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Editor's Note: Proprietary Ideology: Doing the Same Thing and Expecting Different Results

Mar 07, 2009, 00:01 (18 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

Confronting the 'Tech Innovation Deficit' is a nice bit of reporting by my colleague David Needle, who is a good tech reporter. (We both work for Internet.com.) David is the opposite of me; he leaves his own personality entirely out of the story, and stays tightly focused on the subject. I inject myself into everything I write, with foam and waving hands and cuss words implied.

This story caught my attention like bright neon. Let's grab a quote and get started. Judy Estrin, author, said:

"Estrin believes the causes of the financial crisis are symptomatic of an issue that cuts across tech and other industries throughout America. "The country overall has become increasingly short-sighted," she said. "We don't think about long term prosperity, but about short term greed and that's led to an innovation deficit.""

I don't know about American business as a whole, but it sure does describe some of the major players in tech, and the idea of Microsoft sending people to a conference to wring their hands and lament "Oh dear, the country is like all too greedy and shortsighted, and what ever shall we do?" is so ludicrous I laughed out loud. It's like alcoholics and gambling addicts ranting about "the trouble with people is they have no self-control." It's like serial killers complaining about how people are too violent and bloodthirsty. It's like cats criticizing dogs for eating poop. Ok, so maybe in cat culture there is a significant difference between licking one's own behind and eating poop, but to me it's a pretty meaningless distinction.

In another sterling example of diversion and lack of self-awareness:

"Josephine Cheng, an IBM vice president and fellow at its Almaden Research lab, suggested the problems in the U.S. were partly because we have "too many MBAs and lawyers. We need to go back and focus on basic science, technology and education and don't [encourage] so many people" to become MBAs and lawyers.""

While it's fun to pick on the MBA kids and lawyers, it's still missing the point by a few orders of magnitude. Who hires all those MBAs and lawyers? Why would any smart American kid want a tech career with a big company? The tech industry has destroyed many of the legal protections that US workers fought for decades to gain. The perma-temp, the H-1B worker, doing away with time-and-a-half for overtime, and outsourcing all proclaim "We don't value you at all, and since slavery was outlawed we have been forced to invest way too much time and energy into perverting labor laws, so you're a double nuisance."

Other major disincentives are the lack of attractive upward career paths for techies who don't want to be managers, and putting technical decision-making and management in the hands of non-technical managers.

Them Big Bad Lawyers

I tell ya, blaming the lawyers is a real giggle-inducer. Who hires them? Who releases the hounds at the slightest provocation? Who created this insane climate where nobody can say anything without wondering when the polite fist inside the glove is going to land on them? Who is responsible for the labyrinth of patents, copyrights, EULAs, trademark laws, anti-free speech laws, DRM, anti-reverse engineering, and all the other impediments to genuine creativity and invention? It's not safe to invent and create openly, because if you do it's like asking to be sued, or even worse, prosecuted since these bozos have given us the enduring gift of criminalizing what used to be civil matters, and creating whole new classes of crimes that never used to exist, in the innovative new category of "Whatever we don't like you to do is a crime". Thanks. Thanks a lot.

It's Not "The Country"

None of these problems have anything to do with "This country's going to heck in a handbasket, so it's the country's fault!" and everything to do with the kind of world these titans of tech have created for themselves. It's a swampy bureaucratic wasteland full of legal minefields, and creepy little wild-eyed paranoid people scuttling around clutching secrets to their chests and croaking "Mine! Mine!"

Meanwhile, the example set by the FOSS world doesn't even exist in their damp little realm. No paranoia, no non-disclosure agreements, low barriers to entry, no secrets, and a small number of lawyers. But a whole lot of creative ferment and open exchanges of ideas, code, concepts, and all those other things that are forbidden in the proprietary swamp.

Maybe I'm over-reacting and this particular meeting was just a random bull session, not intended to actually accomplish anything, but just a fun party. Though when I read this I wonder if it isn't leading up to some kind of "Hey, we want to be bailed out too!" deal:

"What is the role of government in stimulating R&D?"

Mmkay. Sure. Dare I be so bold as to suggest if these giants of tech would dismantle the barriers to creativity and invention that they have spend decades and billions of dollars erecting, that perhaps their perceived innovation problems would solve themselves?