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Innovate or Die
I recently found the words "Innovate or Die" in two fairly orthogonal places. One was in an article in the New Yorker about the animal kingdoms con artists some of which are using Batesian Mimicry and it had this to say (emphasis mine).
The cheated are under heavy selective pressure to outwit the cheaters, who then come under heavy pressure to refine their techniques. The choice is innovate or die.
The other reference was in an article in Foreign Affairs (FAF) written by Eric Schmidt and it ended with (emphasis mine)
The United States started the innovation race in pole position, but it cannot rest assured it will remain there. Silicon Valley’s old mantra holds true not just in industry but also in geopolitics: innovate or die.
I could draw parallels about China mimicking western technology and cheating in order to obtain intellectual property but thats a story for another day. What I found interesting is the statement in the Foreign Affairs essay asserting that Innovation Power is going to determine who comes out on top over the next decade across a number of technologies.
The essay defined Innovation Power as follows:
Innovation power is the ability to invent, adopt, and adapt new technologies
China is adopting and adapting new technologies at an incredible pace. It's also starting to make massive gains at the sharp end of the spear by inventing and patenting (the irony) these innovations. In the same issue of Foreign Affairs Dan Wang used Stan Shih's smiling curve as a way to describe how China has taken what was once considered the low margin middle of the curve and turned it into an advantage.
In essence China scaled up manufacturing and global supply chains to such a degree that it's now innovating in the manufacturing space. China is gaining knowledge that the US and other western powers deemed unimportant as they offshored everything considered the middle of the smiling curve. This knowledge can only be gained by doing because knowledge does not equal understanding and it's only the act of actually scaling something that allows a company or nation to gain the understanding. No amount of reading books will allow you to build a Google Scale Search Engine an AWS or a Youtube, you need to do it to understand how to do it. When it comes to scale it really is scale or die and scale forces innovation.
Midwife of Innovation
The Foreign Affairs essay provides some concrete examples of how some things were invented or adopted during war like computer science, nuclear technology etc and uses the following phrase
If necessity is the mother of invention, war is the midwife of innovation [note1]
The point here in the essay is that achieving war like innovation during peacetime is going to take a herculean effort and the USA today isn't particularly well suited to bring these changes about.
I agree that the USA today has lost some of it's mojo for various reasons, red vs blue, culture wars, offshoring, government official incentives are short term but it is possible to achieve massive innovation during peacetime and the USA has been doing this for decades.
Scale has been the midwife of innovation
Karl Marx said
Force is the midwife of revolution [note1]
I'd like to paraphrase Marx a bit further and state it as follows
Scale is the midwife of innovation
We've seen this happen in the tech industry over the last 30 years with the birth of FAANG. US tech companies supplanted war as the midwife of innovation with scale. China took on the challenge of becoming the worlds factory and they were forced to scale or fail.
Scaling anything applies hard constraints that require novel solutions and novel solutions require innovation. Scale has been the forcing function for a lot of the innovations we’re seeing.
If the USA wants to maintain the hegemony it needs to scale the industries it deems most important.
Karl Marx in Capital V1 he says
Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one.
which is often quoted as
Force is the midwife of revolution