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Posts tagged ‘Matt ridley’

Why I’m Optimistic About The Future

The history of Earth is a rocky and lifeless story. The first signs of life emerged about a billion years after our planet’s creation. They weren’t much either; mostly single-celled organisms that resembled today’s bacteria. Land animals emerged out of the oceans as recent as 500 million years ago, and the genus homo came onto the scene a mere 2.5 million years ago. Complex life on Earth is the new kid on the block; natural selection spent most of its time keeping species the same, not changing them.

We humans are a different story. 200,000 years ago a few tens of thousands of us dotted the African plains. But then something happened. We spread across the globe creating cities and villages along the way. Language evolved, and with it culture and societies. We began living longer and healthier and our population skyrocketed as a result.

What’s peculiar about the rise of humans is that biologically speaking, nothing changed; the same genes that constituted our hunter-gatherer ancestors constitute us. But somewhere along the line a small change led to profound differences in our behavior within a short period of time. Whereas homo erectus and the Neanderthals spent hundreds of thousands of years making the same tools over and over again, we were able to understand and organize the world better.

Whatever the genetic change was, we eventually gained the ability to learn from others. This was hugely important. Anthropologists call this cultural or social learning, and it not only describes our tendency to copy and imitate by watching others, it highlights our unique ability to realize the best from a number of alternatives and attempt to improve on it. Many animals can learn, but only humans can learn and improve. As evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel explains, “even if there were a chimpanzee-Einstein, its ideas would almost certainly die with it, because others would be no more likely to copy it than a chimpanzee-dunce.”

What’s more is our ability to put ourselves inside the minds of others – what philosophers term a theory of mind. It helps us assign reason, purpose and intentionality to objects and people, which moreover allows us to understand things as being part of a bigger picture. Without a theory of mind we would probably still be using the same tools as we did 200,000 years ago.

In addition, theory of mind gives rise to emotions like empathy and sympathy, which give us the capacity to cooperate with people and groups outside of our kin. Virtually all members of the subfamily homininae (beside bonobos) including chimps, gorillas and orangutans do not exhibit this type of behavior. To borrow a thought experiment from the anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, imagine if you were on a 747 filled with chimps and a baby started to cry. In Hrdy’s words: “any one of us would be lucky to disembark with all their fingers and toes still attached, with the baby still breathing and unmaimed.” Recent psychological research is confirming that our species ability to cooperate is partially innate. As bleak as our current headlines are, it appears we humans are wired with at least a minimal ability to get along with each other and have a sense of justice. We’re not perfect, but no chimp would donate to charity and certainly not group of chimps could set up a charity.

This is important for many reasons. The most obvious is that economics is impossible without the means to cooperate with strangers. This is why, according to Matt Ridley, one of the key developments in our species history took place when we “started to do something to and with each other that in effect began to build a collective intelligence… [we] started, for the very first time, to exchange things between unrelated, unmarried individuals; to share, swap, barter and trade.” The effect of trade was specialization, which gave rise to innovation, which in turn improved technologies and so on and so on. Well before Smith hypothesized the invisible hand and Ricardo thought about how England and Portugal could efficiently trade wine we had already begun to understand that communities were better off when their members honed their skills, pursued their self-interest and traded with other communities.

This is a simplified and incomplete story but you get the idea: humans flourished because they were able to learn from and cooperate with each other. It’s unclear what happened biologically, but the consequences were obviously vast.

What’s interesting is that the same cognitive mechanisms that allowed our species to prosper in the African savannah are the same cognitive mechanisms that are responsible for globalization in the 21st century. However, in place of face-to-face interactions is communication over the web.

In a 2010 Ted lecture Chris Anderson addressed this point by exploring how web video powers global innovation. He explained the following:

A while after Ted Talks started taking off we noticed that speakers were starting to spend a lot more time in preparation… [the previous speakers raised] the bar for the next generation of speakers… it’s not as if [speakers] ended their talks saying ‘step your game up,’ but they might as well have… you have these cycles of improvement apparently driven by people watching web videos.

Anderson terms this phenomenon “crowd accelerated innovation,” and uses it to explain not just how Ted Talks are improving in quality, but how everything is. He is making the same general point as Pagel and Ridley: humans learn and innovate by watching and stealing ideas from others. But what’s unique about Anderson’s point is that it’s describing how the Internet is facilitating this ability. And the exciting part is that people will learn and imitate even faster with YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Books and many more online services that focus on the distribution of content. As Anderson says, “this is the technology that is going to allow the rest of the world’s talents to be shared digitally, thereby launching a whole new cycle of… innovation.”

Whereas a famine could have easily wiped out the only community that knew how to harvest a certain crop, build a certain type of boat or make a certain type of tool – what anthropologist call random drift – the Internet not only ensues our collective knowledge, it makes it widely accessible, something the printing press wasn’t able to achieve to the same degree. This is why I’m optimistic about the future: the Internet will only accelerate our ability and desire to improve upon the ideas of others.

Ted lectures over the years give us plenty of concrete examples to be hopeful about: Hans Rosling illustrated the global rise in GDP and decrease in poverty over the last several decades; Steven Pinker demonstrated the drastic decline in violence; Ridley and Pagel spoke about the benefits of cultural and economic cooperation; and most recently, Peter Diamondis argued that we will be able to solve a lot of the problems that darken our vision of the future. And because all this research is coming to us via the web the next round of ideas will be even better. More importantly, it will inspire a generation of young Internet users who are looking to change the world for the better.

Why Intellectual Diversity Is Important

Below is my latest column at The Creativity Post in its entirety. I argue that good ideas benefit from intellectual diversity. Incidentally, I came across this wonderful NYTimes article on the same subject at Farnam Street blog this morning. It discusses Scott Page’s The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies.

A few years ago Brian Uzzi of Northwestern University and Jarrett Spiro of Stanford University set out (pdf) to answer this question: What determines the success of a Broadway musical? Uzzi and Spiro began by poring through a data set that included 2,092 people who worked on 474 musicals from 1945 to 1989. To determine how good each production was they considered metrics such as reviews and financial success. They also controlled for things like talent and economic and geographic conditions to ensure that the big New York City musicals didn’t flub the data.

What they found was that successful productions relied on two components: “The ratio of new blood versus industry veterans, and the degree to which incumbents involved their former collaborators and served as brokers for new combinations of production teams.” In other words, productions that worked found a balance between strong social ties and weak ones, rookies and veterans, familiarity and novelty. They weren’t flooded with a group of likeminded people but neither was everyone a stranger to each other. Uzzi and Spiro hypothesized that the reason intellectual diversity was important is because “small world networks that help to create success or failure in Broadway musicals… face liabilities in the realms of innovation and collaboration that impede their creating new, successful musical hits… too much small-worldliness can undermine the very benefits it creates at more moderate levels, due to a decrease in artists’ ability to innovate and break convention.”

What’s alarming about their conclusions is that a plethora of psychological data suggests that most of us balk when we are given the chance to connect with people who might not share similar intellects. Consider a study (pdf) done back in 2007 by Paul Ingram and Michael Morris at Columbia University. The psychologists gathered a group of executives and had them attend a cocktail mixer where the psychologists encouraged the executives to exchange ideas, network and meet new people. Like good behavioral scientists, Ingram and Morris weaseled microphones on all the nametags to record what was said. Prior to the “mixing” the executives stated that they wanted to “meet as many different people as possible” or “expand their social network,” but the Ingram and Morris found just the opposite. “Do people mix at mixers? “ they asked in the concluding remarks of their study, “The answer is no… our results show that guests at a mixer tend to spend the time talking to the few other guests whom they already know well.” Or, as Jonah Lehrer somewhat sarcastically puts it in a recent post, “investment bankers chatted with other investment bankers, and marketers talked with other marketers, and accountants interacted with other accountants.”

Ingram and Morris’ study should be taken as a warning: If we want to broaden our intellectual horizons it’s important to remember our natural tendency to drift towards and eventually connect with only likeminded people. Stories of innovation and discovery throughout history illustrate how important this point is. My favorite, which doesn’t get told enough, is the discovery of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMB), a key piece of evidence that changed our understanding of the origin of the universe forever.

The story begins in Holmdel New Jersey at Bell Labs where Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were experimenting with a horn antenna originally built to detect radio waves that bounced off of echo balloon satellites. After spending some time with the antenna they ran into a problem. It was a mysterious hissing noise – like static on the radio – that persisted all over the sky, day and night. The duo went to great lengths to eliminate the hiss – they even washed bird droppings off of the dish – but it was all to no avail. Meanwhile, at Princeton University just 60 miles down the road, Robert Dicke, Jim Peebles and David Wilkinson were trying to find evidence for the Big Bang in the form of microwave radiation. They predicated that if the Big Bang did in fact take place it must have scattered an enormous blast of radiation throughout the universe much like how a rock thrown into a lake creates ripples that broadcast outwards. With the right instrumentation, they believed, this radiation could be all over the sky, day and night.

It was only a matter of time before serendipity set in and a mutual friend at MIT, professor of physics Bernard F. Burke, told Penzias about what the researchers at Princeton were looking for. After that, the two teams exchanged ideas and realized the implications of their work. It turned out that the hiss that Penzias and Wilson were trying so hard to get rid of was precisely the radiation that the Princeton team was looking for. A few calculations and a published paper later landed Penzias and Wilson the 1978 Noble Prize in Physics; the rest of us are still repeating the benefits of a more complete understanding of the universe.

The story of CMB reminds us that when it comes to solving difficult problems a fresh set of eyes, even one that comes from a different field, is vital. The CMB story shows itself in one form or another many times throughout history. The world’s great ideas are as much about other people as they are about the individual who makes it into the textbook. As Matt Ridely explains in a TED lecture in a slightly different context, “what’s relevant to a society is how well people are communicating their ideas and how well they are cooperating not how clever the individuals are… it’s the interchange of ideas, the meeting and mating of ideas between that [causes]… innovation.”

There is a wonderful website called InnoCentive.com that facilitates what Ridley calls the meeting and mating of ideas. The framework of InnoCentive is quite simple: “seekers” go to the website to post their problems for “solvers.” Problems range from the “Recovery of Bacillus Spore from Swabs,” to “Blueprints for a Medical Transportation Device for Combat Rescue,” and multi-billion dollar companies like General Electric and Procter and Gamble often post them with cash prizes up to $1 million.

The amazing part is that it’s working. A study (pdf) by researchers at Harvard Business School found that about 33 percent of problems posted on InnoCentive were solved on time. Why does InnoCentive work? The same reason that successful Broadway plays do and CMB was discovered: intellectual diversity. If an organic chemistry problem only attracted organic chemists it tended to be troublesome. However, if a biologist got involved with that same problem then the chances were greater that the problem was solved. The implications of this should make you think: solvers were at their best when they were at the margins of their fields of expertise.

Maybe it sounds obvious to suggest that a proper mixture of minds is important for accomplishing tasks, but remember the lesson from Uzzi’s and Spiro’s cocktail party study: it’s really hard to not surround yourself with people like you. Don’t hang out with too many opposites though, we don’t want another Spider Man: Turn Off The Dark.

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