Saturday, 12 April 2014

How to Kill Innovation

It annoys me sometimes when people introduce me as "The IT Guy."  I went to school to become a computer scientist.  Computer science is about creating and/or synthesizing solutions to problems following the scientific method.  It is innovative and it is creative.  IT is about management.  It is a profession that, for the most part, is about control.  Control and innovation are at different ends of the spectrum.

Aaron Schwartz (1986 to 2013) was a brilliant mind who went places he shouldn't have gone and did things he shouldn't have done.[1]  He had a thirst for knowledge and he believed it should be free.  This got him in a lot of hot water, even given his accomplishments, and ultimately he took his own life rather than face massive fines and jail time for stealing academic knowledge.  His end purpose for this knowledge?  Increasing his intellectual ability.  How many of us have had our wrists slapped for doing the wrong thing for the right reason?  (In my professional life, I can think of numerous reprimands for doing the right things for the right reasons.)

Aaron tried unsuccessfully to get on the board of directors at Wikipedia; as his intuition told him things were not quite right at this breakthrough of community involvement and intrinsic motivation.[2][3]  The momentum of Wikipedia was immeasurable.  Wikipedia as a source of knowledge was game changing and saw the death of Encyclopedia Britannica and Microsoft Encarta.  The biggest collection of human knowledge ever collected and edited by volunteers.

And here is what changed.  The momentum stopped.  A small portion of content was being vandalized.  So control was needed, and Jimmy Wales facilitated the rise of the administrator.  He justified it by saying that only 500 or so core people contributed content.  What Aaron showed was that there were outsiders and insiders, and outsiders - infrequent expert contributors - accounted for most of the new content, while insiders provided most of the editing.  So Jimbo focused on supporting the insiders and the new administrators.  Though the motivation of the editor was to maintain a consistent quality, the motivation of the administrator was to implement control.  Outside contributors started to decline.

I and others have experienced this personally.  I stopped contributing to Wikipedia last year.  I tried to start an entry about the accomplishments of my recently deceased father.  He did a lot of good things for the City of Calgary that had not been recognized.  I have (he had) volumes of photographs of Calgary history that you wouldn't find in the city archive.  So I started the draft Wikipedia entry.  By the time I had the outline done, the draft had already been tagged as non-standard for deletion by an administrator.  By the time I figured out what was wrong, it was expunged.

A good friend who is very active in the tropical fish community was an avid contributor on the topic.  He was disappointed so many fish on the tropical list didn't have pictures.  So he reached out to the community to contribute their personal photographs - copy left - under Wikimedia.  He had a great response; over forty contributions, that he started to link into the Wikipedia page.  After a few, an administrator tagged the images as "stolen" because they were" too good" to be free.  The justification, later learned, was that he found one image contributed to a photo stream site by the same user whom contributed it to Wikimedia...  Wait a second.  An enthusiasts posts a picture of his fish to the public, grants public license, and that's theft?  And justification to remove 40 superb images?  Suffices to say that was the last time my friend contributed to Wikipedia.

Motivation is a fragile thing.  It doesn't take much to quash enthusiasm. Those two things are the keystones of innovation.