Conditions of Invention 2

The previous post did not mention art at all, but I trust my readers will recognize the problem that faces all attempts to institutionalize or channel creativity. Both bureaucracies and markets—which in fact are not that different from each other—need accountability. Yet the demand for accountability eats away at the core of the desired thing, the inventive capacity. Bell Labs found a way to protect its researchers:

There was another element necessary to [Director] Mervin Kelly’s innovation strategy, an element as crucial, or more crucial even, than all the others….he gave his researchers not only freedom but also time. Lots of time — years to pursue what they felt was essential.

Mr. Kelly believed that freedom was crucial, especially in research. Some of his scientists had so much autonomy that he was mostly unaware of their progress until years after he authorized their work. When he set up the team of researchers to work on what became the transistor, for instance, more than two years passed before the invention occurred.

In this case it reduced to the capacity of an enlightened individual to pick the right people and make sure they felt free. An effective way to run such an institution cannot be formalized as a set of rules or procedures. You can explain this and give the evidence, but it is impossible to persuade governments to understand and act accordingly, so the notion that societies can choose to unleash productive innovation is just a dream. Innovation cannot be effectively domesticated and farmed. Instead, as artists know from experience, talent is for the market an exploitable resource, like “nature,” something outside the social structures. It’s awkward to admit, and I’m not sure what it means, but it looks like art is to nature as the market is to art. The difference is that art does not exploit.

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