In a previous column, I examined the way in which those who praise Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and their ilk for their “creative genius” or “value creation” are misplacing the credit. All the components of Tesla designs, and of the Amazon online shopping and logistic model, already existed. The “big picture” concept of how to combine them, far from being some once-in-a-century insight reserved for great entrepreneurial brains like Musk and Bezos, was fairly obvious. It was the same level of “genius” that occurs every weekend in thousands of weed-fueled college dorm bullshit sessions, and which Musk himself displays virtually every time he appears in a podcast. And the actual work — putting them together and optimizing them — came entirely from workers, whether they were engineers on the development teams or production workers on the shop floor.
The sole function of Bezos and Musk was to provide financing, because they had the money. And the fact that the teams that actually did the work were in the position of relying on rich venture capitalists for the seed capital, and that the latter were in possession of that capital in the first place, was a function of history, and of structural faults within the system.
My primary focus in the previous column was on the nature of those structural problems — particularly the capitalist credit system — which prevent engineering and production workers from organizing and financing their own innovative efforts. I don’t intend to rehash that here.
But in my discussion of the availability of all the prerequisites for the innovations attributed to Musk and Bezos, and the obviousness of putting them together according to a given pattern, I failed to note how this generalization is borne out historically by the concept of “steam engine time.” Most major innovations are the product of social intellect. This is reflected in the fact that, when the technical prerequisites or components all exist in our collective toolkit, and the need for an innovation demonstrates itself, that innovation simultaneously appears in a number of different places.
The obvious example is Tesla vs. Edison (ironically). But look at calculus. The Greeks and Arabs had developed trigonometry, and the Arabs had developed algebra. And then humanity reached the point where a mathematical tool was needed that could handle things like orbital mechanics artillery trajectories, and the like, and what happened? Newton and Leibniz developed calculus independently.
Most innovation is creatively combining off-the-shelf components already created by social intellect, in response to problems that any number of people notice when they arise. And when the problem, opportunity, or unmet need shows itself, any number of individual innovators, or teams of innovators, start grabbing those components off the shelf and putting them together.
Innovation is collective in the same sense that Wikipedia, or Free and Open Source Software, is collective. It’s the product of a stigmergic, permissionless process that aggregates many large or small contributions into an overall design — a social product that’s bigger than the sum of its parts, and not attributable to any one of them.
People like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have fortunes in the tens of billions of dollars, and are well on their way to doubling those fortunes since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic despite the rest of us living through a depression, not because of any special intellect, insight, or originality on their part. That insight, although not universal, is fairly common. They’ve made those enormous fortunes because they have a monopoly over a function that’s necessary to put insights and visions into practice: venture capital, or credit. And once the innovations are actually developed, they rely on another monopoly — intellectual property — to extract further rents from it.
The aggregate wealth of billionaires amounts to thousands of dollars for every human being. And it’s wealth they’ve extracted by erecting a toll gate that impedes, and charges tribute for, that basic function of grabbing components off the shelves that were created by our collective, social intellect, and putting them together in new ways according to the insights produced by collective intellect. Because of this toll gate the innovations created by social intellect, rather than enriching all of us with increased quality of life and reduced labor, are made artificially scarce and costly for all of us. And the extra cost we pay goes into their pockets.
They are rentiers, who parlay their monopoly on the venture capital function into feeding off of the insight and intellect of the real value creators, and off of the need of consumers. And they were put into the position to do this by a system that was created to make people like them rich at the expense of the rest of us.
Let’s destroy that system.