Thursday, July 11, 2013

Makers Versus Takers

"The greatest astonishment of my life was the discovery that the man who does the work is not the man who gets rich”
--  Andrew Carnegie “

It never ceases to amaze me how some people think that the billionaire narcissists who run everything make the world go round. That we must give them literally everything - tax breaks, millions in salaries and bonuses, exemption from paying living wages and other laws - or innovation will stop and we will all end up sleeping on the floor and eating bugs for breakfast.

But when you strip away the propaganda and look at where the innovations that have actually improved our lives have come from, you'll find the above story is almost never true and never has been.

No, the truth is, the real innovators and inventors have often been marginalized and forgotten, and the fruits of their labor almost entirely captured by a a parasitic "investor" class who channel all the wealth to them. The story of Nikola Tesla is one such story, but there are countless others.

One such story was illustrated recently:
Douglas Engelbart, the man who invented the computer mouse, has died. He passed away aged 88 and did not become rich through his invention, because he created the mouse before there was much use for it.
Speaking to the Today programme's Justin Webb was Bill English, a lifelong friend of Douglas Engelbart, said "His vision was being able to use computers to really alternate mans connection to thinking. "And he used a computer screen to put things on, and it was quite clear that we needed something to point out the things on the screen."

Douglas Engelbart did not make money from inventing the mouse because the patent had already expired once it began being used. Bill English explained: "The only money Doug ever got from it (the mouse) was $50,000 licence from Xerox when Xerox Parks started using the mouse. Apple never paid any money from it, and it took off from there."
Mouse inventor 'never made money' (BBC)
Computer mouse inventor Engelbart dies (BBC)
Yet his technological innovations over the past 30 years have failed to take him to the top of the silicon heap. But Dr Engelbart does not seem to be bitter.

"It's very different if your goal had been to get patents and be the first," he says. "But the goal is how do we change the world so that we are collectively more capable of dealing with complex and urgent problems?"

It all began when he started thinking about "how could a person invest their professional career to maximise their return to mankind?" he says. "If you really believe that, what kind of a citizen would you be if you didn't try to do something about that?" he asks.
Mouse inventor strives for more (BBC)

Yet it was Steve Jobs who was universally celebrated as a "genius," and it is he who wound up a billionaire and with a movie coming about about his life. This comment on Paul Krugman's blog makes the point wonderfully:
I met an economist brandishing an iphone. He told me Steve Jobs was a genius, he deserved more money. I replied that iphones were made with lasers. Who discovered the laser? Would not that person be the real genius?

He had no idea iphones' chips were built with lasers. Lasers were devised at Columbia University, using Optical Pumping, that the Kastler lab at the Ecole Normale Superieure (ENS) in Paris' Latin Quarter, invented in 1953. Alfred Kastler got the Nobel Prize later (unshared).

The same ENS lab got the latest Nobel Prize in physics. What was the discovery this time? Well, seeing light, without perturbating it. Seeing light with... atoms...

Now this is real genius. In truth, Steve Job was just an ignorant, greedy boy playing with toys real men had invented.

The iphone was invented thanks to the idea of a scientist, Kastler, working hard in a lab where civilization has shone for 2,000 years. Kastler's lab was paid by government money, and still is, 60 years later. This money came from taxes.

Thus, refusing to pay enough taxes is refusing to invest in new science and technology, just so that completely ignorant people, such as this (austerian) economist, and admirer of Hayek and Friedman, can keep on spewing absurdities. Is that a world we can afford? No, we are hitting the global ecological and energetic lower bounds.

And is it what we want? No. Civilization is also about beauty. This is what Paris says. And what Very Serious Plutocrats cannot understand.
How are these times different? (Conscience of a Liberal)

So what do people like Steve Jobs contribute? Well, it seems that most of them claw their way to the top because they are mentally ill:
 The man could not stand dirt. When he built his company’s first factory in Fremont, Calif., in 1984, he frequently got down on his hands and knees and looked for specks of dust on the floor as well as on all the equipment. For Steve Jobs, who was rolling out the Macintosh computer, these extreme measures were a necessity. “If we didn’t have the discipline to keep that place spotless,” the Apple co-founder later recalled, “then we weren’t going to have the discipline to keep all these machines running.” This perfectionist also hated typos. As Pam Kerwin, the marketing director at Pixar during Jobs’ hiatus from Apple, told me, “He would carefully go over every document a million times and would pick up on punctuation errors such as misplaced commas.” And if anything wasn’t just right, Jobs could throw a fit. He was a difficult and argumentative boss who had trouble relating to others. But Jobs could focus intensely on exactly what he wanted—which was to design “insanely great products”—and he doggedly pursued this obsession until the day he died. Hard work and intelligence can take you only so far. To be super successful like Jobs, you also need that X-factor, that maniacal overdrive—which often comes from being a tad mad.

For decades, scholars have made the case that mental illness can be an asset for writers and artists. In her landmark work Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Johns Hopkins psychologist Kay Jamison documented the “fine madness” that gripped dozens of prominent novelists, poets, painters, and composers. As Lord Byron wrote of his fellow bards, “We of the craft are all crazy. Some are affected by gaiety, others by melancholy, but all are more or less touched.” For the author of Don Juan, as for many of the other artsy types profiled by Jamison, the disease in question is manic depression (or bipolar disorder), but depression is also common. Sylvia Plath’s signature works—The Bell Jar and Daddy—hinge on her suicidal despair. But while most Americans now acknowledge that many famous writers were unbalanced, few realize that the movers and shakers who have built this country—CEOs like Steve Jobs—also struggled with psychiatric maladies. This misunderstanding motivated me to write my latest book, America’s Obsessives. After discussing Jobs and other contemporary figures in the prologue, I cover seven icons, including Thomas Jefferson, marketing genius Henry J Heinz, librarian Melvil Dewey, aviator Charles Lindbergh, beauty tycoon Estée Lauder, and baseball slugger Ted Williams. (Like Jobs, the Red Sox Hall of Famer was a neatness nut who used to quiz the clubhouse attendant about why he used Tide on the team’s laundry.) By picking trailblazers who toiled in different arenas—from business and politics to information technology and sports—I wanted to show how a touch of madness is perhaps the secret to rising to the top in just about any line of work.
Madness Made Them Great (Slate)

That's right, we put madmen in charge of things and funnel all the money to them while the real innovators and inventors who make the world a better place toil in obscurity. But don't take my word for it. Look at the the history of real innvations and where they came from instead of just believing that they happen through investors "allocating capital" or entrepreneurs "taking risks." You'll see that very often, Carnegie's quote above bears out. So isn't it time we put the one percent in their place? Believe me, we'll be just fine, if not better off, when we get rid of the madmen in charge.

Who are the real "makers" and the real "takers," anyway?

For more proof:  10 inventors who didn't get mega-rich from their inventions (BBC)

"Nothing happens quite by chance. It's a question of accretion of information and experience ... it's just chance that I happened to be here at this particular time when there was available and at my disposal the great experience of all the investigators who plodded along for a number of years."
-Jonas Salk

See also: Where Innovation Comes From

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