‘Ideas… having sex with each other:’ The collective, interactive nature of human progress

There was a fascinating piece in The Wall Street Journal over the weekend, which I particularly enjoyed because of the way it cut across the way we tend to group ideas, particularly political and philosophical ideas, in popular dialogue.

In particular, I liked the way it applied economics to evolution to explain how human progress — innovation, wealth production, and other blessings of modernity — is a collective, interdependent process:

The answer lies in a new idea, borrowed from economics, known as collective intelligence: the notion that what determines the inventiveness and rate of cultural change of a population is the amount of interaction between individuals. Even as it explains very old patterns in prehistory, this idea holds out hope that the human race will prosper mightily in the years ahead—because ideas are having sex with each other as never before.

The piece started wondering why our ancestors, who could make tools for a couple of million years, didn’t really start to take off technologically or culturally until 45,000 years ago. The answer is that we are dependent on each other to move forward, and there have to be enough of us to reach critical mass if we’re really to take off.

The best part was right here:

But the sophistication of the modern world lies not in individual intelligence or imagination. It is a collective enterprise. Nobody—literally nobody—knows how to make the pencil on my desk (as the economist Leonard Read once pointed out), let alone the computer on which I am writing. The knowledge of how to design, mine, fell, extract, synthesize, combine, manufacture and market these things is fragmented among thousands, sometimes millions of heads. Once human progress started, it was no longer limited by the size of human brains. Intelligence became collective and cumulative.

In the modern world, innovation is a collective enterprise that relies on exchange. As Brian Arthur argues in his book “The Nature of Technology,” nearly all technologies are combinations of other technologies and new ideas come from swapping things and thoughts. (My favorite example is the camera pill—invented after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer.) We tend to forget that trade and urbanization are the grand stimuli to invention, far more important than governments, money or individual genius. It is no coincidence that trade-obsessed cities—Tyre, Athens, Alexandria, Baghdad, Pisa, Amsterdam, London, Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo, San Francisco—are the places where invention and discovery happened. Think of them as well-endowed collective brains.

I like the way this celebrates human achievement — from science to culture to capitalism — while at the same time blowing apart the fantasy that so many (the Mark Sanfords of the world) harbor: That we function best as little individual islands left alone by society at large. We are all in this together, or we simply don’t progress.

I don’t know about you, but I find it far more elevating to think about ideas having sex than certain, um, people:

The process of cumulative innovation that has doubled life span, cut child mortality by three-quarters and multiplied per capita income ninefold—world-wide—in little more than a century is driven by ideas having sex. And things like the search engine, the mobile phone and container shipping just made ideas a whole lot more promiscuous still.

Reading all this caused me to have a depressing thought, however. I think these ways of looking at human progress may help explain why political ideas in this country seem so counterproductive, so mutually canceling, like intellectual dead-ends, with the so-called “liberals” and “conservatives” locked in perpetual battle with each having a slight majority for a time, but no progress ever being made (by anyone’s notion of “progress”)…

I think it’s because our political ideas no longer “have sex” with one another, borrowing memes from each other and changing and producing new, more vibrant and robust, hybrid ideas. Not only do the ideas of today’s so-called “liberals” and so-called “conservatives” not only don’t jump into the sack together, they don’t hold hands, or even look at each other across a crowded room. They don’t even listen to each other, much less join to be fruitful and multiply productive new ideas.

Our political system, centered around a legislative process that depends on deliberation — with real debate between people listening to each other in good faith — can’t function with all the dancers standing on opposite sides of the dance hall and refusing to speak to each other.

Maybe I should start marketing my UnParty as a political/intellectual fertility cult, and sponsor monthly idea orgies. Or something.

Just a thought.

17 thoughts on “‘Ideas… having sex with each other:’ The collective, interactive nature of human progress

  1. Steve Gordy

    Brad, on another line, the cross-fertilization of ideas is another reason why SC will always be a laggard in our national life. We have no major cities, no internationally recognized institutions of learning, no “lead-the-way” companies.

  2. Phillip

    Steve, we’ll always be a small state, but other small states can and do have some impact beyond their size, also with no big cities: thinking mostly New England, with Maine, NH, Vermont. Of course the issue of education is key. We have good institutions here but they need support. The main problem for South Carolina is a mindset stuck in the 19th century on so many fronts. And the governmental paralysis and ineffectiveness that Brad has written about for years.

  3. Boyd Summers

    I really liked this piece..both the WSJ and your comments. We really are all in this thing together and unfortunately our state politicians have so gerrymandered and divided the electorate that the extremes appear to be the loudest voices. Difficult for Legislators to get elected from these gerrymandered districts discussing these types of themes. Anton Gunn has made some progress on this. We REALLY need a Governor who speaks this type of language. I hear nothing like this coming from the GOP candidates. I have known Sheheen for a long time and these themes are part of his DNA. I hope our state makes the right call in November. Two more terms of a rigid ideologue would be devastating for this state.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    I have been fortunate at times to be in a “broth” of smart, creative people and it really does get those synapses firing. It really is a singles bar of ideas!

    and yes, I fear that Steve is right that the Brain Drain and Brain Never Was Here in the Firt Place effects limit SC. When Kelly Payne, a teacher, thinks the problem ofour schools is too much money, well, you don’t find people like that in the areas that disproportionately graduate big thinkers, like the North Shore of Chicago, Brookline MA and the tony suburbs of NYC.

  5. Mark Stewart

    Nope. The state’s biggest problem is that it has three heads: Columbia, Charleston and the I-85 corridor. Could everyone just scrunch in a little so that we could urbanize? Really, it’s not such a bad thing. History has proven it over and over.

    Georgia managed it and NC is getting closer with the megapolis forming between Charlotte and Raleigh. We seem to be more like Tennessee or Kentucky. And I’m not sure that’s such a good example for the future.

    People isolated are intolerant and fearful; the unknown is scary. That’s understandable. But so is stagnation. Granted, it’s just more comfortable to dither.

  6. Brad

    Stan Dubinsky just said, via e-mail, that he wants to be invited to the next “idea orgy.”

    Suddenly, I’m popular…

  7. Brad

    And Phillip — those jam-packed little states in the NE have that kind of dynamic largely BECAUSE they are packed so closely together in the Northeastern megalopolis, an area that adapted itself to an economy that well supported such a dense population long ago, back when this state’s wealth was based in widely-spaces plantations made valuable by slave labor.

    So, by this theory, of COURSE they’re ahead of us in innovation and intellectual development.

  8. Brad

    Also, they were trade-based. For instance, when slavery was legal, they had the best end of the deal, making money on the TRADE, rather than being dependent on a plantation economy that existed on the backs of a constant population of slaves. A dynamic trade-based economy can trade other commodities with the slave trade is over. A plantation economy can’t make that transition, and never has.

    The best strength that SC has in this regard is Charleston, as a trade center. But that can’t compete with the dynamic of having Philadelphia, New York and Boston in such proximity.

  9. Phillip

    That’s true, Brad, as far as the origins of those NE states’ strengths and some of SC’s historical vulnerabilites goes. But the NE states have reinvented themselves in many ways as hotbeds of either high-tech, niche industry, and tourism, all of which we could accomplish too.

    To me it’s just a decision of are we willing to look forward or backwards. Virginia was a plantation colony too, NC less so but still part of the old South. Yet they took a different path from SC. My own experience is of growing up in Charlotte, living through the court-ordered desegregation days in the early 70’s. It seemed that almost overnight, the “power elite” of the city (mostly financial, and not exactly a bunch of bleeding-hearts) made a concrete decision in those days “OK, we can either move forward or dig in our heels in the name of tradition,” and they chose the former. That mindset paved the way for boom years that were nearly uninterrupted until the recent bank problems. NC in general chose that different path, although of course they had the benefit of a superb state university system and elite private schools too.

    You speak of megalopolis, but Charlotte, Greenville/Spartanburg, Columbia, these are closely situated cities, all with unique strengths. It’s all about leadership, I agree with Boyd: Sheheen seems to be in touch with this concept, the GOP gang all seem to be the “dig in their heels” crowd. I have high hopes, too, for Steve Benjamin’s leadership for our city, as regards this kind of synergy.

  10. Brad

    This brings us back to our form of government, and this is a problem that a lot of people don’t understand, and I blame myself because I’ve been trying to explain it for 19 years, and haven’t gotten it across yet.

    Sheheen gets it, which is why he’s the one candidate who talks credibly about government restructuring — and did so long before he became a candidate.

    South Carolina is hobbled because the political power structure is not properly in sync with the state’s economic interests. In Charlotte, for instance, you have good rapport between top business interests and community decision-makers. In South Carolina, you have a governmental structure — the diffused, unaccountable islands with no one in charge — that is the vestige of a system designed specifically to KEEP THINGS THE SAME, for the sake of the landed, slave-holding gentry. That class of people is gone (with the wind, as they say), but the structure built to serve them remains, and now it serves no one.

    Business leadership, church leadership, all other power structures in SC, would gladly make changes. Just to cite one simple thing, they’d get rid of the Confederate flag on the State House in a skinny minute. But since the political structure has to act for that to happen, and since that structure is built to resist such change, it won’t happen. And the yahoos made sure of that back in the mid-90s. Before that, the governor — who couldn’t do much else — could have, had he the nerve, taken the flag down. Or at least there was suspicion that he could. So one of the first things the GOP leaders who had just taken over the House did was see to it that the status quo was made a matter of statute. And now, lawmakers don’t have to lift a finger to keep the flag up. All they have to do is nothing. And they insist stolidly on doing just that.

  11. Burt

    As a former city employee and future county employee (between jobs until next week), as well as a grad student pursuing an MPA, I often hear that South Carolina (or city of Columbia) has no future because of the type of government or the culture or various other things. My take on it is that there is a great opportunity for improvement and those of us who are in positions to make a difference have the obligation to implement good ideas, not just sit around talking about them and wish South Carolina were different so we could. So, I really enjoyed the article and Brad’s comments. I am one public servant who intends to make a difference in whatever organization I am in and I think there are several other young folks who feel the same. We just want the chance. Trust me, there’s hope in the future.

  12. Kathryn Fenner

    Maine is surprisingly Appalachian, especially the further away from the coast and the further north or east you get. It does have a lot more breath-taking scenery than we do, and it is conveniently two hours or less from Boston, but despite its harsh and long winters, it has attracted a huge number of smart and/or talented people from away. Part of that is the nearness to Boston–but Portland’s MSA, the largest city is half the Columbia MSA, plus the fact that it has been Vacationland for the educated elites and so on, but the people I knew when I lived there just liked the tolerance, the sense that you take care of those less fortunate, and they stayed and created a base to attract even more of the same. Now when I go back, I am floored by how much progress Maine has made, while it seems that SC is falling back–perhaps because that’s how the reactionary class of SC wants it. Dunno. It may be a tipping point thing.

  13. Mark Stewart

    Well, if the government structure in the state can’t be consolidated (because it hasn’t to date, which is proof of the system’s inherent structural support), then maybe something simple like relocating Clemson to the Green Diamond could be undertaken? .

  14. Phillip

    Kathryn, no accident either that Maine has been one of the few places in recent years that has produced that rarest of creatures, the moderate Republican: William Cohen, and Senators Snowe and Collins.

  15. Kathryn Fenner

    I was thinking about it some more–people who either had the top educational opportunities, or who went to university or otherwise with those who did, want those opportunities for their kids. They don’t want to come to work in a place that thinks all you need to prepare your kids is pencil, paper and a ten-year-old set of encyclopedias. So those companies don’t want to locate here. So we never reach the tipping point where those knowledge economy jobs are coming to SC.

Comments are closed.