How Innovation Happens

I concluded last month’s column by promising to provide a fresh angle on the branding of the presidential candidates. I will keep that promise, but since they are still pouring into the ring —Jeb Bush, who entered yesterday, is number 15— I will wait another month or two. (For a preview, go here.)

Instead, this column reports on the 2015 Personal Democracy Forum conference (PDF) held June 3 and 4 at NYU. As usual, organizers Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry staged a stimulating procession of entrepreneurs and innovators working in the online civic space. (I saw someone wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Data Is The New Bacon.”) Rasiej and Sifry are proud progressives and their world view suffused most of the presentations and panels. Sifry opened the program with the example of muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, whose pioneering use of flash photography in the 1890s leveraged the persuasive power of visuals by showing Americans slum conditions that, as it happens, existed just a few blocks away from the conference site. 

Many conference speakers exhorted the audience to fight economic inequality and promote social diversity. The political agenda notwithstanding, I saw a sprinkling of conservatives and libertarians in attendance. They come to PDF, as one told me, because they know they will get a fair hearing and learn a lot. 

One lesson woven through the TED-style talks was that, left unchecked, data collection can not only compromise personal privacy but good governance and social learning as well. Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, warned that political microtargeting inclines campaigns to tell voters only what they know will elicit assent. That may get out the vote, but it doesn’t build coalitions for a range of policies. Lila Tretikov, a Russian recently named to run the Wikimedia Foundation, pointed out that when people suspect they are under surveillance they tend to clam up and withhold what can contribute to our pools of knowledge. 

Brian Forde, who directs MIT’s new Digital Currency Initiative, gave a primer on the blockchain, a protocol system for secure asset transfer and documentation best known as the basis of Bitcoin. Forde believes the blockchain has the potential to improve the protection and verification of our identities and votes along with our financial transactions.

Few doubt that when it comes to political uses of digital technology, the left retainsthe lead it has held for a decade. How can that be, when progressives seek to limit the market, long regarded as the key incentive system driving invention? Part of the answer is that innovation actually thrives in community settings. This is especially true with information technology where lead users are accustomed to, if not downright insistent on, adapting hardware to their own purposes, and open source software makes that likely. The “eureka” moments in which eccentrics run through the streets to complete an historic innovation on their own are moviefantasy, not accurate history

I brought seven of my graduate students to PDF because while not all of them are progressives, all who seek to innovate successfully need to belong to the civic community.

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