McKinsey’s Mary Kunz interviewed Mark Helprin and discussed various issues connected to his view that the “‘all free, all the time ethos’ of the Internet threatens to erode the creation of new knowledge and new art”. Helprin is a staunch skeptic of the creative and innovative potential of the Internet. In fact, he stakes out the position that, at best, it will lead to sub-par innovation and, at worse, threatens to degrade our entire modern culture.
Now Helprin does make some valid points; however, I think on balance the conclusions he reaches about new technologies and techniques is overblown and based on his own biases and misunderstandings. I’d like to speak to a few of them below:
Mark Helprin (MH): Before there was copyright, there was very little incentive for people to actually write things and assemble information. With the development of copyright, all that has increased.
I agree with Helprin here and there is quite a lot of excellent research (particularly by economic historians like Douglass North) to back up the notion that the institution of copyright and associated legal protections such as property rights, patents, etc, led to an explosion in creativity and economic development in the Western world. So, point for Helprin.
Mary Kuntz (MK): [...] There’s a lot of activity online right now that’s all about collaboration and crowd sourcing. And some of what gets produced that way people call art. I gather that you would take issue with that?
MH: I would. Crowd sourcing—to me, the words are a nightmare. The great achievement of Western civilization, anyway, has been to end the collective approach to things that marked the early history of man.
In other words, you were defined as part of a group. You were a serf. You were a peasant. You were a slave or whatever. And then in medieval times, you were a member of a guild. And the rights of the individual didn’t really count. What happened with the Greeks and then with Roman law and then over a long, long period culminating in modern times is that we have refined the rights of the individual. Now, obviously collaboration can be very powerful, and it’s important, and we do things in concert with one another. And we advance science that way and many things. But there’s really nothing that can substitute for one mind and one voice.
In a single thought, Helprin does two things: 1) illustrates that he does not truly understand crowdsourcing, but sees it as a threat anyway (and he is surely not alone here); and 2) his entire premise (“nothing can substitute for one mind and one voice) is based on a myth (that of the lone or heroic innovator/creator), one that is contradicted by the two sentences immediately preceding it. Continue reading