Markets can’t do everything

Recently I have been wading through the rubbish dump I call my office trying to find some crucial bits of paper I need and with the vain hope of bringing some kind of order to the chaos in which I work.
This is something like an annual event, which usual involves throwing away sack-loads of stuff I realise I don’t really need, but also often means I find buried gems I didn’t know I still had. This time is no exception. For example, I found a whole lot of stuff I had written decades ago.
Time has been kind, for many of the ideas I was struggling with then, now seem much less strange and off-the-wall. In fact, if they weren’t typewritten on foolscap and quarto – obsolete British paper sizes – some of the stuff could have been written today.
To my slight surprise I found that a theme that ran through much of what I had written then was similar to my current concerns about how to escape machine thinking and how to enhance human freedom, creativity and ability to learn.
Some days ago I wrote approvingly about Jason Fried of 37signals and his advocacy of ‘making it up as you go along’. I haven’t changed my mind, but one concern I do have about Jason Fried and many other young people, who are successfully making it up as they go along is the way they seem to have totally bought into market romance and see almost any action by government as throwing away our money. So far as I can see many such people believe that the only way to to enhance human freedom, creativity and ability to learn is through the market.
My concern here is that they seem to have no recognition of the fact that their success, which they attribute to their own skills, hard work and entrepreneurial ability can, without denigrating their undoubted achievements, also be seen as free riding on the deep platforms created by government and non-market agents.
I was reminded of this while wading through the piles of newspaper clippings and old magazines I used to collect before switching to bookmarks and urls and finding a review of two books by James Fallows in the New York Review of Books – “The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story” by Michael Lewis and “High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner’s Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars” by Charles H. Ferguson.
What really delighted me was to find that this review was on-line and contained a quote from Charles Ferguson I had been trying locate for some time:
“It has become fashionable to argue that industrial policy isn’t possible in America and is inherently a bad idea. But the record of government-supported Internet development versus the commercial online services industry clearly demonstrates exactly the opposite. The established technology companies, the Silicon Valley geniuses, the online services industry, and the venture capitalists all missed it for twenty years or more. Every brilliant, important, technologically farsighted Internet development came either from government agencies or universities. In the meantime, decision making in the competitive marketplace was narrow, short-sighted, self-protective, and technically far inferior to its Internet equivalents.”
So what seems to have been forgotten in the US and to some extent here in the UK is how the foundations for the vast creative playpen that is the internet was created through the actions of bureaucrats and people working in universities and international organisations. The US in particular had several glorious decades where people like J.C.R. Licklider and Ivan Sutherland, inspired by Vannevar Bush, a consummate bureaucrat as well as an entrepreneur among other things, commissioned bright people to spend government money to do interesting things and largely let them get on with it. All this creating the technical context where Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau, working for a government funded international agency, CERN, could create the World Wide Web and then do that unmarket thing of giving it to the world for free.
So what am I saying here? I think it is that the Private enterprise vs Public enterprise argument that has dominated so much thinking over the past twenty years is a fruitless debate. You can find as much Soviet-styled bureaucratic thinking in large, stockmarket quoted corporation as you find anywhere else. Equally, as the examples I have just cited, you can find creative, free-spirited work going on within non-market organisations. The point as Richard Florida has argued is how can we create organisations and contexts in both the Private and Public sectors where we can tap into the creativity of the people who work there, but aren’t allowed to express it. In other words the key questions remain; how can we escape machine thinking and how do we enhance human freedom, creativity and ability to learn?