the clergy or wealthy people, was now widely available to the masses. The transformation of this technology was so radical that the authors had to appeal to the Crown for protection from the rampant copying of their works that followed. This, in turn, led to the adoption of the Anna Statute, the world’s first intellectual property law, which endowed authors with copyright in their works and recognized both the concept of intangible property (such as an idea or invention) and its need for legal protection.
But Gutenberg was not the first to invent printing technology. In his history of the publishing industry called The Book, Keith Houston shows that 400 years before Gutenberg, the Chinese already had a way to create printed sheets of Chinese text using individual pieces of wood with embossed symbols that could be lined up. and sorted into fonts. Because they could be rearranged, anyone with a set of Chinese characters could print almost anything; and because these blocks could be reusable in ink, it was possible to make as many copies of the text as required.
And yet today the very existence of this remarkable Chinese invention has been lost to history.
There are many reasons for this. First, at a time when this printing press was being built in China, manuscripts were produced by skilled calligraphers who used brushes to apply text to sheets of thin paper. As a result, most of the inks that were available for use in the press were water-based and therefore largely useless for any type of printing, as the ink smudged when pressed on the paper. Worse, the Chinese paper itself was too fragile to print. To create a clear impression, the paper should be strong enough so that it does not tear when pressed hard on the painted surface of the font, and thick enough so that the ink does not seep through it to the other side of the page.
Ironically, the high level of progress that the Chinese have made in paper and ink technology has proved fatal to the success of their own printing industry.
But the real reason why we had to wait another 400 years for a good printing press is due to the economy. The Chinese font consists of tens of thousands of words, and in order to represent even the smallest fraction of them, printers needed a massive storage system that would effectively allow them to retrieve the correct character when needed for typesetting. The real innovations in printing at the time were storage solutions invented by printers, sometimes using seven-foot rotating tables with compartments in which the characters were arranged in rhyme. The problem was that the knowledge required to operate such systems simply could not be scaled, and so it was often cheaper to cut text by hand, one page at a time, on a single block of wood.
Thus, although it was invented 400 years ago, only the son of a cloth merchant from Mainz in Germany did not apply the concept of movable type to a much more limited set of characters that make up the Latin alphabet, and did not use coarser but more convenient for printing paper, which was available at the time in Europe, that the printing press became a radical transformative invention, which we recognize it today.
This is what happens with most inventions. Success is often avoided by the first inventor of a major invention for reasons that cannot be ascertained in advance, while the same invention, which is in the hands of a few years later, proves to be a great success. Being involved in the development of a handheld computer with a touch screen seven years before the iPhone made them ubiquitous, and an all-electric car almost ten years before Tesla made EVs cool, I know from personal experience how important time is. when it comes down to it. to market success. As Matt Ridley says in his book How Innovation Works, you can’t innovate until the world is ready.
It is impossible to prescribe specific policy paths that guarantee success in innovation. However, we can create an environment in which decent innovation has the best chance of success. This often comes down to creating the right set of circumstances in which innovation will thrive – an environment that promotes casual relationships. Innovation thrives at the crossroads of unrelated disciplines, where different ways of interacting with the problem being addressed are encountered to bring entirely new results. Once we resolve such accidental clashes, we will no longer need political intervention to promote innovation.
Rahul Mattan is a partner of Trilegal and also has a podcast called Ex Machina. His pen on Twitter – @matthan
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