Failure of Innovation

Been reading a book that supports some of my previous posts. Tim Harford says:

“Over the past few decades, the number of people employed in research and development in the world’s leading economies has been rising dramatically, but productivity growth has been flat. Yes, there are more patents filed—but the number of patents produced by researcher, or per research dollar, has been falling. We may have booming universities and armies of knowledge workers, but when it comes to producing new ideas, we are running to stand still.”

He goes on to observe that “The size of teams listed in patent citations has been increasing steadily since…1975. The age at which inventors first produce a patent has also been rising…In academia too…teams are starting to dominate across the board. Solo researchers used to produce the most highly cited research, but now that distinction, too, belongs to teams of researchers. And researchers spend longer acquiring their doctorates, the basic building blocks of knowledge they need to start generating new research.”

This all fits with what I call the entropy of education—that it constantly  takes longer and costs more to learn less. But in education as in research, the size of the teams is one cause of entropy. The team approach is counter-productive. More people means more mediations, more stages in any process, more bureaucracy. There was a time in history when population growth enabled division of labor, making life easier for everyone. But now population growth drives unnecessary division of labor. Now it takes many to do what used to be done by one, but this in itself should not inhibit productivity; the problem is that the more links in the network the harder it is to accomplish anything. It’s well known that networks facilitate the spread of ideas—so there are plenty of ideas buzzing around, and harder to attribute them to any individual—but they make concrete innovation harder by breaking any goal down into many smaller tasks. To administer all those elements and link them together then requires more specialists and so bureaucracy becomes a necessity, making the team approach self justifying. To apply these insights to art consider the current and ever growing vogue for artist teams and groups. I used to think it had to do with overpopulation in the sense that funding agencies could support two artists for the price of one and a half, now I see it as much more an inevitable development. The more artists there are the less creative any one of them is, but part of the cause of that must lie not in the individuals, but in the team culture itself. In this context, the modernist idea of the solitary creator is a genuinely critical stance, not least because it has social implications unrecognized by current discourse.

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