Innovating without permission

Is Open Source software better than closed-source software? Is Wikipedia better than Britannica? Is NoSQL better than Oracle and SQL Server? Are blogs better than corporate news services? Do patents favor innovation? Do long and painful funding applications help science? Is learning off Wikipedia and YouTube as good as learning in a classroom? Is duck typing good or bad?

All these questions are closely related to the concept of Innovation without permission: people innovate more when they do not have to ask permission.

Innovation without permission is analogous to Ridiculously Easy Group-Formation, popularized by Clay Shirky, but first proposed by my colleague Sébastien Paquet in 2002. Paquet’s message is that we are pushing the threshold for group creation to an unprecedented low.  In 2011, it is hard to disagree with Paquet: entire political movements come online together automatically.

Similarly, we are lowering the barriers to innovation to unprecedented lows:

  • Open Source developers are probably no better than closed-source developers, but they typical produce their work without asking permission. Moreover, Open Source has gotten much easier over the years. Starting a project was relatively difficult in the nineties. Then sourceforge came along. Today, we have Github which is even easier. Using Github, people I never heard about, and never approved, submitted patches to some of my code without permission! Fantastic!
  • When the era of personal computers arrived, a small team could publish a game, get it distributed through stores and sold to millions of people. Yet, last year, Markus Persson became a millionaire in a month by publishing an unfinished game as a Java applet from his web site (Minecraft). At each step in this process, the barrier to innovation becomes lower. First, you had to ask permission to the stores. Today, you can innovate and just post your work and, apparently, get paid very well for your effort.
  • Many of the best-selling titles in the Amazon kindle store come from self-published authors. People write and sell books without asking permission to a publisher! They are also making more money than they used to.
  • Wikipedia contributors and editors are no better than Britannica’s authors, but they mostly work without asking permission.
  • NoSQL databases often allow developers to add new features without having to convince a DBA to change the database schema.
  • Bloggers post without the approval of an editor.
  • Duck Typing allows you to use a function that was meant for a different data type without having to ask for a change in the API.
  • The barriers in scientific research has come down significantly. You can solve problems, post your solutions online and people might offer you a million dollar. It happened to Perelman. Increasingly, access to the literature is Open Access. Anyone can read the papers on PLoS and even contribute comments.

We can identify some barriers to innovation which are also great opportunities:

  • Patents and copyright are first on my list. Much of the copyrighted content is easier to pirate than to license. Unsurprisingly, people do not ask permission and they violate copyright. A possible outcome is that all industries could become like the fashion industry where copyright is largely irrelevant.
  • Funding remains a significant barrier to innovation.  The Kickstarter model is interesting in this respect.
  • While I love web applications such as Google Mail, YouTube and Facebook, they won’t let their users redesign the product. You can post innovative content, but you cannot contribute (much) to the architecture of the application. Twitter is maybe the exception where users redefined Twitter by using tags and retweets, both design elements that were not present in the system initially. I am amazed that nobody has thought of creating a web application letting people program and distribute video games online. (If you implement this idea well and become a millionaire, please send me a check.)

12 thoughts on “Innovating without permission”

  1. ” I am amazed that nobody has thought of creating a web application letting people program and distribute video games online.”

    It’s called kongregate (www.kongregate.com).

  2. @Jacob

    Thanks for the link to Kongrate. While I don’t know it well, it looks more like a YouTube for video games. The video games, as flash uploads, are the content contributed by the users. (There could be more to it than that, of course.) It is interesting, from an innovation point of view… But I can’t, say, reprogram a game as a user. What I looking for are sites where the platform itself is reshaped by te users, not just the content.

  3. I think Little Big Planet had the idea of users creating wildly different levels of in the game world that could be shared and rated.

  4. @Rogers

    Thanks for the great comment.

    On a purely technical basis, NoSQL databases are not that interesting since they implement a *subset* of capabilities already in conventional SQL databases.

    You want rock solid? You want technical superiority? Buy SQL Server or Oracle and hire a master DBA.

    By analogy, Shirky and Paquet did not claim that groups formed on the Web were superiors to groups formed otherwise. Twitter and Facebook are probably not better than face-to-face meetings. But they are ridiculously cheaper.

    The NoSQL example makes no sense.

    Let me elaborate. The developer can add a field to a CouchDB or MongoDB database dynamically. It is what it is meant for. In a relational database, the equivalent involves an ALTER TABLE which is precisely the type of query which should be approved by the DBA.

  5. There are two typos in the first paragraph. The first sentence has an extra “is” in it, and the last sentence uses the word “of” instead of “off”. How does the author expect blog readers to take him seriously if he won’t even proof-read his own first paragraph.

  6. The NoSQL example makes no sense. Whether or not a DBA is involved in a database modification is a policy decision that is orthogonal to the details of the database type.

    On a purely technical basis, NoSQL databases are not that interesting since they implement a *subset* of capabilities already in conventional SQL databases. They give up features to make it slightly easier for developers that don’t know anything about databases to implement a narrow use case. The downside is a huge loss of flexibility in case the use case changes or is extended.

  7. OK, I am apparently in an ornery, disagreeable mood these days. As you imply in a comment, ease does not equal quality. These days, it is easy to comment on things that one has no expertise in: blog about climate change (or evolution) skepticism, the medical benefits of homeopathy, whatever. The idea that expertise (and, therefore, quality of one’s work) is something earned over long years of learning and effort is dying out in many people’s minds.

    So, is there no longer a widely perceived value in curation? That’s one essential task that group gatekeepers, editors, venture capital people, managers, etc. are supposed to do.

  8. @Mike Stiber

    So, is there no longer a widely perceived value in curation?

    Oh, Yes! There certainly is much value in curation, but in this new scheme of things the “authority” of the curators is up to yourself to choose, not enforced from above in a one-size-fits-all manner.
    This means that there will be a lot of junk around to please the hoi polloi but do you cast yourself among the hoi polloi?

  9. @Stiber

    The idea that expertise (and, therefore, quality of one’s work) is something earned over long years of learning and effort is dying out in many people’s minds.

    Anyone can post a Java applet on their web site and create a PayPal account. Anyone can create a blog. Anyone can post research papers to ArXiv. True. The barrier to entry is low.

    I don’t think it means that we have entered some kind of intellectual communism where all software, all blogs and all research papers (and their authors) are considered equal.

    It has always been the case that kids were able to outsmart older folks. This won’t change.

  10. > While I love web applications such as Google Mail, YouTube and Facebook, they won’t let their users redesign the product.

    Not only web apps, but all apps, no?

    Applications turn people into consumers of computers, depriving them of the power and joy of creativity. It’s like looking at art in a museum, but never picking up a brush. Contrast that to services, which are tools that allow people to use the computer as a medium to express themselves and enrich their lives. As mentioned above, there is no one-size-fits-all solution because “the user” is a myth; it’s “the X,000… unique users”.

    Doug Engelbart and Alan Kay are the heroes in this area. They have a wealth of papers and videos online that speak to the question: “what is a computer good for?”

  11. “Open Source developers are probably no better than closed-source developers”

    I think the selection process makes this statement untrue. Typically the talent pool an open source project draws from is global while the talent pool of a closed source company is within the driving distance of their office.

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