May 22 2010

Why Humans Became #1 and How Technology and Sex Lead to Unprecedented Prosperity

Published by at 11:46 pm under Wave Guide 1: Economic Growth

Author Matt Ridley — The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves (2010) — explores current thinking about the key factors in human social and technological evolution and what set us apart from early human competitors such as the Neanderthals. After all, they were “nice” people too with big brains who even buried their dead, but never flourished culturally or economically and ceased making headlines 30,000 years ago; (Wall Street Journal, 5/22/10).

What do technology, sex, and the future have in common? (Ans: Collective Intelligence) Click

Ridley’s theme – “collective intelligence” – intriguingly illuminates the way humans surge forward technologically, economically, and culturally even today during epochal, twice-per-century Maslow Windows (e.g., the 1960s… ).

Apparently Neanderthals suffered because they were not gregarious enough! According to Ridley, the key to a “big bang in human consciousness” is not genetic as much as it is collaborative, “what determines the inventiveness and rate of cultural change of a population is the amount of interaction between individuals.” In his book, The Nature of Technology (2009), W. Brian Arthur concurs that today “innovation is a collective enterprise that relies on exchange.”

Ridley comments that,

We tend to forget that trade and urbanization are the grand stimuli to invention, far more important than governments, money or individual genius. It’s no coincidence that trade-obsessed cities … are the places where invention and discovery happened.

After all, even Einstein initially worked at a patent office — by definition a stimulating attractor of new ideas.

“So here is the answer to the puzzle of the human takeoff. It was caused by the invention of a collective brain itself made possible by the invention of exchange.”

Although today, humans connect more often than ever before because of global networking and transportation, even by the late 18th century, humans had apparently accidentally invented a highly collaborative and effective arrangement for societal quantum leaps — the Maslow Window.

Over the last 200 years, great human explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark), macro-engineering projects (e.g., Panama Canal), and even major wars (e.g., WW I) cluster together exclusively every 55 to 60 years. The most recent example of these spectacular decades is the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window. According to the editors of the Sixties journal, “No recent decade has been so powerfully transformative in much of the world as have the Sixties.” The Sixties decade “has become plainly iconic.” It continues to “not only define us but remains urgently with us.”

Because of the “punctuated equilibria” nature of Maslow Windows — brief pulses of unprecedented activity separated by 55 to 60 years — and the fact they obey Bak’s law, Maslow Windows are most likely self organized criticality (SOC) phenomena characteristic of complex adaptive systems. In the weak SOC environment outside a Maslow Window, elements of the complex system — e.g., companies, people, agencies — do not interact strongly and so the system evolves in a fairly stable fashion. However, as a Maslow Window is approached the system becomes fractal — i.e., system elements become strongly interactive systemwide — and large changes (both good and bad) can be triggered by small stimuli without much warning.

On a global level, the fractal Maslow Window is a modern, intense example of Ridley’s concept of “collective intelligence”; i.e., a brief, transformative interval of focused collaboration and exchange when we are most likely to experience the best (e.g., Apollo Moon program; Peace Corps) and the worst (e.g., Cuban Missile Crisis; Vietnam War) of modern society.

Ridley reminds us that,

The story of the human race has been a gradual spread of specialization and exchange ever since: Prosperity consists of getting more and more narrow in what you make and more and more diverse in what you buy. Self-sufficiency — subsistence — is poverty.

Pulsed progress — technologically, economically, culturally — provided by a succession of fractal Maslow Windows over the last 200 years has had a stunningly expansive effect on human specialization and exchange. All we have to do is compare Lewis and Clark’s canoes with the Saturn V rocket of Apollo!

And this progression will continue. The anticipated arrival of the next Maslow Window by 2015 suggests another golden age of prosperity, exploration, and technology is not far away. Ridley concurs that, “the human race will prosper mightily in the years ahead — because ideas are having sex with each other as never before.”

He means, of course, that bright ideas are being intensely exchanged in formats like 21st century Maslow Windows.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Why Humans Became #1 and How Technology and Sex Lead to Unprecedented Prosperity”

  1. Monique D Mageeon 02 Jun 2010 at 10:15 pm

    A most interesting post.

    Thanks Monique.

  2. brezon 07 Jun 2010 at 6:49 pm

    sex AND technology, good read

    Hope things are good in Oslo.

    Best regards,

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