The Agenda

Alexis Madrigal on SunChips and the Meaning of Life

Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic’s new technology correspondent, is a really talented reporter with a knack for finding compelling framing devices. In a recent essay, he riffs on Frito-Lay’s decision to abandon a new bag for SunChips made from bioplastics:

 

Imagine the scientists hunched over the bench constructing the nearly perfect biobag; the process engineers who scaled up the manufacturing line and worked out all the right controls for stuffing and sealing; the business people who cut the supplier deals and sold retailers on the novelty, begging for endcaps; the middle managers who ran the numbers and kept things moving; the quality control folks who noticed “the sound problem” but figured it was no big deal; the focus group consultants who said consumers liked the bag’s design and how it made them feel, observing only in the “Use if Needed” slides though the bag had a good handfeel, it might be too noisy.

This is where we put our productive talents to work. These are good, white-collar jobs. Most of them you’d need at least a college degree to have and to hold. The great machinery induced by billion dollar markets for everything (anything) can be reconfigured for any purpose, even something as mindnumbing as flexible, lightweight chip containers.

And as this dawns on you… You think with the soaring, half-serious tone that we reserve for visions of collapse: This is what happens to a country that no longer dreams, that has lost it’s sense of national purpose or greatness. You think: Maybe we do need a space program, so that we start looking up again.

Because Madrigal is a smart and self-aware member of my generation, he includes several caveats in the piece:

Perhaps all national projects are anachronistically read onto a flattened and unrealistic past. Maybe I am grasping for a time that never existed and a sense of purpose that was Manifest Destiny ugly whenever it did. On the other hand, has it really always been like this — a time in which every consumer acted like the snobbiest oenophile? (When everyone called themselves consumers?)

and

This is not as anti-consumer culture as it sounds. Change of the big groovy sort seems beyond our reckoning. (After all, I like being particular about what I care about buying.) It’s more a question of balance in society, a self-consciousness about means and ends.

and, in the conclusion, a kind of half-caveat

But perhaps realizing that we expend massive resources developing chip bags with just the right soundis a good thing. The silliness of the enterprise is the sort of thing that could symbolize why we need to do something different. And then we can, as Silicon Valley luminary Tim O’Reilly likes to say, “work on stuff that matters.”

We’re all for balance, to be sure. But I have to say, I’m unconvinced by what I take to be the general thrust of Madrigal’s argument, which crystallizes with a reference to Quinn Norton:

Quinn Norton put it brilliantly in another context: “I want to say there are inflection points where the scale of things changes the nature of what they do.” So, yeah, we’ve always had consumer culture and junk food R&D and sales. But somewhere along the line, it got huge. Innovation meant patenting variations on potato chips and their bags.

We stopped fixing bridges and dams and pipelines – and started turning out ever more complex variations on things that we already have and that work just damn fine.

Honestly, I don’t have a brilliant rejoinder of any kind. I just have gentle skepticism, which resonates with Madrigal’s own self-skepticism:

(1) Do societies that fix their bridges and dams and pipelines care about their bioplastic bags? I’d say we have pretty good evidence that they do. Poor countries have more scope to build new infrastructure, as labor is relatively inexpensive, competing uses for land aren’t as big of a problem, etc. And while we could certainly be more mindful of maintaining our basic infrastructure, e.g., by doing a better job of pricing congestion, heavy vehicles that cause a disproportionately large share of the wear-and-tear, shifting from trucks to greater use of freight rail — something that the lightly-regulated freight rail industry in the U.S. has been doing a quite impressive job of encouraging, by the way — etc., I wonder if the real problem is not a failure of national will but a structural problem with how we manage large infrastructure projects, as argued by Barry LePatner in his wonderful book Broken Buildings, Busted Budgets. That is, maybe the problem is not “the vision thing” but rather a failure to encourage the same kind of incremental, ground-level innovation that applies to bioplastic chips bags to infrastructure.

(2) To go back to Amar’s thoughts from a couple of days ago, we can poke fun at incremental innovations. But the accretion of incremental innovation is what leads to cascades of change that are only visible with distance and historical perspective. Wal-Mart didn’t just wake up and say in 1995, “Hey, I’ve got it! We’ll revolutionize our supply chain by pulling this magic lever!” Rather, Wal-Mart managers and employees slowly found new and better ways to combine many different productivity-enhancing technologies, tools, and business practices to build a big advantage over other retailers, eventually forcing other firms to mimic Wal-Mart’s innovations or outdo Wal-Mart in a narrower category or go out of business. 

(3) I don’t like patents. I detest software patents, I’m skeptical of business-method patents, and I see patenting in general as a necessary evil at best. But I really think Madrigal is wrong about the nature of innovation in our time. As Eric von Hippel has argued, some of the most significant innovation is user innovation. Virginia Postrel wrote a terrific column about this subject in 2005:

 

Innovation by users is not new, but it is growing. Thanks to low-cost computer-based design products, innovators do not have to work in a professional organization to have access to high-quality tools. Even home sewing machines have all sorts of computerized abilities. And once a new design is in digital form, the Internet allows users to share their ideas easily.

Because users are often quite different from each other, their innovation, by definition, accommodates variety. A survey of users of Apache Web server software found that different sites had different security needs: one size definitely did not fit all. Nineteen percent of the users surveyed had written new code to tailor the software to their specific purposes.

‘’Users are designing exactly what they want for themselves; they have only a market of one to serve,’’ Professor von Hippel said in an interview. ‘’Manufacturers are trying to fit their existing investments and existing solution types to the largest market possible.’’

Open-source software like Apache or Linux is an obvious example of users developing and sharing innovations, but it is not the only one. Many of the book’s examples come from extreme sports like kite surfing and snowboarding, where enthusiasts often invent their own equipment. Mountain biking, Professor von Hippel noted, grew to about half a million participants before manufacturers started to make bicycles suited for wild rides on rough terrain.

So yes, innovation by the women and men who yell “EXTREME!!!” while quaffing Mountain Dew isn’t necessarily of civilization-shaping importance, but it does help create more satisfyingly EXTREME experiences. 

And in 2005 Postrel and Professor von Hippel couldn’t have foreseen the explosion in app development for mobile phones, an area where user innovation has been extraordinary. Simplenote and Instapaper aren’t the equivalent of the moon landing. But they definitely represent palpable progress for those of us who like to read and take notes, and we can expect more and better products with each passing year and even month. 

I am a great admirer of Tim O’Reilly, and I agree that we should work on stuff that matters. But I know that he thinks little things matter too. Take Saul Griffith’s work on the Onya Cycle, a tricycle that’s designed as a car-replacement for short intraneighborhood trips. Griffith is a brilliant inventor, yet he’s taken the time to work on a fairly small-scale project designed for a niche of urban consumers that could, over a long period of time, potentially make a dent in our collective carbon footprint. 

Now, we could say that Griffith’s work is justified by his environmental goals. But he’s building on countless incremental innovations that were motivated by profit and a sense of joy and little else. 

At the risk of putting words in Alexis Madrigal’s mouth, I think he’s encouraging us to look at the bigger picture. And when we look at the bigger picture, do we really want a world in which the aesthetic preferences and ideological ambitions of a few determine our priorities? The longing of millions of consumers for pleasingly quiet chips bags, snazzily-designed snowboards, sleek mobile phones, slim-fitting pants, and much else besides has sparked the creativity of millions of innovators, the vast majority of whom don’t even think of themselves as innovators. Indeed, the consumers and the innovators are often the same people. Our brains are being exercised and engaged in new ways that are expanding our capacity to solve new, more difficult problems all the time. Freedom, both political and economic, has created an explosion of global brainpower over the last thirty years. A lot of this brainpower has been devoted to things I find totally absurd. But that’s all part of the bigger picture.

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