The Innovation/Preservation Paradox

Exploring the case for permissionless innovation

[Revised March 28, 2022] From the outset, for better or worse, the following comes from a natural propensity for innovation and progressivity – a useful non-word utilized by way of example. Culture and society do not stand still, nor should they be forced to do so. That said, conventions should not be wantonly jeopardized without safeguards, oversight and failsafes in place. Or, when then are, accountability cannot simply wash away in the spirit of unchecked curiosity.

So, that is a position statement of sorts. A position statement without specifics or managerial teeth, but a generalist stance from which orientations and trajectories can be proposed.

In his book, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, Adam Thierer summarizes the need for R&D unfettered by regulations and normative laws as follows:

  1. Fear of hypothetical worst-case scenarios and the precautionary mindset make innovation less likely;
  2. Wisdom is born of experience that includes risks taken, mistakes made, and failures endured;
  3. Wise ethical principles, social norms, or industry best practices do not necessarily make wise public policy prescriptions;
  4. The best solutions to complex problems are usually bottom up in nature; and
  5. As it pertains to technology, permissionless innovation should, as a general rule, trump precautionary principles.

Note that all of these are couched from the perspective of the prospective innovator, a defensive posture. Understandable, as convention already stands as the stalwart against all usurpers. The hope is to have these precepts or observations embraced by the obstructive forces of conservative thinking arrayed along the ramparts. If we can all accept their underlying truth, can we not then move forward in the spirit of forgiveness seeking rather than permission getting? But even that acceptance is simply another new, or revised layer of conforming practice. The uncomfortable reality is that, even if the five points are accepted and codes of behaviour for innovators – separate from non-allied rule breakers – are miraculously implemented, the terms of regulation would be meaningless to the innovator – a person or faction committed to blowing through the intersection whenever it serves the agenda of discovery. Viewed through the kaleidoscope of the principled innovator, the conservative view can easily skew to feckless and unimaginative. Yes, there are innumerable examples of wrong-headed legislation and outmoded industrial practices. And, yes, the easiest way to forge new policy is through the refining fire of technological success. But the road to those rare instances is pebbled with much trial and error, not always to innocuous effect.

Managing Precautionary Fears

Fear of hypothetical worst-case scenarios and precautionary mindsets do not make innovation less likely. Certainly, they make it challenging – as is should be, in direct proportion to the appropriateness of any restricting norms. Innovators who fail to recognize or disregard potential hazards – i.e. lack a precautionary mindset – are themselves hazards arguably in need of external constraint. Successfully sprinting through a minefield does not disprove the worst-case scenario. It may, however, suggest the optimal path for the ordinance disposers who follow. Had the sprinting chancer taken with him, hand-in-hand, a group of naive followers, the risk would have magnified, but the success would be no less arbitrary. Accountability should not go away, though a case is warranted to re-litigate any applicable laws, regulations or moral postures in the face of failure – or success, for that matter.

Wisdom’s Penumbra

Experience is reassuring. But we only know what we know. Having been down a road once told you much about the potential hazards. Subsequent trips reinforced many first impressions, while revising others. But no matter the familiarity from years of travel, the potential to run off the edge of the road always remains. The wisdom of experience is forever incomplete on some level. Risks taken, mistakes made, and failures endured enrich experience without making wisdom an absolute. The reassurance of experience should stand as a warning that at its margins demons dwell.

Wisdom carries credibility; whereas, naïveté, theoretical knowledge, and inexperience are lacking. While credibility affords trust, it is bound by the limits marked by wisdom’s penumbra: the margins beyond which wisdom is untested.

Stay Wise to the Context

Innovation changes the context out of which principles, norms, and best practices came. Whether the change is incremental or revolutionary, a revisiting is warranted – if only momentarily.

Bottom’s Up to Solutions

You cannot fight the blaze from the lookout tower. It is only on the ground that challenges get assessed and dealt with. Best solutions to complex problems are designed from the ground up. That is where the innovators live – in direct line of sight to the problem, with sufficient distance to not be myopic.

Innovators are renegades and iconoclasts of the first water. Conservatives are justified in their suspicions, but each is a likely as the other to misrepresent their positions. Conventional thinking is apt to take a knee-jerk response to change just as the innovator may soft shoe the potential risks posed. Elected officials are beholden to entrenched special interests. Innovators are often under-resourced when it comes to breaking through outmoded industrial standards. Their most persuasive arbiter is the consumer who finds refreshing utility in the new technology. All three need attend to <style=”font-size:0.85em”;> Chesterton’s FenceA game theory element derived from G.K. Chesterton's contention one should never take down a fence before understanding why it was erected in the first place.</style>.

Their objectives may be the betterment of society (they may also be significantly more individualized), but their skill, dexterity and impulses come from a place more hormonal than honourable. Maturity may guide them back from the brink, that mode of transgression through which their names were made, but until the validation from having succeeded – or, perhaps, not wholly failed – arrives, the incongruity of nonconformance pools around them. Renegades are not the best managers going forward. Observed by Geoffrey Moore, they have trouble crossing the chasm. That is, the club is not open to them unless they turn their outlaw nature outside the caste.

It is one thing to endanger oneself, quite another to undermine the safety of others. Freedom in a controlled state is assured by the relinquishing of an equal amount of freedom by all who are a part of it. As observed by Karl Popper in his The Open Society and its Enemies, “The freedom of the movement of your fist is limited by the position of your neighbour’s nose.” Where the problem arises is in overreaching regulations based not on the position of your neighbours nose, but in the existence of noses. These are the truly galling obstructions, the ones calling out for a clause allowing permissionless innovation. Untangling the morass that brought ill-conceived laws, norms and regulations into being requires more energy, influence and expertise than the obstructed innovator can or should be expected to possess. On the other side, legislators are likely ill-equipped assess the downstream implications of novel technologies. No, just get it done. Define and manage the potential fallout from failure or incremental error and soldier on seeking forgiveness over permission. Renegades will be renegades. Fundamental to their skill set is the ability to discern problems, the foresight to identify solutions, the ingenuity to discern workarounds, the responsibility to integrate escape measures, and the wisdom to know the difference.