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Whose idea is it anyway?

Apple’s finally been granted design patent coverage for rectangular devices with rounded corners that look like this:

Read the patent here.

And then read this post I did on FT Alphaville about patents here.

And if you still have time, go check out this youtube clip by Eblen Moglen about innovation under austerity and importance of proper disintermediation when it comes to technology innovation:

I was directed to it by someone who has now opened my eyes to the importance of keeping your own logs.

As for ideas.. as I was discussing with someone the other day.. I am a big fan of the theory presented in the book “What technology wants” by Kevin Kelly.

Basic point is that who comes to invent something is largely a coincidence of fate. In which case are patents fair at all? — why should you be able to profit in such a monopolistic fashion from just being at the right place at the right time?

It’s only when all the variables are in place that an invention can truly be created.

Once all the puzzle pieces needed to make the next big step are there, it’s only a matter of time before someone puts all the pieces together to take the next big leap.

This is why in many cases huge progressive steps in tech have always come in waves. No patents for ages and then suddenly dozens arrive from different parts of the world — devised quite separately — in the space of a few weeks.

A quote from the book:

So, once the key variables are in place, the next technological step is almost evolutionary.

Claiming ownership over any particular invention in this light is fairly disingenuous. There’s no way Apple would have invented the iPhone had numerous other inventions and ideas not already been around.

If Steve Jobs had been born in the stone age, he would never have invented the iPhone. His creation owes acknowledgement to generations of inventors, scientists, and thinkers before him.

Scoop of interpretation hell

The same theory can, by the way, be applied to my profession. The news industry has always been obsessed with being “first” to a story. In the old days just being first to print a statement provided by a spokesman (delivered by fax) was enough to grant an organisation scoop status. Nobody cared it was spoon fed.

But then came the internet, social comms and open access to most public statements, data, officials and corporations. What used to be gated access was flung open.

This changed the media’s ability to break stories in the old sense. More focus was given to “investigations” or angles that no-one else had thought of. Scoops were about leaks, and getting people who shouldn’t be talking to you, talking to you. More focus was also given to profiling and promoting stories — already known about — at the top of the news agenda. Scoring credit for being able to recognize the importance of a story early on. Or for just good old story telling. We know something’s going on, and it’s hardly a scoop, but we’re gonna take an in depth look at it anyway.

And lastly came the so-called “scoop of interpretation” — perhaps the most annoying media development ever. “So and so said xxx would happen first, or noted this and this about that first. Bla bla bla.”

It’s the “I told you so and I deserve credit for doing so” school of media. Yet most of the time it’s a who screams loudest, and who said the right thing at the right time and got noticed for doing so affair. I.e. it’s a totally pointless, unfair and often incorrect measure of success. Akin to patenting.

For example, FT Alphaville has always been pretty good at putting the pieces of the puzzle together, and doing so early on. (Naturally I would say that. But really it’s true.)

But even if we are good at spotting developments early on and making them public, we get a lot less credit for saying these things because of the smaller pool of readers we access, compared to say the national press or TV broadcast press. 

Or we fall privy to the feedback loop of hell. We say (or promote) something, it gets picked up by an industry expert, it goes mainstream, it gets reported by the national press (and even our own organisation) quotes the secondary source, completely overlooking our contribution.

Otherwise there’s the timelag effect. We talk about something for ages, but only when x person in the public arena jumps on the band wagon does it actually become a mainstream story..

And what’s annoying for me, is not that they get all the credit for spotting this or that and not us. It’s that people forget that often we were berated for publicly thinking these things in the first place.

In other words.. being a truly innovative thinker can be a thankless task. You go out of your way to say.. “hang on, have you considered, the world isn’t flat?”  but because the world hasn’t yet been conditioned to this new way of thinking, it lashes out at you and calls you insane or irresponsible. The system basically cannot compute the idea because it’s too out of whack with their pre-concevied notions about the subject.

But then slowly the idea begins to ruminate. Other innovative thinkers who are not afraid of being ridiculed for thinking differently begin to jump aboard. And eventually, if the idea is intrinsically sound — rejected initially due to small-mindedness rather than inaccuracy— becomes legitimized. Once that happens, it’s just a matter of time before who shouts loudest and most eloquently about it, hitting the home run with respect the world’s popular understanding of who came up with the idea.

Hence it’s the Marconi’s who make their mark in commercial terms, not the Teslas.

Though before people accuse me of comparing ourselves to Tesla — which is not what I mean at all — I want to stress the following. Even Tesla was the beneficiary of what had come before him. It’s just that he was not put off by people telling him he was wrong to think differently or for rejecting many pre-conceived notions about how the world works, approaching things from a different angle. He was not bothered by the fact that other people thought he was an oddball. He had thick skin.

When it comes to FT Alphaville, I think the same applies. Our strength lies in our open-mindedness and creative thinking. But also, very importantly, in pattern recognition. We benefit from scouring the thoughts of thousands of other people on a daily basis, and filtering them in an intelligent way. An element of independent thinking and intelligence certainly goes into it. But ultimately our ability to recognize important trends and stories early on is mostly linked to us being paid to read more than most people read in a year. As a team we share knowledge on a constant basis. We idea swap. We mold and discuss ideas. We give feedback to each other. We are an idea sweatshop. If I don’t spot something, I can be sure someone else will and will draw it to my attention.

So do we really have the right to get upset when we’re not acknowledged for being first in terms of “scoop of interpretations”?  I don’t think so. Because ultimately our interpretation scoops are the product of thousands of other scoops of interpretation in their own right ( hat tip, hat tip, hat tip)… The chain of scoop of interpretation going bottom-up until it eventually reaches the loudest and most effective promoter of the idea, who then knowing life fails to hat tip — or knowing life doesn’t even appreciate or know where the idea actually originally emanated from.

Ultimately, I’d liken FT Alphaville to a large collective brain, that lives and breeds off constant input, delivered through numerous input tentacles.

And being out of the FT Alphaville virtual newsroom loop for four weeks is almost like having been thrown into an idea wasteland.

I am so horribly knowledge deprived.

Can’t wait to be back on board next Monday.