29 July 2007

New York Times questions von Hippel by underlining value of top-down innovation approach

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Instructibles
G. Pascal Zachary, a journalist, author and teacher (at Stanford), argues in the New York Times that “the opening of innovation to wider numbers of people obscures another trend: many of the most popular new products don’t allow for customization.”

User-generated content — from Wikipedia to YouTube to open-source software — is generating waves of excitement. But the opening of innovation to wider numbers of people obscures another trend: many of the most popular new products, like the iPod, are dominated by a top-down, elite innovation model that doesn’t allow for customization.

“New technologies are becoming so complex that many are beyond the possibility of democracy playing a role in their development,” said Thomas P. Hughes, a science and technology professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Consider: Electronic implants into human bodies; gene-splicing as common as cosmetic surgery; computer networks mining vast databases to discern consumer preferences. All of these innovations are the result of corporate or government initiatives overseen by elites.

To be sure he gives credit to Eric von Hippel and the online community Instructables, but raises the question whether this is not some “kind of “democracy lite,” emphasizing high-end consumer products and services rather than innovations that broadly benefit society”.

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