February 3, 2012

For all of our supposed no-nonsense pragmatism, Americans are romantics, and one of the things we love most is the idea of the lone-wolf capitalist: the intrepid, solitary genius who toils in a lab or workshop or office, and suddenly comes up with some startling invention or new way of doing business. Think Eli Whitney, Samuel Morse, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs — individualists and heroes all.

There is only one problem with this notion. In our global, networked economy, the lone wolf is rapidly becoming an anachronism, one that threatens to impede innovation rather than fostering it.

The roots of entrepreneurial reverence run deep in American consciousness and history. At least as early as Benjamin Franklin, who wrote about his rise from meager means to American gentility, there was a cult of the self-made individual — especially in contrast to Europe, where success seemed inherited rather than earned. We have long prided ourselves on self-reliance; Americans subscribe to a national story that the country was created through the pluck and guts and brains of superlative individuals. Even our movies celebrate lone wolves, whether Dirty Harry or Superman.

But while the idea of individual agency may have great appeal, innovation is increasingly coming from groups, not solitary heroes. Capitalism as a communal enterprise — dare we call it collective capitalism? — is the new engine of innovation, in America and beyond, but it doesn’t seem to square with our culture.

The new paradigm might have begun at the dawn of the nuclear age with the Manhattan Project. A Hollywood version of the U.S. government’s effort to create an atomic weapon during World War II might have put Albert Einstein or Robert Oppenheimer in the role of hero, scribbling equations for weeks at a blackboard before arriving, sweaty and fatigued, at the eu­reka moment. The truth? Dozens of physicists worked collectively, collaboratively and pretty much anonymously. No eu­reka moment, no lone hero, no one person challenging fate, science and bureaucracy. 

More recently, the Human Genome Project showed this sort of collective innovation at work. This effort to map the entire human DNA chain was launched by the government — an origin too impersonal to satisfy the entrepreneurial myth we cherish, and a process too slow for some of the researchers. At the time, the news media focused on former National Institutes of Health scientist Craig Venter, who formed a company named Celera to compete to map the genome. Here was the perfect hero — a lone individualist.

But the project proved too costly, too intensive, too complex and — when President Bill Clinton declared that genes could not be patented — too unprofitable for a lone wolf to do it all by himself. Venter did soldier on, but like the Manhattan Project, the ultimate success in mapping the human genone was the product of thousands of scientists in hundreds of institutions, in this case scattered around the world.

Innovation will always need the people Malcolm Gladwell calls “tweakers,” such as Steve Jobs, who connect invention to consumption, and there will never be a dearth of single entrepreneurs who form companies to market inventions. Yet, theories about solitude and creativity notwithstanding, the basic innovative grunt work is now more likely to be done not by a lone wolf but by a wolf pack; there is simply too much information and too much complexity for it to be otherwise. We need a whole lot of brain power because one brain won’t do anymore.

Already we are seeing how this new innovative collaboration works: in the browser Firefox, which is a product of a community of thousands of programmers; in the Netflix algorithm, which is a result of teams of researchers working together; and in a new automobile company called Local Motors, which is manufacturing a car based on the ideas of designers and engineers from around the world who were brought together by a contest soliciting novel approaches to old problems. It boasts on its Web site: “Now, the crowd drives automotive innovation.” The crowd — not Henry Ford.

Where we might see both the tenacity of the lone-innovator myth and its limitations is, oddly enough, in the success of Facebook. On the surface, the social-networking site would seem a perfect example of the old entrepreneurial model, with Mark Zuckerberg (setting aside the pesky question of whether he really invented the thing) as a sort of modern Alexander Graham Bell. But when you think about it, while he provided the critical platform, Zuckerberg created no content whatsoever and didn’t even hatch a new way of selling his service. Everything on Facebook, every last fact, is created by its users. They are also the ones who “sell” Facebook to other potential users — their friends. They are the heroes in this operation, all 800 million of them. Without them, Facebook is just a blank wall.

There is a name for the theory behind the wolf-pack approach. It’s called “Reed’s Law,” postulated early in the new millennium by computer scientist David Reed, and it states that the utility of networks increases exponentially with the number of participants (specifically, 2 to the nth power), because any single participant can engage with any number of other participants. Not incidentally, Reed’s Law built on other theories — an object lesson in its own idea.

Whatever Reed’s Law has to say about social networking, it also applies to information generally; namely, that the utility of any information increases exponentially with the number of individuals accessing it. This points not only to a wiki-culture with billions of collaborators, but to an entire wiki-economy in which billions of people across the globe collaborate to devise new relationships to information and inventions. 

This new reality doesn’t draw on the American entrepreneurial myth of singular achievement. It is based instead on something deeper — our roots as social beings who desire collaboration. We may like to continue thinking that American individualism has shaped and will forever shape the modern world, but here is where cultural self-perceptions and economics can clash. We have got to overcome our hyperactive sense of exceptionalism and embrace the more collective, cooperative and globalized forces shaping the planet. It’s either that or watch the rest of the world pass us by.

outlook@washpost.com

Neal Gabler was recently a research fellow at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. The author of “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination,” he is working on a biography of the late senator Edward Kennedy.

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