Driving north up Al Kasr Al Aini towards the barricade on the south side of Tahrir Square we quickly realized the great fortune of selecting the right-hand lanes of traffic as the left stood motionless behind the snarled Sunday evening traffic. To make matters worse, the piercing blue and red strobe lights of emergency vehicles indicated that those on the left would likely remain in stasis for quite some time.
“Alhamdulillah,” my companion commented as we sped past the less fortunate commuters just meters away recognizing that the difference between arriving at dinner on time or hours late was providently decided by a traffic impulse a mile earlier.
This morning, I glanced at the news on my way to my early morning workout. Blackberry had filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Typo Products. Blackberry geniuses Jason Griffin, John Holmes, Mihal Lazaridis, Herb Little, and Harry Major had convinced U.S. Patent examiner Monsour Said to grant them a patent on “a handheld messaging device for wireless e-mail that is optimally configured to facilitate thumb-typing with thumbs, comprising a keyboard having a plurality of keys representing the letters of the alphabet said keyboard integral to the hand held messaging device….” Apparently neither the Blackberry engineers nor the patent examiner were familiar with the theorem from 1913 set forth by French mathematician Emile Borel who examined the probability of the infinite number of monkeys on the infinite number of keyboards reproducing works of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Undoubtedly, said French monkeys on said keyboards would have used “thumb-typing with thumbs” in 1913 making Blackberry’s infringe-able invention in 1998 highly anticipated and not inventive. As if 100 year old French monkeys aren’t reason enough to dismiss this frivolity distracting the venue of insanity also known as the Northern District of California Court, the “revolutionary” product (their characterization) created by Typo Products representing the “culmination of years of development and research” (their characterization) that allows iPhone users to use a keyboard affixed atop the flat screen is a retrofit snapped over the iPhone casing and therefore fails Blackberry’s first claim of being “integral” to the device.
As I’ve done for decades, I had the opportunity to sit down - this time in Egypt - with aspiring entrepreneurs – a term originally used to described the manager of a theatrical production or a circus (do I sense a French theme in this post?). This group was working to eradicate from Egypt the horrific legacy of war in the form of vast tracts of land filled with landmines and, compliant with the misguided advice of business consultants who favor more monkey than mathematician, sought to reassure me that their ‘invention’ was ‘patented’. These patents, they argued, were part of the value proposition of their endeavor. Having begun my day with Canadian monkey business, I was disheartened to see passionate young Egyptian men ‘pitching’ an illusion that had distracted them from the legitimate and laudable endeavor upon which they had embarked.
Listening to these gentlemen detail the gruesome scourge of lost lives and limbs throughout Egypt courtesy of Norwegian Nils Waltersen Aasen’s invention of the modern anti-personnel landmine on the eve of World War I, I was struck by the ironies of the day. Nearly 100 years ago, Aasen was made an honorary colonel in the French army and was awarded the status of Chevalier in the Legion d’honneur for his anonymous armaments. This inventor of “the automatic soldier” set in motion a century of death that my Egyptian friends sought to destroy with a ‘patented’ automatic mine detector. Both of them promoted their efforts as ‘inventions’. Both sought speculative investors to fund their novelties. Separated by a century, neither fully contemplated the trajectory of their endeavors – ignoring the ample lessons from history and oblivious to the sustainability of their efforts in the future.
Far more dangerous to humanity than buried landmines is the proliferation of distracted intentions. There’s no question that the gentlemen I met today are zealous about ridding Egypt and the rest of the world of hidden agents of death and destruction. There’s no question that they’ve undertaken considerable time and effort to develop technical solutions that can go a long way in addressing a problem that plagues millions of acres and kills or maims thousands each year. And with 155 signatory countries to the Ottawa Treaty who agree that they will not use, develop, manufacture, stock-pile or traffic and trade landmines, their effort is certain to appeal to the morality of a vast majority of humanity. So why is it that these young men so willing to serve humanity believe that their effort is served by laying cognitive ‘landmines’ in the illusory landscape of innovation? What evidence could anyone point to that supports the hypothesis that patenting the method to rid the world of landmines actually serves humanity more effectively than collaborating with humanity to achieve the same outcome? The answer. None.
As I’ve stated before, one of the most prolific deterrents to the success of human enterprise is the reflex to force every impulse into a consensus structure or form. We pretend to celebrate creativity in technical adaptation and engineering, for example, but we find anathema equivalent creativity in business models or the provisioning of the same. Figure out the angulation of keys on a typewriter modeled after the 1868 U.S. Patent 79,265 awarded to QWERTY inventors Sholes, Glidden and Soule so that opposable thumb primates can tweet to one another while driving and you’re celebrated as worthy of infringement defense. Suggest that you consider a business approach other than the broken VC model of the failed U.S. and European inefficient capital roulette wheel and you’re crazy. Why? Because with conformity comes control. And with control comes the ease of reinforcing incumbencies. And with incumbencies comes the maintenance of the status quo – a status quo that has, for 100 years, accepted the fact that people who don’t matter in places that don’t matter randomly trigger forgotten landmines. And, like the axiomatic silent tree that falls in the earless forest, the landmine that is never detected by the invention that never gets funded that kills the farmer that never was considered is something that the status quo never hears because it doesn’t make a sound in the Silicon Valleys of the Knowledge Economy.