The Internet is not only one of humanity’s greatest inventions but is itself a tool for creativity. Yet in the world’s two largest economies, China and the United States, government is trying to curb its use.
In Congress, two bills due for a vote soon aim to block Internet piracy of cultural goods such as movies. The legislation serves the interests of the entertainment industry, which loses income in the theft of copyrighted material.
In China, the Communist Party has tightened its control over the Web even further in hopes of heading off a Chinese Arab Spring. It now requires microbloggers to register their names.
While actions in both countries differ in their motives and goals, they raise a common issue: Can a nation spur innovation and stay competitive if it stifles freedom on the Internet?
The antipiracy bills in the US simply aim to enforce existing laws protecting intellectual property. Such laws attempt to encourage inventors, artists, and others by promising a monopoly in the selling of their ideas. The “patent system ... added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius,” said Abraham Lincoln, the only US president to be awarded a patent.
Many Internet experts, however, argue for less legal protection of new ideas. They point to the fashion industry, which flourishes despite few curbs on knockoffs. Creative genius will happen more often in a freer environment, not necessarily because of the profit motive, they argue. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing,” said Albert Einstein.
In its curtailing of the Internet, China puts at risk its drive for home-grown innovation. The economic giant has risen due in large part to its imitation of industrial inventions from the West and Japan.
Yet, a 2011 survey known as the Global Creativity Index ranks China as 58th in a mix of measures such as openness to fresh thinking and an ability to draw talent. (The US is second, behind Sweden.) The survey notes that “progress and prosperity depend not just on the efforts of a privileged knowledge elite but on how well we can unleash the creativity of each and every human being.”
The traditional notion of elite inventors driving the discovery of new ideas has given way to a nurturing creativity in more people and across institutions and academic disciplines. The real source of wealth has always been new ideas. Their discovery cannot always be driven by government or money. About one-fifth of today’s Fortune 500 companies – the Amazons and Googles– didn’t exist 30 years ago.
“Physical factors alone no longer determine progress in today’s modern, advanced economies,” says the Global Creativity Index report. Creativity “is not a stock of things that can be depleted or worn out, but an infinitely renewable resource that can be constantly improved. Everyone is potentially creative.”
Both the US and China, like so many countries, keep trying new ways to spur innovation. China is ahead in producing engineers but fails in fostering freedom for its people to create. The US is far ahead in spending on research but falling behind in helping Americans become scientists and engineers. In 2009, 57 percent of US doctoral degrees in engineering went to foreigners, most of them from Asia.
Creative thinking that leads to new ideas, whether in the arts or business, requires more than a degree. It requires a sense of play, an environment of trust, a tolerance for mistakes, a readiness to take risks, and a patience for long-term gestation of ideas.
External inducements for inventiveness, such as patent rights, must compete with other motives, such as the sheer joy and interest in the challenge of solving a problem or uncovering a new idea.
The question of keeping the Internet free is really one of how best to foster creativity. The Internet itself is dissolving old ways of promoting creativity. China and the US are struggling to know what the new ways should be.