Rules of Innovation: Two Examples about Snowden and Greenwald

In a recent post called “Government as useful irritant” I said five factors increase innovation: 1. Freedom. 2. Benefit. 3. Resources. 4. Pain. 5. Stability. The effect of government isn’t simple. It might freedom — to the extent the coercion outweighs the protection — and of course corrupt governments make it harder to benefit from your innovation. On the other hand, governments often provide resources, pain and stability. Several of the factors are contradictory — pain and stability, for example — which makes it hard to produce optimal conditions, at least without paying attention to what actually happens.

A article I read soon after that (“Snowden and Greenwald: The Men Who Leaked the Secrets”) had two relevant examples. One of my points was that increasing inequality reduces innovation bad because it means the people at the top get more and more comfortable, which reduces their desire to innovate. The more inequality, the more of the population falls into two categories: 1. Too poor to innovate (not enough resources). 2. Too comfortable to innovate (not enough pain).

Greenwald saw the value of pain:

After graduation, he accepted a job in the litigation department of Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz . . . “I could not thrive or even function in a controlling institution like that. There’s a huge dichotomy between people who grow up with alienation, which, for me, was invaluable, and people who grow up so completely privileged that it breeds this complacency and lack of desire to question or challenge or do anything significant.

Snowden had all five factors in large amounts. He had freedom because his bosses paid him little attention and, because of his IT talent, it was easy to get a job. He also had a lot of money. Obviously he had great resources, including IT talent, knowledge and access. He had pain because he was disgusted by NSA overreach and Obama’s failure to improve things. He had stability because he had a steady job. The money helped here, too. Because the revelations are so large, he benefits a lot, even if there is also a very big cost.

7 Replies to “Rules of Innovation: Two Examples about Snowden and Greenwald”

  1. Unfortunately, a fair chunk of the innovation caused by government restrictions is ways of dealing with the restrictions.

    Figuring out a clever way for tax accountants to be more efficient would probably be a sensible project in the world as it is, but that cleverness might find better uses in a world with simpler taxes.

    Idea developed from Howard Ruff, who pointed out the huge cognitive load on a culture from a complex tax code.

  2. I would celebrate a world in which there were no cancer to begin with over a world in which cancer took millions of lives for decades before it was cured, although the 2nd makes a better story.

  3. Yes. Indeed, this is the problem with the insular and, as often as not, outright nepotistic elite from the Ivy League that’s taken over Finance, Govt, and MSM. They are too comfortable with the status quo, and have too much to lose if it is adjusted in the slightest.

  4. I dunno, Portlander – it seems like the MSM is going through quite an upheaval right now.

    Seth: Not because they want to, it has been forced on them.

  5. Struggling to see the way in which Snowden and Greenwald innovated. Can you help? Rebelled against authority, yes, but innovated less so.

    Seth: Snowden die something highly original and effective. Greenwald at least took a thoughtful position against the status quo.

  6. Snowden could be said to have innovated getting away (so far) with whistle-blowing, but I’m not sure whether his methods scale.

    Seth: They scale in the sense that everyone now knows the information he wanted known. There is no need for a million people people (or even one more person) to do what he did.

  7. Pain encouraged the risk taking to do what they did, freedom, cash and stability allowed them the ability to execute. The benefit to Snowden seemed ideological at the time – mainly the personal satisfaction of whistleblowing where he perceived wrongdoing by the government – rather than a thought of the financial gain.

    However, none of what the pair did is new ground. Confiding in a reporter seems to be a relatively proven way to whistleblow, and reporting the news is not novel for Greenwald. Seeking asylum also already invented – not sure Snowden could patent his method across the whole experience given most of this is in the common domain.

    I like your framework, but in this case it’s more an evaluation of motivation to engage in potentially risky behavior for those involved rather than innovation. Perhaps we have different understandings of innovation?

    Seth: Greenwald is nothing like a typical reporter. Except he is paid. Snowden exposed classified documents on a scale that dwarfs anything that came before. But you are right, motivation is a huge part of innovation. So is risk-taking. Of course the term innovation is usually reserved for conventional economic products, such as cars or toothbrushes or services we buy. But the whole point of those products and services is to improve our lives. That is also the point of what Snowden and Greenwald are doing. If you consider the assembly line an innovation — and everyone does — you must realize it merely increased the number of cars. What Snowden and Greenwald are doing/have done is increase the amount of classified info the rest of us know about.

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