This is, as President Reagan reminds us, the age of the individual entrepreneur and inventor, not the giant corporation.
It is the single, solitary genius whose discoveries and inspirations will assure the future prosperity of the American economy, the president said in a speech last week.
True enough, replies William Norris, founder and chairman of Control Data Corp., the Minneapolis computer manufacturer.
But what the economy needs even more than a hotter burst of high-tech individualism is a stronger spirit of cooperation among scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs and companies, says Norris.
To put this notion into practice, Norris has helped establish the Midwest Technology Development Institute (MTDI), with the backing of eight Midwestern governors, so far. He wants it to become a clearinghouse and coordinator of technological development in the Midwestern region.
The institute, based in Minneapolis, will have a small staff responsible for organizing cooperative research ventures at major universities throughout the region, with government funding and support as well as help from companies that hope to use the research commercially.
The projects could include work on acid rain, toxic wastes, health care, agricultural processing and supercomputer applications, Norris says, with one major research project presumably in each state.
In time, the research ventures could include scientists from Europe and Japan, says Norris, who sees this approach as a way to getting a more even international exchange of technology than now exists, particularly with Japan.
The third leg of the plan is the creation of a for-profit technology trading company that would work with entrepreneurs and small technology companies, helping to move their discoveries into commercial production by licensing or selling them.
For all its industrial woes, the Midwest possesses some great assets to help its companies compete with foreign rivals. Among the greatest resources are the giant state and private universities spread throughout the region.
But the ideas and discoveries percolating out of university laboratories aren't helping economic development in the Midwest nearly as much they could, says Norris. That's because the work of individual research scientists in the various universities isn't shared to give the maximum help to U.S. companies.
"The single most important thing we can do to become more competitive is to be more cooperative," Norris said in an interview.
One problem is an understandable but damaging waste of technological resources, says Norris. The professors and their students need to be gaining experience in problem solving using the largest, most powerful computers, but they can't afford them, acting on their own.
Every head of a university computer science department wants his or her own computer system, but they'd be farther ahead if they combined their money and acquired a supercomputer that would be based at one university but shared by researchers from several schools, says Norris.
Throughout a long business career, Norris has been a determined disciple of cooperation, setting up joint ventures on more than a half-dozen fronts between his company and others, to combine expertise in the development and marketing of new technologies. He believes in it.
The two images seem at odds with one another. There is Reagan's entrepreneur, bringing a remarkable new product from a basement laboratory into mass production in a triumph of individual genius. And there is Norris' idea of teamwork, shared technology and joint strategies.
It's important in looking at Norris' proposal to get beneath both cliche's -- that of the solitary genius and the ideal of teamwork.
What may be misleading about Reagan's image of solitary genius is that as far back as Thomas Edison, this country's great technological breakthroughs tended to be pieced together from the contributions of many inventors.
In today's fiercely competitive global economy, we had better not trust to luck that America will continue to turn out enough Edisons to keep the economy advancing. It is more important than ever to look at the educational, economic and regulatory climate in which entrepreneurs must hatch their ideas and try to bring them to market.
Norris' argument is that without a much stronger attempt to cooperate and share technology coming from university, government and corporate laboratories, individual American companies cannot keep up with foreign competitors whose efforts are supported by strong national industrial strategies.
It may be that Norris' MTDI, with its board of directors of politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists, is an alien approach that cannot work in this country. Such cooperation isn't a very strong part of our culture and there aren't a lot of success stories.
But there is something very American about Norris' attempt, with MTDI, to experiment with the process of creating technology -- to see if better methods can be found.