The myth of the solitary genius responsible for momentous advances is strong in American society. The legend lives in the tales of Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs single-handedly inventing the lightbulb and ipod, respectively. The lone hero story is simple, memorable, and not always true. Despite the fact that both of these innovators were supported by hundreds of other people, the lone hero story continues to shine and captivate us. We gravitate to the idea of a single person solving a simple conflict. Increasingly, life is not that simple.
The recently revived brouhaha over who actually invented the internet illustrates the point. We’re asking the wrong question. Our minds are conditioned to seek a simple explanation, with a single human recognized for these technological achievements. The complex answer, that the internet was gradually developed by clusters of individuals, (with a few big leaps forward by people like Tim Berners-Lee), is too confusing for our minds to grasp, and doesn’t fit the traditional narrative. A gang of heroes doesn’t make sense to us. As Steven Johnson wrote so eloquently in the New York Times:
We have an endless supply of folklore about heroic entrepreneurs who changed the world with their vision and their force of will. But as a society we lack master narratives of creative collaboration.
The Internet was built, first and foremost, by another network, this one made up not of servers but of human minds: open, decentralized, peer.
Can we learn to tell “master narratives of creative collaboration?” Or this too big a leap for America in the 21st Century?
*Crowd photo courtesy of victoriapeckham