Heroes, Communities, and the Politics of Innovation

By David C. Brock | November 17, 2020

Hero Stories & Society

People, in general, have a real weakness – or to put it more positively, a real fondness – for heroes. And our fascination with heroic individual men has largely come at the expense of our veneration of heroines, with heroic women. We find this fascination with heroic figures reflected back to us everywhere. It dazzles in cinema enterprises from Bollywood to Hollywood. Shelves bulge and memory chips strain under the weight of books – non-fiction and fiction alike – centered on the heroic figure. Celebrity culture is built on the notion. Politics today offers a kaleidoscopic perspective, where heroes appear to be dragons and vice versa depending on your angle. Perhaps it is a measure of our weakness for the heroic figure that one of the most popular programs in this history of public television in the U.S. is Bill Moyer’s Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth (1988), an exploration and exegesis of this fondness.

As cultural productions through myth, fiction, and, yes, non-fiction as well, there are lots of questions to ask about the heroic figure. How have these narratives evolved? How is the place of women changing in these narratives? What of “dark” heroes, or the anti-hero? Of particular interest for me is the question of how these narratives function in the structuring and operation of societies.

Without doubt, the heroic figure is a major presence in all sorts of discussions of technology, its nature, and its history. There is of course the idea of the lone heroic inventor, defined by their undefinable genius. There are ideas of the domestic automobile garage – or dorm room – as the heads of Zeus from which spring the goddesses of war and wisdom, that is, global corporate giants. Invention, discovery, innovation, breakthrough: Most of our stories about them gravitate toward a story of individual heroic figures and their exploits. Academic accounts and studies of innovation largely reflect this heroic culture in their individualism, their focus on individuals and firms-as-individuals as the proper unit of analysis for understanding innovation.

In my own work, I have been acutely conscious of this heroic culture. I was the coauthor of a biography of Gordon E. Moore, the talented physical chemist who became a cofounder of two incredibly important organizations for the history of electronics and computing: Fairchild Semiconductor and the Intel Corporation. To this day, Moore remains Intel’s longest serving CEO, but is far better known for his analysis of semiconductor electronics, “Moore’s Law.” While we are in a way the hero or heroine of our own personal stories – or at least the protagonist – with a biography it is vitally important to choose your subject, your heroic figure, wisely. For me, Moore was such a choice. Not only is he a genuinely kind, thoughtful, and generous guy, but he is a wonderful representative of several communities with important histories. He represents the many men and women deeply engaged with the materiality of electronics, and how they are produced, and was present in and helped to shape vitally important contexts in this history of computing and of Silicon Valley.

Nevertheless, our collective focus on the heroic figure creates continual friction with historical realities. They just don’t fit. One prominent example of this friction comes perennially like clockwork: Nobel Prize controversies. Each year the awarding of the Nobel prize for chemistry, medicine, or physics will generate an outcry. Someone critical to the prize-winning development was overlooked! The friction between heroic culture and historical realities is so well-known as to be the subject of jokes. For my money, Jay Last – a key contributor to the rise of the integrated circuit – has the best of these quips. Pick your invention or discovery, he says, there’s always some obscure Brit who thought of it thirty-years earlier.

A more serious, palpable friction between the heroic figure and historical realities is the prevalence of simultaneous discovery and invention in which multiple individuals and groups develop ideas, findings, and creations that have fundamental commonalities, resemblances, and similarity. They didn’t do exactly the same thing, but what they did contains an important and deep commonality. Again, this particular friction is so well-known that it has become an operating strategy for some technology companies. At Adobe, co-founder Chuck Geschke would admonish his colleagues that if they were researching something, they could be sure that other people were working on it as well, and thus time was always of the essence.

The Real Story: Communities of Innovation

Remarkably, with one adjustment all of these frictions dissipate entirely. If we turn away from a focus on the heroic figure and, rather, look at communities as the real authors of developments in technology and science then the concordance with historical realities becomes smooth. It just fits. For several years, historian Christophe Lécuyer and I have advanced the notion that developments in the history of technology generally, and cases of simultaneous invention in particular, can be understood as communities reacting to common constellations of “contextual logics,” having to do with material, market, and competitive realities. Christophe and I applied this perspective to understanding a key breakthrough in semiconductor technology, which was also a case of simultaneous invention. More recently, I used this perspective to unpack the history of presentation software, like PowerPoint.

This conception of innovation as the product of communities – communities within which individuals can make their critically unique contributions – resonates with the ideas and recommendations for the future of innovation policies in the United States discussed by an extraordinary panel convened by the Computer History Museum on October 6th, 2020. In the CHM Live event Election 2020: Critical Technology Policy Issues the panel engaged with questions about the future of innovation in the United States through the lens of policy at state, national, and international levels. The panel was moderated by historian Margaret O’Mara, author of The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

Innovative Communities & Critical Tech Policy

Ro Khanna, who represents the Silicon Valley region in the U.S. House of Representatives, discussed some of the active issues facing the federal government today: antitrust, privacy, and access. All, at root, are about the effects of technological innovations on communities.

Congressman Ro Khanna on antitrust, privacy, and access

Mariana Mazzucato, the founding director of University College London’s Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose, spoke of the public and private sectors co-creating markets, of the importance of mission-oriented state organizations, and of problem-focused symbiotic innovation systems with conditions on public-private relationships. Here again, the focus is on the importance and role of communities in innovation, rather than individualism.

Mariana Mazzucato on the lessons for innovation from US history

Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of New America, focused her remarks on the necessity for the US to focus on bedrock issues like education, immigration, and healthcare to truly foster innovation and its international standing. Again, policies directed at communities, rather than individuals, is key.

Anne-Marie Slaughter on education, immigration, and healthcare policy for innovation

For Judy Estrin, serial entrepreneur and CEO of JLABS, the pressing issues concerning innovation have to do with fundamental power dynamics and structures, and the cultures that support them. Again, it is on the level of communities that Estrin makes her analysis, not at the level of individuals.

Judy Estrin on issues of power dynamics, structures, and culture within innovation

Margaret O’Mara asked Congressman Khanna about how a particular community – citizens – could engage with these issues. His answer was simple: Through another community; their elected representatives.

Congressman Ro Khanna on citizen engagement with innovation

Margaret O’Mara challenged the panel to address how these same citizens should really understand all of the discussion around a competition between the US and China in technology and innovation. Mariana Mazzucato underscored how many of China’s efforts were "mission-driven" – like addressing the climate crisis – as many of the most successful innovation initiatives of the US in the past. For Anne-Marie Slaughter, the answer was to be skeptical of the premises of the question. What is this competition with China really about? What kind of alternative is the US really offering?

Mariana Mazzucato and Anne-Marie Slaughter on U.S. – China competition

Moving from competition between the large communities of the US and China, Margaret O’Mara brought the conversation closer to home, asking Judy Estrin about what choices individuals can make in their use of technology. Notably, Estrin’s reply focused on the importance of communities of specialty, independent organizations that can provide expert advice for individuals and governments alike.

Judy Estrin on the importance of independent expertise for technology policy

Marina Mazzucato pointed to another community that will require significant change and innovation in its formation, structures, and activities in order to get the kind of innovation policies serving the "common good" that many of the panelists advocated: government bureaucracies themselves.

Mariana Mazzucato on the need for bureaucratic innovation

Margaret O’Mara next asked the panel to address the importance of action at smaller community levels – state and local government – for technology and innovation policy. Anne-Marie Slaughter used the example of municipal broadband to illustrate action on the local level. Judy Estrin took care to emphasize that enacting legislation is far from the end in the process of technology policy. And Mariana Mazzucato discussed the idea of "public-wealth funds" as a new form of action at different levels.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Judy Estrin, and Mariana Mazzucato discuss policy actions beyond the federal level

Margaret O’Mara asked the panel about the major ‘missions’ that had been identified as so central to spurring innovation in the past, asking how it was that US society could agree on such a mission today. Was the fight against the climate crisis a possibility? Anne-Marie Slaughter felt that healthcare and climate were the two great opportunities of our age. Judy Estrin and Mariana Mazzucato emphasized that these missions are much more than calls for new technology; these sorts of challenges require major political and cultural shifts, and thus the involvement of humanists as well as technologists.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Judy Estrin, and Mariana Mazzucato discuss the possibilities for grand ‘missions’ today

Margaret O’Mara posed two audience questions to the panel, asking how corporations and venture capital investing would have to change in order to foster positive innovations. Judy Estrin emphasized the need for greater balance and diversity. Anne-Marie Slaughter saw great promise in new forms of organizations, building from benefit corporations. Mariana Mazzucato emphasized the importance of attention to "purpose" in all aspects of the economic system.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, Judy Estrin, and Mariana Mazzucato discuss corporate governance and venture capital

To conclude the panel, Margaret O’Mara asked what one word of advice each of the panelists would have for a young person at the start of their careers. The panel shared why they selected "and," "flaws," and "valore."

Judy Estrin, Anne-Marie Slaughter, and Mariana Mazzucato on their ‘one word’ of advice to a young person

Watch the Full Conversation

CHM Live | Election 2020: Critical Technology Policy Issues, October 7, 2020


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About The Author

David C. Brock is an historian of technology, CHM's Director of Curatorial Affairs, and director of its Software History Center. He focuses on histories of computing and semiconductors as well as on oral history. He is the co-author of Moore’s Law: The Life of Gordon Moore, Silicon Valley’s Quiet Revolutionary and is on Twitter @dcbrock.

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