More on Nurturing Innovation and Celebrating Piracy: Will the Chinese Steve Jobs be a Pirate?

If the challenge of making sense of (and advancing) innovation I raised in my last post is evident anywhere today, it is in China.  Christopher Beam’s current column in Slate, “The Chinese Steve Jobs is Probably a Pirate” deftly probes which types of innovation we celebrate, which we condemn, and the murkiness of trying to distinguish them.

In the case of China, an important layer is obviously nationalistic: while we lionize our own pirates (of Silicon Valley, for instance), we readily demonize others, especially when they may seem to play in an economic system with different rules.  Yet Beam’s piece is particularly useful for its reference to venerated American innovations, from Thomas Edison’s phonograph to Hollywood movies, that were copied or at least adapted, updated, and improved for the mass market.  The Chinese, by this argument, have learned well the priority of implementation over invention long employed with great success by American innovators.

Put differently, the Chinese have recognized the potential value of being a second- or late-mover and tweaking existing products to exploit opportunities in the current market rather than seeking merely to invent entirely new products or markets.  As many commentators, notably including Malcolm Gladwell, noted following Steve Jobs’ passing last fall, it was just this kind of re-thinking, packaging and marketing of others’ inventions at which the Apple co-founder was a virtuoso.  Not unrelatedly, the other feature of successful Chinese innovation has been the use of the country’s massive labor force to manufacture products cheaply.  Again, citing only the example of Foxconn as a crucial link in Apple’s (and other “Western” corporations’) supply chains, we can observe how blurred and uneasy are any boundaries we may want to draw between pioneering innovation and piracy.

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