Blog Post

report and comment on Newfield's "The Decline of the Anti-Commons" (11/22/10)

Earlier this evening Christopher Newfield gave a talk at Duke entitled "The Decline of the Anti-Commons: An English Professor among Nanotechnologists." The talk explored two alternative models for scientific innovation. The first, the dominant model in our moment, is the linear paradigm that employs limited public funds to generate privately held intellectual property within a market context. When innovation is privatized, the question is not whether socially valuable technologies are being developed but whether property interests are being maximized. Contemporary neoliberal ideology views patent-based corporate entrepreneurship as the maximal path to progress; IP is viewed as the natural, best, and even only bridge between laboratory invention and public use. However, recent evidence suggests that multiplying the number of patents is in fact not actually the same thing as progress; reports indicate that U.S. competitiveness is beginning to decline even as patents increase, with Newfield arguing that the contradictions inherent in the current IP paradigm are the cause of this slowdown.

The second model is more speculative, even Utopian. Rather than (as with patent-based innovation) keeping the government in the role of "dumb money" to be minimized and edged out once profitable IP has been developed, the Lyon paradigm for innovation begins with the expression of widespread social need that might be ameliorated by "targeted moonshots" of massive public investment. Such research would be conducted under open-source principles with an aim towards industry-community partnership, with innovation driven not by market forces but by continuous democratic social dialogue. Rather than innovating through the market, then, this is innovation through the common; this model of innovation would not only produce more socially responsible and more environmentally just technologies, Newfield believes, but it would also be more efficient than IP-focused research insofar as it would focus on longer-term considerations than the short 18-to-24-month turnaround on profitability.

Newfield's case study was the failure of the solar market in the 1970s, which despite massive top-down effort during the Carter administration to innovate still only constitutes .1% of the U.S. energy market. To avoid repeating this earlier failure, Newfield calls for new social narratives of industry-public cooperation designed to stimulate public interest in solar investment: two key pillars in this new frame will be telling the public "This time it will be for you" and "You need to make us make it for you."

I found the talk quite stimulating, but confess that I remain skeptical that the generation of narratives alone will be sufficient to generate the proper levels of public investment from our governmental institutions. This seems to me to be a much-too-naive understanding of the relationship between the public and the government. Recent history suggests that current U.S. institutions are in fact quite poor at identifying real social needs, and just as bad at rational action towards ameliorating such needs; it likewise suggests that public desire and governmental action bear little to no relationship with one another. Given the evidence of both the Bush and Obama administrations it is not at all clear to me that generating public demand for socially responsible investment will by itself achieve the desired results. With our current set of public institutions, it seems more likely to me that we will continue to wind up with (1) token investment in crucial research, primarily for PR purposes and insufficient to the scale of the task, as well as (2) costly and mistargeted Pentagon-style boondoggles on marginal and even counterproductive ends. (Even the original moonshot itself, viewed nearly fifty years later, can arguably be classified as a classic military-industrial boondoggle, a thinly disguised proxy for weapons research.) In this context a crucial but underdeveloped part of Newfield's alternative plan for socially wise innovation must involve recapturing governmental institutions from the current situation of "total system failure" and repurposing them for rational social ends -- a task quite obviously easier said than done...

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