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Suppress innovation, but claim the credit

by Michael Nielsen on October 22, 2008

It is a staple of wisdom amongst many physicists that “physicists invented the web”. This is a story trotted out particularly when physicists justify their work to the outside world. A string theorist once told me that virtually all his grant applications include a paragraph that says “support fundamental research in physics – that’s what brought us the web”.

In fact, the claim that physicists invented the web is largely mythical.

It’s true that the principal inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee, was a programmer working at CERN, the huge European particle accelerator. In 1988 he sketched out a way of hooking up hypertext ideas, developed by people like Ted Nelson and Bill Atkinson, to the internet, developed by people like Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn. He talked the idea up at CERN for a year, with no response. In 1989 he wrote up and circulated a formal proposal around CERN. Again, no response for a year. Finally, he coded up a prototype in his spare time. In this, he actually was helped by his manager, who said it was okay if he used one of CERN’s workstations to build the prototype. It was launched to the world about one year later.

Berners-Lee didn’t succeed because CERN was doing fundamental research. He succeeded in spite of it.

There’s a point to this, aside from correcting an often-repeated and erroneous claim. Large institutions, even those that believe they are dedicated to innovation, often systematically suppress the best ideas of the people working in them. The unpredictable nature of innovation, especially many of the most important innovations, means that the institutional mission is often mis-aligned with the innovation.

The example of Berners-Lee is one of many. Think of Bell Labs lack of support for the early work on Unix. Or the way grant agencies fund focused grants in fashionable areas decided by centralized committees. After the fact, these organizations trumpet their “success”. But very often they succeed only in spite of themselves, and they frequently show no signs of learning from this fact.

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10 Comments
  1. An interesting case is Philo Farnsworth and the way he was treated by RCA, Philco, and ITT.

  2. It is human nature to not encourage people to try different things. The tribe is safe is we do things that we know work, the same way (think Engineers)… new things might kill the crops or poison the well.

    Having worked in academia for most of my professional life thus far I have seen time and again that the only innovation comes from those that don’t tell anyone what they are doing and just do it. Easier to beg forgiveness and all that. Colleagues quickly point fingers when things go wrong and are paralyzed by indecision. This finger pointing fuels the fear of failure that lingers in the halls of pretty much all academic institutions I would imagine. Academics do it, staff do it… everyone perpetuates this culture.

    I see that as the perfect place to try new things… the people that could stop you are so busy with their consensus building on old issues they can’t pay attention. Frustration comes when your idea works and they claim credit (happened to me a number of times). But I have learned to just move on to the next crazy idea…

  3. Couldn’t agree more!

    It is against the very nature any establishment or institution to encourage or support change – any such endeavor leading to changes, as you said, of unpredictable nature.

    Establishments, however innovative and change-inducing they might claim to be, usually are so. Even the most innovative of companies, let alone scientific establishments such as CERN, such as Google stiffle innovation to one extent or another – and this is Google.

    In addition to that, in science at least, there is also a misattribution of discoveries/inventions.

    Have a post about it at http://fail92fail.wordpress.com/category/scientific-failures/

  4. I think it is fair to mention the decision of CERN to put TBL’s work in the public domain (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7375703.stm , especially the image ). This is often mentioned as an important factor (over and above the technical ones) in accounts of how the Web won (over Gopher, for example).

    Large organizations being not receptive to innovation is not news. Doing the right thing with respect to intellectual property is news, especially 15 years ago when open source was still a radical idea and the idea that the mistreatment of IP issues as an enormous obstacle to innovation was not yet mainstream.

  5. Ewout,

    I nearly put that in, but I’m unsure to what extent it represents generosity on CERN’s part, and to what extent it represents lack of awareness, i.e., it’s possible that if they’d realized the value, they’d have tried to keep it proprietary. Certainly, TBL seems to have been very well aware of the value of making the web open.

    Curiously, Mosaic launched one week before CERN made the web open.

  6. John Quiggin permalink

    I think the lesson is a subtly different one. The Web and Unix arose, in part, because the organizations involved hired bright people and gave them enough slack to pursue creative ideas. The grant-giving committees may not be clever enough to pick the winners, but they did leave enough space for winners to emerge any way. That is all under threat with increasing emphasis on accountability and corporate strategy.

  7. Hi John – I agree that the increasing emphasis on accountability and top-down strategy is a bad thing. But in the particular case of the web, I don’t think the good old days were a whole lot better. Berners-Lee actively tried to get support for a project at CERN for two years, without making any headway. He easily might not have done it at all, or been delayed more years, if his manager had been of a slightly different mind. Unix seems to match your picture better; I get the impression that Thompson et al were at least tolerated at Bell Labs, if not exactly encouraged.

  8. Steve permalink

    This is particularly poignant in your case, Michael. Please succeed in doing something revolutionary in spite of it all!

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