RE: [OPE] Invention, Inventors, and the Productivity of Labor

From: Anders Ekeland <>
Date: Mon Nov 03 2008 - 07:14:48 EST

Hi all,

very interesting debate. There is a literature on
"user-driven" innovation, f.ex. by Eric von
Hippel, who's book from 2005 called
"Democratizing innovation" has a series of
interesting facts and observations related to
this. Freely down loadable from

Hippel gives empirical underpinning to the
"workerist view", i.e. that it is very often
workers/engineers that make innovation - as
individuals in some cases and as collectives - or
as individuals in a collective - in "huge"
technologies. This goes back to Adam Smith: Hippel writes (p. 24):

Although most products and product modifications that users or others
develop will be minor, users are by no means restricted to developing minor
or incremental innovations. Qualitative observations have long indicated
that important process improvements are developed by users. Smith (1776,
pp. 1113) pointed out the importance of the invention of a great number
of machines which facilitate and abridge labor, and enable one man to do
the work of many. He also noted that a great part of the machines made
use of in those manufactures in which labor is most subdivided, were originally
the invention of common workmen, who, being each of them
employed in some very simple operation, naturally turned their thoughts
towards finding out easier and readier methods of performing it.

Hippel also gives a lot of new references as to
the importance of users in invention and innovation.

There are several important points here for socialists:

- Workers often innovate to save time, effort, so
"profit" is not the single motive - leisure - or
just doing things more "rationally" - with less
effort is a very strong motive. OK it is a kind
of "profit", but not as this word is used in the ordinary economic dicsourse.

- The neo-classical economists have a very hard
time to digest the "free-revealing" of
inventions/innovation (Open source being an
obvious example, sports equipment another, there
are many). That people does things togher -
having just fun or feeling "human" making
innovations together is hard for these
ideological atomists to swallow, it is
"irrational", but a stubborn empirical fact.

- Even if you are a "capitalist" you cannot be
*only* interested in "maximising profit", because
in order to invent - you have to a) see a
"problem" and b) have enough knowledge to
search&find a solution. The pointed haired boss
does not make inventions or innovations, Dilbert,
Wally and Cathy do. Bill Gates was interested in
computers (and still is) - not only money.

- Collective, democratic innovation is absolutely
feasible and more efficient than capitalist
innovation. There are many "competition costs" -
the hiding - not sharing of information,
artificial product differentiation (which is not
labour saving and/or product enhancing innovation).

- Hippel lacks a view of the role of rational,
democratic standards - just imagine the waste
incurred by the fact that every mobile phone
producer has several different charger types,
same for lap-tops. That this is not a technical
necessity is illustrated by the standard for
stationary PCs. We should take democratic
controll over the things and technologies that surrounds us.

- The idea that the users are important
innovators - and should have their part of the
revenue stream is contrary to the "atomistic",
"genius inventor deserves profit" ideology of our times.

- That socialist innovation would also include
conscious, systematic exploration of various
ideas technologies; including rivalry to get
funded/more funding etc. is clear. This is how a
"research council" like the ESF, or the European
Commission works today, but you don't need to be
a capitalist to get such funds. That such
"research councils" could be much more open,
democratic and efficient is obvious. That they
should support cooperation to a much larger
extent than today, although cooperative research
is encouraged since obviously it is much more
efficient and more fun, than "bellum omnium
contra omnes". That enthusiasts will have "flame
wars" debating various technological solutions I
do not doubt. Socialism is technical&scientific
debate, is democracy where you sometimes wins and
sometimes loses - not harmonious boredom
"well-behaved" boredom. (Ruptures,
indivisbilities, enormous network effects etc.
etc. - democratic creative destruction!)

- The Internet gives fantastic possibilities for
sharing ideas, experiences, looking for solutions
etc. - these "communities of innovation" as
Hippel calls them points clearly to a socialist
way of making innovation and hard to make sense
of if your human arch-type is homo economicus.
Homo Interneticus is much closer to reality!

- Idea that you supply users with a toolkit -
from which they can make the "thing" totally
according to their needs also satisfying the
anti-alienation need to create that is so deeply human.

- The market socialist debate in a von Mises
versus Lange/Taylor/Lerner equilibrium,
marginalist fashion is - like neo-classical
economics - totally divorced from reality as
precisely pointed out by Stiglitz in "Whither
Socialism" - and by a bunch of more heterodox
critics of this kind of "celestial harmony"
theory. The present financial debacle is good
examples of how “optimal” these over-hyped
“market mechanisms” are. The financial
“innovations” made by the purest profit-seeking
motivation has shown that being only interested
in money leads to no real welfare creating
innovations… to say the least. People who are
only interested in and working with money do no
real innovations! Innovation is a solution to a
real need/problem where there is "Willingness to
pay" (In many cases those willing to pay have too
little money, but that's another discussion).

Dilberts of the world – unite!

Anders Ekeland

At 10:20 03.11.2008, you wrote:
>ALexandro, whatever the issues relating to
>institutional design for socialism, the basic
>point I was making is the inventions are largely
>made by salaried engineers not by
>independent capitalists. Your example does not contradict this.
>Paul Cockshott
>Dept of Computing Science
>University of Glasgow
>+44 141 330 1629
>-----Original Message-----
>From: on behalf of Alejandro Agafonow
>Sent: Mon 11/3/2008 9:09 AM
>To: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
>Subject: Re: [OPE] Invention, Inventors, and the Productivity of Labor
>Paul C.: "You can only produce many inventions
>relevant to modern technology as part of a collective
>work team. You can only produce improvements to
>the fuel injection systems of jet engines
>as part of a team already working on jet
>engines. The design of a modern gas turbine engine
>is a vast undertaking involving hundreds of people."
>Team work doesn't go against rivalry and catallactic competition.
>It is true that many inventions have been
>produced within the monopoly of military
>complexes, like in USA for example. But even in
>this case intervene contractors that has to
>compete to gain projects or, when the cronyism
>of Republicans biases the adjudication of
>projects, huge profits that go to the contractors' pockets.
>I remember the movie The Aviator. Many of the
>advancements in modern aviation were achieved in
>military complexes, but private contractors
>intervened competing among them. For example,
>Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) owned by
>Howard Hughes had to compete with Pan American
>Airlines (Panam) owned by Juan Trippe,
>developing airplanes able to travel
>transatlantic distances at huge heights to avoid
>turbulences, making the trip comfortable for commercial passengers.
>I'm not trying to deny that other inventions
>have been achieved outside rivalry, just for the
>sake of the humanity. And these altruistic
>inventors are almost always part of the equation within capitalist firms.
>My worry is about the institutional design that
>triggers inventions most efficiently and fastest
>in its "commercial" stage. Our goal as
>socialists is to replicate rivalry avoiding the
>harms of profits privately owned.
>Regards,A. Agafonow
>De: Paul Cockshott <>
>Para: Outline on Political Economy mailing list <>
>Enviado: domingo, 2 de noviembre, 2008 22:12:03
>Asunto: RE: [OPE] Invention, Inventors, and the Productivity of Labor
>Paul Cockshott
>Dept of Computing Science
>University of Glasgow
>+44 141 330 1629
>-----Original Message-----
>From: on behalf of Alejandro Agafonow
>Sent: Sun 11/2/2008 9:52 AM
>To: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
>Subject: Re: [OPE] Invention, Inventors, and the Productivity of Labor
>Why these salaried workers don't produce these inventions by their own?
>The lack of capital is not enough, since it is
>possible to borrow this capital.
>I think the answer comes from more subtle
>phenomena coming from the degree of risk averse
>of entrepreneurs. A low degree of risk averse is
>needed to embark on risky projects.
>We can't neglect this soft side of the problem
>if we want a socialist institutional design able
>to reach the rate of technological change of capitalism.
>Regards, A. Agafonow
>De: Paul Cockshott <>
>Para: Outline on Political Economy mailing list <>
>Enviado: domingo, 2 de noviembre, 2008 10:12:20
>Asunto: RE: [OPE] Invention, Inventors, and the Productivity of Labor
>I am basing my claim on the fact that most engineers are employed
>as salaried workers.
>I would content that only a small proportion are
>members of the capitalist class -- people whose
>income derives primarily from property not the sale of their labour.
>Consider two key innovations, the two prime
>movers of our age, diesel power and
>gas turbines. Whilst the original inventors, Diesel and Whittle were not wage
>labourers, the great development of these technologies since then, which
>has made them the prime movers of our age has
>occured under capitalist relations
>with the improvements being made by salaried
>engineers of firms like Rolls Royce,
>Pratt and Whitney, MAN, Wartsila etc. The progressive improvement in fuel
>efficiency of these two prime movers has been the precondition for the
>modern productive transprot network or super tankers, giant containerships,
>turbofan jets etc. All this has been done not by the owners of Rolls Royce or
>MAN, but by the engineers these companies employ.
>-----Original Message-----
>From: on behalf of GERALD LEVY
>Sent: Sat 11/1/2008 9:17 PM
>To: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
>Subject: RE: [OPE] Invention, Inventors, and the Productivity of Labor
> > Who invents new and more productive
> technologies?> In large part it is done by wage labourers.
>Hi Paul C:
>I don't know about that.
>To begin with, we were talking about the productivity of labor.
>For an invention to affect productivity, there must be *innovation*
>(practical application of an invention). Invention - while generally a
>necessary precondition for technological change - is *not a sufficient
>condition for increasing the productivity of labor*.
>Who the inventors are is not so straight forward. For instance,
>one source says that
> "Inventors are only those individuals who had 'inventive' input
> to the process, not those who merely carried out the direction
> and/or ideas of others. Therefore, colleague(s), technician(s),
> or student(s) who have been involved in or carried out the
> research may not necessarily be inventors (Colorado State
> University [CSU]Ventures)
>In any event, inventions are created by individual inventors and
>within small businesses, private and public universities, public
>institutions, and large corporations. In relation to the latter,
>no doubt there are wage-workers in R&D departments, but who
>are the inventors and what role did the wage-workers play in
>the 'inventive' process?
>Are you basing your claim that wage-workers "in large part"
>are the ones who invent new productive technologies on any
>particular empirical study or studies? If so, which one(s)?
>In solidarity, Jerry
>ope mailing list

ope mailing list
Received on Mon Nov 3 07:17:19 2008

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Wed Dec 03 2008 - 15:07:39 EST