Considering Steve Jobs and the role of cultural context in innovation

David Brooks explores the “innovation stagnation thesis” and one of the ideas of this argument is that cultural context matters for innovation:

Third, there is no essential culture clash. Look at the Steve Jobs obituaries. Over the course of his life, he combined three asynchronous idea spaces — the counterculture of the 1960s, the culture of early computer geeks and the culture of corporate America. There was LSD, “The Whole Earth Catalogue” and spiritual exploration in India. There were also nerdy hours devoted to trying to build a box to make free phone calls.

The merger of these three idea networks set off a cascade of innovations, producing not only new products and management styles but also a new ideal personality — the corporate honcho in jeans and the long-sleeve black T-shirt. Formerly marginal people came together, competed fiercely and tried to resolve their own uncomfortable relationships with society.

The roots of great innovation are never just in the technology itself. They are always in the wider historical context. They require new ways of seeing. As Einstein put it, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.”

If you want to be the next Steve Jobs and end the innovation stagnation, maybe you should start in hip-hop.

So what exactly is Brooks saying? People who want to be innovators need to embrace or immerse themselves into diverse cultural systems so that they can then synthesize different ideas in new ways? Or is it that innovators like Jobs are only possible in certain cultural contexts and our current cultural context simply doesn’t push people into these different ideas or doesn’t promote this?

Sociologists of culture would have something to say about this. While Jobs clearly had unique individual skills, the production approach would emphasize how his combination of cultural contexts was made possible. He came of age in an era when individuals were encouraged to seek out new ideas and learn how to express themselves. He started a computer company in a field that didn’t have many dominant players and two guys working in a garage could create one of the world’s most enduring brands. He was alive in an era when information technology was a hot area and perhaps ranked higher in people’s interests that things like space exploration and medical cures. (One way to think about this is to wonder if Jobs could have been successful in other fields. Were his skills and context translatable into other fields? Could Jobs have helped find a cure for cancer rather than create personal computing devices? Should he have tackled their other fields – what is the opportunity cost to the world of his choice?) He had the education and training (though no college degree) that helped him to be successful.

In the end, we could ask how as a culture or a society we could encourage more people to become innovators. Is studying hip-hop really the answer? What kind of innovation do we want most in our society – scientific progress or self-expression or dealing with social problems or something else? When we talk about pushing math and science in schools, what innovations do we want our students to produce?

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