In 2007 I attended a conference in Xian, China where I presented a paper on innovation. The paper touched on the theme of Prometheus as an exemplar of the Western innovator. I also made the observation that innovators show up in all societies and throughout all ages and we should look to all exemplars for guidance. One such exemplar innovator revered in China, I pointed out, is the Yellow Emperor. I knew I was geographically close to the ancient tomb of this Chinese innovator and I was determined to visit .
That part of China is pregnant with history. It is quite different from the southeastern coast, with seafaring cities such as Hong Kong, which I had visited quite often. Xian’s climate is drier and the food is based on wheat, not rice. The cuisine is more like the middle east than South East Asia, which is more familiar to Americans. That came as a big surprise to me, since as a naïve westerner I kept asking for rice dishes only to be brought noodle-based food. I was in China, after all and I was looking for “Chinese” food! Xian is the ancient capital of the Chinese empire from where Kublai Kahn ruled. It was the eastern terminus of the Silk Road, so richly described by Marco Polo. I enjoyed the city very much, but it held a mystery for me. And when I had my chance to explore it, I seized it.
Xian is several hours away from a very special place in China: the city of Yan’an. It is the site of the pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Chinese each year. Just as the middle east has its Mecca, China has the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor in Saanxi province. Chinese flock there by the thousands on pilgrimages to honor their most revered ancestor: Huangdi. It is a requirement even for Chinese leaders to make the pilgrimage. And the walk up the mountain must be made on foot, in the ancient tradition of humility before one’s illustrious ancestor. Even Mao did it (even though the communists excoriated the emperor). So I felt compelled to visit. It turned out to be an eye opener, and pregnant with a personal epiphany.
I was the only foreigner there that day. The overwhelming majority of pilgrims I encountered had never seen a non-Chinese person. They constantly kept coming up to me, right up to my face, to examine what I looked like. I was the different one. Literally, up to my face, and stared. The tomb turned out to be a grassed-over mound of earth on top of a mountain in an ancient cypress forest. Very beautiful and very peaceful.
The Yellow Emperor is a mythical figure that bequeathed to the Chinese people many technological advances. Huagdi ruled over China more than 4,500 years ago and he is credited with inventing the cart, astronomy, a calendar, musical instruments, and much more. He caused the Chinese writing system to be created. His wife is credited with inventing silk farming and the weaving of silk cloth.
The celebration of the master as the focal point of society’s advance is a classic focus of eastern philosophy. The Confucian approach of insisting on a master-student relationship in learning and creativity, and a reverence for one’s elders works well for eastern societies. But in America we have chosen a different path. “All men are created equal”, the Jeffersonian ideal, commits us to celebrate everyone as capable of contributing, in small and in big ways, to innovation, to creating the next in our society. The celebration of the self-made man, following in the footsteps of Franklin and fulfilling the Jacksonian ideal, runs deep in our society. The entrepreneurs of today, crafting startups by the millions, are the direct inheritors of that creative thrust that started our country.
The economy of America is a made up of economic needs as the warp and technology as the weft woven by innovative threads laid down by many people, not just one. We celebrate the appearance of the American innovative genius, not as a singularity, but as a plurality. All Americans have an innovative mind and it appears in numerous places and in numerous ways through numerous individuals. There may not be one place in America to make pilgrimage to celebrate that innovative genius, since there would probably be thousands, but it should be celebrated never the less.
Brian Arthur, in his The Nature of Technology, points out that the economy of a nation and its technology are inextricably interwoven. That as economic needs appear, they push individuals to create new technologies to meet those needs, and the new technologies are in turn absorbed into the economy, changing everything, driving the need to create even newer technologies. What we see unfolding through the historical record is a rich tapestry of creation being woven by the weft of economic needs and the woof of technological response.
We know innovation appears roughly in two forms, incremental and radical. Incremental innovation is like walking up steps, small changes to existing technology to improve it, to perfect it. Radical innovation, on the other hand, is like jumping a fence. Once it appears we find ourselves on the other side, a new side. And then the incremental changes begin, the perfecting of the original radical idea.
As we weave a tapestry of our culture, our economy, our communal life and history, the sectors of economic activity, our various needs as a people, (energy, agriculture, communication, finance) become the weft threads. As radically new technology threads appear, driven by the shuttle of an individual mind (the radical innovator with a radical new idea), it makes it way across as the woof, a thread of an idea, touching and combining itself and changing the weft and creating a new pattern.
As the loom holds the warp threads under tension it facilitates the interweaving of the weft threads. A shuttle is a tool designed to neatly and compactly store and carry the thread across the loom weft yarn while weaving. So it is with the economy, technology and the innovator: weft, woof and shuttle. In America we have a rich tapestry of innovation being constantly woven by many innovation shuttles.
There has been much published lately on the lone inventor as a myth. And indeed that is true in that innovators mostly don’t live and work in a vacuum. They are often supported, goaded and influenced by a community of workers in the field, and they stand on the shoulder of giants that went before them clearing a path. But in the end it is the mind one individual that carries the innovative day. It is the one who writes down the idea, has the vision and carries it out with single-minded purpose. Others contribute, they sometimes co-create, and other times goad the inventor to reshape the invention and perfect it. It often falls to these colleagues to do the science or the engineering to make the breakthrough idea a reality. In the end it is one person + one idea= innovation.
Arthur has observed, I believe correctly, that it is the individual that makes the breakthrough in technology. For every radical innovation, or any type of innovation for that matter, there is a lead thinker. Inheritor of the work of others, working in a community of workers who contribute, but in the end, making the breakthrough individually.
Take the breakthrough in government that became the hallmark of America: a representative republic. It was for its time a new technology, as Brian Arthur defines technology. It is true that it was a community of founding fathers that created this nation. But the declaration of independence, as the founding idea of “all men are created equal” was Jefferson’s. And our unique form of government, embodied in the constitution, a great technological advance in government, was Madison’s. Yes, many contributed to the final documents, and they were the inheritors of Enlightenment thinkers, but the thought leaders, the shuttles carrying the new threads, were Jefferson and Madison.
The thought leader does not have to be the initiator. In other words, they don’t necessarily have to create the technology itself, but they are the visionary who have and keep the vision for what could be and relentlessly drive its manifestation.
Take all the Apple products that appeared in its entire history, from garage to economic giant. The Apple II, the Mac, iTunes, the iPhone, the iPad, even Pixar, that’s quite a few wefts. It was Steve Job’s vision. Jobs could not have created any of the technology himself, but the technology would not have been created without his monomaniacal vision for what it was to be. The same with the Xerox copier. It was only the perseverance of Chester Carlson to see his invention of the xerography process, which he patented in 1930, converted into a practical machine that caused it to eventually happen. It took thirty years of work and over thirty chemists to bring the first Xerox machine to the market in 1971.
The same could be said of William Shockley, who is credited with the invention of the transistor. Yes, he had two co-workers Brattain and Bardeen, who rightly so shared with him the Nobel prize for the discovery, and a labfull of scientists and engineers at his command. It was a cooperative effort of back and forth, of prototypes and ideas, of concepts and of trying to understand the physics of electrons and holes, that eventually gave us the junction transistor. But historian Jon Gertner in his book Idea Lab shows us how Shockley, in a fit of ego and jealousy, one night, in a hotel room, alone, desperate that others would invent it before him, was compelled to come up with the final working design. He drove his team, which he was leading, with his vision. The transistor, with Shockley as the shuttle, weaving the next woof that would come to eventually touch all wefts in the economy.
Gertner’s story of Bell Labs shows a part of the American innovative tapestry that is laden with the creations of many American minds. It is a celebration of Americans doing what makes us unique. Manifestations of the innovative American Mind. Another prominent example at Bell labs is Claude Shannon, who made breakthroughs on information theory and gave us the foundation for the digital age. It is true that he followed other geniuses (Hartley for one) and he worked with brilliant people, but Shannon gave us a concise and tight view with his information theory that could be operationalized. It was a complete package that inspired his colleagues to create the digital communication revolution. The golden age of the research labs in the second half of the twentieth century is a rich example of the many woofs woven into the economic fabric of this country, not by one but by many shuttles. A clear celebration of the American Mind.
As I stood on that ancient cypress forest contemplating the tomb of the mythical hero emperor, paying my respects, as millions of other had done before me, I was glad I was an American. That I had my own heritage of many innovative individuals to honor, respect and emulate. And I was glad to be a small part of that American tapestry, having pulled a few small threads through myself.
Back to America.