Monday, October 10, 2011

The Necessity of Steve Jobs: ...Inventor? ...or Necessitor?

The recent comparisons of Steve Jobs to Edison and Ford brought me back to an important point: Invention is the mother of necessity. We don't realize we need something until an "inventor" shows us what it can be, and what it can do for us.

Which came first? Is necessity the mother of invention? (as the saying goes) ...or is invention the mother of necessity? Is inventing unrecognized necessities the real heart of inventing? As Jobs famously said: "It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.”

Jobs was more important as a necessitor, than as an inventor.  It struck me that the point some have raised -- that Jobs did not invent the technologies he popularized -- has some validity, but fails to balance the picture with this important point.  It is true that the mouse, the "drag-and-drop" graphical user interface, hypertext, music downloads, MP3 players,smartphones, tablets, touchscreens, computer animation, and many more key "inventions" applied by Jobs were not invented by him.  It seems widely recognized that Jobs' key contribution was that he saw how such things could be put to use in new configurations, and to serve needs that others did not see or saw less clearly (and also that he had the drive and resources to realize his visions...)

This resonated with me, because I have often felt that my own history as an inventor has a similar focus (even if hardly on the scale of Jobs').  The contribution is not so much in solving a recognized technical problem, but in seeing what technical problems should be solved, and why, and what else that would mean.  (That is why the theme of this blog is "user-centered media" -- that is pretty much the theme of much of my work.)

In a sense, this relates to innovation at the level of "systems thinking."  The necessitor does not just solve a problem, but creates a whole new system, within the larger system of people, technology, economics, and culture.  Jobs saw that what was missing in the music business was a new model for aggregated, simplified sales of music, and integration of an e-commerce system (the iTunes store) with a user agent (iTunes) and a device (iPod).  Once people saw that, they needed it.  No one created the wholistic vision that enabled that necessity to be recognized and acted on until Jobs did.

Similarly, some argue that Edison's real impact was not the light bulb, but the electric distribution system and related infrastructure that he recognized as needed to make the light bulb broadly useful.  It is perhaps more apparent that Ford was not so much an inventor of cars and mass production, but a necessitor, who realized that we needed simple black cars, and lots of them.  Often such cases are not simple inventions, but whole systems of invention.  One necessity/invention leads to other necessities/inventions, to whole ecologies of inventions.

So which came first? the necessity or the invention?  I suggest, as in most things, the answer is a non-dualistic "yes, both."  It is hard to separate the two.  Our patent system seems to think of inventions as the thing that matters.  The constitution defines patents to be for "any new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvements thereof."  This has always seemed to me a limited view of what inventors do.

I suggest an equal form of "invention" is what Robert Kennedy spoke of:  "I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"  Once we take that step, we may need to invent some technology, but often what we need to do is take the vision, understand all that it entails, and assemble a whole system from technologies that may have previously existed, but not been combined and adapted in the right way.  This kind of systems thinking, is on a much different level than the more commonly recognized engineering tasks of solving the technical problems to meet a previously recognized need.

...This also has led me to questions about the place for such contributions in the patent system.  It seems to me that such contributions may be equally deserving of some kind of patent protection, to reward the creative thinking that advances our "useful arts" and our civilization in general.  Just as with more narrow senses of technical invention, this takes not just inspiration, but perspiration (to paraphrase Edison).  But just how this kind of invention of necessity fits (or could be fit) with our current patent system seems a bit unclear.

[Should anyone know of any good thinking by others on this theme, I would welcome references.]

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