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McKinsey’s Mary Kunz interviewed Mark Helprin and discussed various issues connected to his view that the “‘all free, all the time ethos’ of the Internet threatens to erode the creation of new knowledge and new art”.  Helprin is a staunch skeptic of the creative and innovative potential of the Internet.  In fact, he stakes out the position that, at best, it will lead to sub-par innovation and, at worse, threatens to degrade our entire modern culture.

Now Helprin does make some valid points; however, I think on balance the conclusions he reaches about new technologies and techniques is overblown and based on his own biases and misunderstandings.  I’d like to speak to a few of them below:

Mark Helprin (MH): Before there was copyright, there was very little incentive for people to actually write things and assemble information. With the development of copyright, all that has increased.

I agree with Helprin here and there is quite a lot of excellent research (particularly by economic historians like Douglass North) to back up the notion that the institution of copyright and associated legal protections such as property rights, patents, etc, led to an explosion in creativity and economic development in the Western world.  So, point for Helprin.

Mary Kuntz (MK): […]  There’s a lot of activity online right now that’s all about collaboration and crowd sourcing. And some of what gets produced that way people call art. I gather that you would take issue with that?

MH: I would. Crowd sourcing—to me, the words are a nightmare. The great achievement of Western civilization, anyway, has been to end the collective approach to things that marked the early history of man.

In other words, you were defined as part of a group. You were a serf. You were a peasant. You were a slave or whatever. And then in medieval times, you were a member of a guild. And the rights of the individual didn’t really count. What happened with the Greeks and then with Roman law and then over a long, long period culminating in modern times is that we have refined the rights of the individual. Now, obviously collaboration can be very powerful, and it’s important, and we do things in concert with one another. And we advance science that way and many things. But there’s really nothing that can substitute for one mind and one voice.

In a single thought, Helprin does two things: 1) illustrates that he does not truly understand crowdsourcing, but sees it as a threat anyway (and he is surely not alone here); and 2) his entire premise (“nothing can substitute for one mind and one voice) is based on a myth (that of the lone or heroic innovator/creator), one that is contradicted by the two sentences immediately preceding it.

First of all, Helprin’s conceptual connection between crowdsourcing and collectivism is utterly misplaced and flatly wrong. Just because a process or endeavor involves input and cooperation amongst a large number of people it does not mean that one is backsliding against the liberalization of society. I guess Helprin thinks we should disband all those pesky corporations that publish and ship his books, as well as those retail chains that put them in the hands of readers. The brilliance that is Helprin would be the proverbial tree falling in the woods with no one to hear if not for the collective efforts (ideas, labor, etc) of numerous individuals. All crowdsourcing does is provide an alternative (and, in some cases, a better) method for organizing individuals to tackle a collective task or to gather input and insights necessary for the accomplishment of some goal. There is no requirement that by taking part in crowdsourcing one must give themselves over to some collective identity. In fact, many people who participate in crowdsourcing do so during their spare time, and as an alternative to their 9-5 occupation (as Jeff Howe has noted, the process taps into people’s spare cycles). One might argue that crowdsourcing actually provides people with greater outlets for creativity, since those that are electrical engineers by day get a chance to solve complex design problems that have baffled bench chemists at Fortune 500 companies.

Second, Helprin falls into a familiar trap which is basing his argument on the notion that great creativity and discoveries is the result of single, heroic individual. This is hardly the case and there are piles and piles of research illustrating how collaboration is key. Helprin himself notes that advances in, for example, science are dependent on intra- and inter-temporal collaboration. We are better able to tackle complex problems when we have the benefit of diverse input. Additionally, our ability to create and come up with advancements is always dependent on previous work (“standing on the shoulders of giants“) and leveraging or combining creations by others. Scott Berkun, in his wonderful Myths of Innovation, sums it up well:

It wasn’t until the 1500s and the rise of the Renaissance that Western cultures grew comfortable acknowledging people’s creative abilities and individual achievements.

[…] Today, years away form the Renaissance, we’re still attached to the myth of the lone inventors. We do recognize collaboration and partnerships, but we often fall back on tales of lone innovators as heroic figures for reasons of convenience. We insist on isolating credit and dismissing the importance of others. Patent law, by design, credits one or a handful of individuals, assuming not only that ideas are unique and seperable, which is dubious, but that individual names can be given legal ownership of ideas.

Helprin didn’t invent the English language, the novel, the short story, various themes used in his work, and I guarantee that he has on more than one occasion drawn inspiration directly or indirectly from the minds and works of others. To paraphrase Keynes, in the long run everything is derivative.

What cinches Helprin’s lack of perspective for me is this exchange:

MK: Well, let me ask you something. This is just a hypothetical. What if you were working on a new novel and you got stuck on the ending, you just couldn’t find a way to wrap it up and make the plot work. And let’s say you put the problem to a wide following of smart, engaged, intelligent Mark Helprin fans. And one of them or several of them working together came up with the perfect solution. And you used their idea, which, in fact, was better than anything you would come up with. Would the novel that resulted be any less valid?

MH: I don’t know what you mean exactly by valid. But what I can say is I would never do that. If you look at the history of literature, it’s never been done that way. In school, they have what they call “brainstorming,” which I think is a comic-book word. They have what they call “writing webs.” They sit and they criticize each other’s writing, sort of like people in the Soviet on a factory floor.

And this is not the way that it should be. And I guarantee you that the product of this will be far, far less valuable than the product of somebody straining to do his best and taking responsibility for it also.

It’s never been done, so why bother; brainstorming is akin to forced collectivization under the Soviets; and he knows for sure that nothing ‘collectively’ produced could be as good as something produced by an individual.

There’s lots more there so I encourage you to read or listen to the entire interview. As I said, there are moments where Helprin makes solid points (points I agree with), but to say I disagree with his view on crowdsourcing, social technology, and innovation would be a massive understatement.