Invention as Knowledge Production

In Kenneth Arrow’s “Economic Welfare and the Allocation of Resources for Intervention,” he begins with what may seem like a bold statement: Invention here is broadly interpreted as the production of knowledge.

From this perspective, “invention” isn’t inherently about creating things, it is fundamentally about generating new knowledge. That knowledge may or may not result in new technologies or devices; knowledge itself is the creation.

Arrow uses this definition to point to a core need for the “knowledge economy.” Invention – knowledge creation – is an inherently risky business decision. As Arrow writes, “By the very definition of information, invention must be a risky process, in that the output (information obtained) can never be predicted perfectly from the inputs.”

This inherent risk multiplies. If I can’t guarantee to produce a certain knowledge you can’t guarantee to pay me for it. If you do make such a guarantee, if you agree to pay me regardless of what knowledge I create, then – under the classic economic models of utility – I no longer have motivation to generate that knowledge.

Furthermore, once and idea is generated, it is, in some respects, free. If I undertake the risk of producing knowledge and everyone profits equally from my labor, then – again, under classic economic models of utility – I no longer have motivation to generate knowledge. I’d rather free-ride off your knowledge creation.

This is, in fact, the underlying logic of the patent system: potential inventors will only have motivation to invent under a system that guarantees benefits from successful invention.

What I find particularly interesting about the “knowledge production” definition of invention, though, is that it assumes, in a certain sense, that knowledge is perfectly replicable. What’s missing from this framing is an idea that knowledge I generate can only be generated, uniquely, by me.

That’s not so say that once I generate an idea, you can’t interpret it and use it to generate your own idea. Indeed, one might say such a process is the very essence of science; as thought percolates across time and disciplines, through interpretation by human inventors. That is the very nature of progress.

Arrow’s definitions remind me of Lauren Klein’s work on Elizabeth Peabody: the transcendental scholar and educator who created impossibly complex mural charts. These charts were intentionally difficult to interpret, not as a tactic of frustration but to invite the viewer into a process of knowledge co-creation.

The interpretation of art is not the sole property of the artist; and an understanding of knowledge does not belong solely to the person who had the idea. That isn’t just an economic challenge to be overcome: it is a declaration of the very essence of knowledge. Knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum; it doesn’t just spring to life within one person’s brain. Knowledge only comes to be as a process of co-creation; as a slow accumulation of fuzzy recollections. It is humanity’s ultimate collective endeavor. We only make progress together.

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