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.