Good Reads: What China can learn about innovation from Skype and Steve Jobs

Why do some societies rise and others fall? Today's must reads watch the rise of authoritarian societies like China, and the loose, question-everything innovation of Skype and Steve Jobs.

Paul Sakuma/AP
A customer looks at the book "Steve Jobs," by Walter Isaacson at a Costco store in Mountain View, Calif., Wednesday, Oct. 26.

Fans of the author Jared Diamond – author of those books about why certain societies rise and others fail, including “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse” – will find a lot to enjoy in today’s Good Reads.

First up is The Christian Science Monitor’s own Peter Ford, who wrote an insightful cover story in the Monitor’s weekly called “What does China want?” 

China, of course, is the nation everyone is watching as the next global economic superpower.

But while China’s penchant for supporting dictators and its rising economic clout in the developing world are both seen as worrisome signs by many Western diplomats, Mr. Ford writes that “most China watchers in the West agree. What China wants is pretty straightforward and unexceptionable: to be prosperous, secure, and respected.”

"We'd like to be an equal partner on the world stage, and we want the Chinese people to enjoy prosperity," says Wu Jianmin, a former ambassador to Paris and now an adviser to the Foreign Ministry. "For that, international cooperation is indispensable; China is not so arrogant as to say that it's our turn now to run the world our way." 

Ultimately, societies that succeed do so because of innovation, and innovation can crop up anywhere there are educated people living in an environment that allows them to question the status quo and come up with invention.

For Richard Orange, a writer for Global Post, one of the world’s most exciting centers of innovation is Sweden, the land that brought us Skype, and Spotify, and yes, ABBA.

Why would a country of 9 million people on the fringes of Europe become the next Silicon Valley? The answer seems to be a mixture of high literacy, a strong high-tech corporate base, and sound government policies. Pushed by Internet entrepreneurs, Sweden became the first country in Europe to roll out a government initiative to allow Swedes to buy tax-free home computers, and to give them access to broadband services nationwide. The result was a high-tech boom, or as ABBA would have sung, “money, money, money….”

"The Nordics generally, and Sweden in particular, are a very vibrant market for venture capitalists," said Ben Holmes, from the London office of Switzerland’s Index Ventures. "The chasm between geeks and marketers doesn’t exist so much in Sweden,” said Holmes, “so they have quite productive teams."

On a broad societal level, innovation is a social good, the key to our common survival. But innovators, as individuals, are not always easy people to be around, as The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell writes, in his review of Walter Isaacson’s new book about Steve Jobs, called (wait for it) “Steve Jobs.”

Mr. Gladwell’s list of nonendearing qualities paint a not so perfect picture of Mr. Jobs.

Jobs gets his girlfriend pregnant, and then denies that the child is his. He parks in handicapped spaces. He screams at subordinates. He cries like a small child when he does not get his way. He gets stopped for driving a hundred miles an hour, honks angrily at the officer for taking too long to write up the ticket, and then resumes his journey at a hundred miles an hour. He sits in a restaurant and sends his food back three times. He arrives at his hotel suite in New York for press interviews and decides, at 10 P.M., that the piano needs to be repositioned, the strawberries are inadequate, and the flowers are all wrong: he wanted calla lilies. (When his public-relations assistant returns, at midnight, with the right flowers, he tells her that her suit is “disgusting.”)

Even in his last days, as a doctor places a mask on Jobs’s face to sedate him, Jobs rips it off and criticizes the mask’s design.

And yet, it was this very brutal critical outlook that gave Jobs the ability to tweak and rethink the best inventions of his day and to give us computers that were intuitive and easy to use. And as Gladwell notes, societies that foster this kind of innovation are those that, historically, tend to thrive. Societies that insist on orderliness and good behavior find themselves looking outside for leadership and vision.

Which brings us to the late “Brother Leader,” Muammar Qaddafi. One of the positive aspects of Mr. Qaddafi’s downfall, writes the Guardian’s Peter Beaumont, is that archaeologists may finally have a chance to explore an ancient Libyan society called the Garamantes. Qaddafi himself had no interest in this black-African civilization – mentioned by the historian Herodotus – but they were the great engineers of their day, building huge subterranean water systems that allowed their warrior society to thrive in a riverless desert environment for 1,500 years. Qaddafi’s successors are likely to encourage the study of Garamantes as a society that may have influenced the Romans in architecture and innovation.

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