|N E G R O P O N T E||The Balance of Trade of Ideas|
A December 19, 1990, front-page story in The New York Times, "MIT Deal with Japan Stirs Fear on Competition," accused the Media Lab of selling out to the Japanese. This news flash concerned the 1986 endowment from a Japanese industrialist who wished to provide, through an affiliation of five years, his alma mater with the seeds of basic research in new media.
Believe me, you never want to be on the front page of The New York Times. I did not realize the degree to which such an appearance becomes news unto itself, as well as fodder for derivative stories. Newsday wrote an editorial based on that story less than a week later, called "Bye Bye High Tech," without checking any of the details.
1990 marked a peak in US scientific nationalism. American competitiveness was crumbling, the deficit was rising, and we were no longer Number One at everything. So for goodness sake, Nicholas, the editorials implored, don't tell the world how to do software, especially multimedia, something the United States pioneered and dominated. Well, it doesn't work that way, especially in an era when computing is no longer limited to the large institutions and nations that can afford it. What particularly irked me was the notion that ideas should be treated like automobile parts, without any understanding of where they come from or how they evolve.
Ironically, this particular case of seemingly unpatriotic behavior related to the field of consumer electronics, where hardware had long been abandoned by American industry. Zenith, one of the most vocal critics at the time, doesn't even build TV sets in the United States, while Sony manufactures products in San Diego and Pittsburgh that are sold domestically as well as exported throughout the world. Odd, isn't it?
Damned if you do, damned if you don't
When I posed the question, "Isn't it better to create jobs (like Sony) than to own offshore factories (like Zenith)?" some of my most distinguished MIT colleagues replied that ownership was power, and, in the end, the Japanese would keep all the "good" jobs in Japan and leave only menial-task positions in the US. I thought hard about this logic. Shortly afterward, NEC Corporation was criticized by the American press for setting up a basic-research laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, where 100 people (95 percent of them US citizens) are engaged in fundamental science - "good" jobs.
But now, that was bad too, maybe worse, because Japan would run away with our creative skills, getting the goose and the golden eggs. This is silly! New ideas come from differences. They come from having different perspectives and juxtaposing different theories. Incrementalism is innovation's worst enemy. New concepts and big steps forward, in a very real sense, come from left field, from a mixture of people, ideas, backgrounds, and cultures that normally are not mixed. For this reason, the global landscape is the most fertile ground for new ideas.
Global cottage research
During the recent past, a prerequisite for being global was being big. This applied to countries, to companies, and, in a sense, to people. Big nations took care of smaller countries, huge corporations were the multinationals, and the rich were the internationals. Today, this paradigm is changing, and this change will have a huge effect on the world trade of ideas. In the world of bits, you can be small and global at the same time. In the early days of computing, only a few institutions owned tools to think with, like linear accelerators. Many of the players were in debt to the few who could afford the luxury of science. They poached on the basic research provided by those who had the equipment to do it.
Today, a US$2,000 100-MHz Pentium PC has more power than MIT's central computer had when I was a student. In addition, so many peripherals are being manufactured at consumer prices, everyone can play in the multimedia and human-interface arena. This means individuals or researchers from developing nations can now contribute directly to the world's pool of ideas. Being big does not matter. For these reasons, more than ever before, we must trade ideas, not embargo them.
Reciprocity on the Net
The Net makes it impossible to exercise scientific isolationism, even if governments want such a policy. We have no choice but to exercise the free trade of ideas. I once got angry with the people who said that American tax dollars spent on basic research should go to American companies - and I got angrier when racism reared its ugly head. It was OK to do business with RCA (100 percent owned by the French government) but not OK to collaborate with the many Japanese companies that know a lot more about consumer electronics than we do.
Now I see the problem differently. The Net has forced such open exchange, with or without government sanction, that the onus is on other governments, especially those in developing countries, to change their attitudes. For example, newly industrialized nations can no longer pretend they are too poor to reciprocate with basic, bold, and new ideas.
Before the Net existed, scientists shared their knowledge through scholarly journals, which often published papers over a year after they were submitted. Now that ideas are shared almost instantly on the Net, it is even more important that Third World nations not be idea debtors - they should contribute to the scientific pool of human knowledge. It is too simple to excuse yourself from being an idea creditor because you lack industrial development. I have heard many people outside the United States tell me that they are too small, too young, or too poor to do "real" and long-term research.
Instead, I am told, a developing nation can only draw from the inventory of ideas that comes from wealthy countries. Rubbish. In the digital world, there should not be debtor nations.
To think you have nothing to offer is to reject the coming idea economy.
In the new balance of trade of ideas, very small players can contribute very big ideas.
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[Copyright 1995, WIRED Ventures Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Issue 3.04 April 1995.]