Mark Pagel on collective cultural evolution, and how we may be becoming infinitely stupid

This is a very interesting talk by an evolutionary biologist, where he starts from the beginning of life itself and weaves a story through to our current state of culture and how ideas flow.

There are several pieces of the talk that are worth taking a moment to appreciate. Here are a couple excerpts.

here he explains humans versus chimpanzees:

One way to put this in perspective is to say that you can bring a chimpanzee home to your house, and you can teach it to wash dishes, but it will just as happily wash a clean dish as a dirty dish, because it’s washing dishes to be rewarded with a banana. Whereas, with humans, we understand why we’re washing dishes, and we would never wash a clean one. And that seems to be the difference. It unleashes this cumulative cultural adaptation in us.

here he explains how ideas are accelerating, and in many ways the term “building on the shoulders of giants” comes from:

If I’m living in a population of people, and I can observe those people, and see what they’re doing, seeing what innovations they’re coming up with, I can choose among the best of those ideas, without having to go through the process of innovation myself. So, for example, if I’m trying to make a better spear, I really have no idea how to make that better spear. But if I notice that somebody else in my society has made a very good spear, I can simply copy him without having to understand why.

here he describes how most of us make choices, and what the collective group-think means for humanity:

As our societies get larger and larger, there’s no need, in fact, there’s even less of a need for any one of us to be an innovator, whereas there is a great advantage for most of us to be copiers, or followers. And so, a real worry is that our capacity for social learning, which is responsible for all of our cumulative cultural adaptation, all of the things we see around us in our everyday lives, has actually promoted a species that isn’t so good at innovation. It allows us to reflect on ourselves a little bit and say, maybe we’re not as creative and as imaginative and as innovative as we thought we were, but extraordinarily good at copying and following.

If we apply this to our everyday lives and we ask ourselves, do we know the answers to the most important questions in our lives? Should you buy a particular house? What mortgage product should you have? Should you buy a particular car? Who should you marry? What sort of job should you take? What kind of activities should you do? What kind of holidays should you take? We don’t know the answers to most of those things. And if we really were the deeply intelligent and imaginative and innovative species that we thought we were, we might know the answers to those things.

And if we ask ourselves how it is we come across the answers, or acquire the answers to many of those questions, most of us realize that we do what everybody else is doing. This herd instinct, I think, might be an extremely fundamental part of our psychology that was perhaps an unexpected and unintended, you might say, byproduct of our capacity for social learning, that we’re very, very good at being followers rather than leaders. A small number of leaders or innovators or creative people is enough for our societies to get by.

And this next insight is where he predicts where we might be headed:

Putting these two things together has lots of implications for where we’re going as societies. As I say, as our societies get bigger, and rely more and more on the Internet, fewer and fewer of us have to be very good at these creative and imaginative processes. And so, humanity might be moving towards becoming more docile, more oriented towards following, copying others, prone to fads, prone to going down blind alleys, because part of our evolutionary history that we could have never anticipated was leading us towards making use of the small number of other innovations that people come up with, rather than having to produce them ourselves.

And how are Facebook, Google, and Twitter contributing towards making us collective stupider ?

The interesting thing with Facebook is that, with 500 to 800 million of us connected around the world, it sort of devalues information and devalues knowledge. And this isn’t the comment of some reactionary who doesn’t like Facebook, but it’s rather the comment of someone who realizes that knowledge and new ideas are extraordinarily hard to come by. And as we’re more and more connected to each other, there’s more and more to copy. We realize the value in copying, and so that’s what we do.

And we seek out that information in cheaper and cheaper ways. We go up on Google, we go up on Facebook, see who’s doing what to whom. We go up on Google and find out the answers to things. And what that’s telling us is that knowledge and new ideas are cheap. And it’s playing into a set of predispositions that we have been selected to have anyway, to be copiers and to be followers. But at no time in history has it been easier to do that than now. And Facebook is encouraging that.

Lastly, what might this mean from an evolutionary biology perspective, and what are we becoming?

Now, the evolutionary argument is that our populations have always supported a small number of truly innovative people, and they’re somehow different from the rest of us. But it might even be the case that that small number of innovators just got lucky. And this is something that I think very few people will accept. They’ll receive it with incredulity. But I like to think of it as what I call social learning and, maybe, the possibility that we are infinitely stupid.

Hope you enjoyed reading this, as much as I did.

Mark Pagel on collective cultural evolution, and how we may be becoming infinitely stupid

Isaac Asimov to future patrons of a library in Troy, Michigan on 16 March 1971

Congratulations on the new library, because it isn’t just a library. It is a space ship that will take you to the farthest reaches of the Universe, a time machine that will take you to the far past and the far future, a teacher that knows more than any human being, a friend that will amuse you and console you — and most of all, a gateway, to a better and happier and more useful life

Isaac Asimov to future patrons of a library in Troy, Michigan on 16 March 1971

(I came across it on a BoingBoing post by Cory Doctorow on June 3, 2011)

College costs twice as much as it did 10 years ago

Earlier today, I started to wonder how expense it has become to go to college these days. As Mona and I were chatting, we conjectured that the increases were tiny if we were to consider cumulative inflation over the same period.

Best way to find out was to dig into the data, so here we go:

Chart 1: Tuition fees data from Virginia Tech & UC Berkeley

Well, it is pretty interesting to see that VT increased its In-state tuition from $2537 in 2003 to $5254 in 2011; an increase of 107%.

During the same period UC Berkeley went from $2928 in 2003 to $6696 in 2011; clocking a whopping increase of 128%.

Chart 2: Wondering what the percentage increases were year over year ?

Chart 2 reveals a sudden spike of 27% in UC Berkeley in-state tuition due to the State of California going bankrupt, and the reduction of state support to the institute.

On average though, both programs saw double digit % increases at the start of the decade and sustained a stable 5+% increase every year.

And what about inflation?
While, I am not an expert in inflation, a few Google searches brought me to’s Inflation Calculator which helps you check the cumulative inflation over a given period of time.

Cumulative inflation
over this (2003 to 2011) period is 22.3%

Therefore, the cost of college has accelerated at 4X-5X when compared to inflation.

In the Information Age when content wants to be free, it is quite surprising to see the cost of education continue to skyrocket.

PS: Yes, I know the distinction between information and knowledge; and do not mean to discount the value of good teaching.

my sense of loss at the demise of bookstores

Many would say the writing is on the wall for physical bound books, and business models that rely on them. As Amazon recently reported to their shareholders the rate at which ebook sales are supplanting print books. The revelation that Barnes & Nobles is up for sale and prior news that Borders is seeking bankruptcy protection mark a watershed moment in the beginning of the end of the neighborhood bookstore (at least in a mainstream sense).

But that is not the point of this post. I think e-books are great for several reasons from portability, lower environmental footprint, search, sharing, and so on and so forth.

Personally, I am a big fan of bookstores and dearly miss the wonder of spending Saturday afternoons strolling the aisles of the Borders in the SoMA area of San Francisco. The Borders shutdown a few weeks ago, and I’ve been distraught ever since. My loss isn’t as much about the impending demise of an institution that sells physical books, as it is about the demise of an intellectual construct/environment it created.

Bookstores create a unique environment that enables serendipity. The freedom to explore the works of different authors, different genres, ask for help when you need it, or be private when you want, the smell of fresh brewed coffee, and familiar faces. Bookstores also create an environment for like-minded people to mingle in a safe and cordial setting.

While the neighborhood bookstore is vanishing, the neighborhood coffee shop is alive & thriving. I am hopeful that these coffee shops will evolve to be spaces that afford much of the great features of bookstores.

From a business standpoint, Starbucks has a vast network of stores and a vibrant digital network (wifi network, music download service, ad network, etc) that can virtually serve the function of bringing books to people’s computers, tablets, and mobile phones.

I am disappointed that my children (in the future) likely won’t experience the wonders of bookstores the way I did.

Rethinking publicness

over the past several weeks, a basic question has been hovering in my conscience.

what is the impact of the information and content I share over social networks?

who reads these updates, and what are their interpretations of them. when was the last time I saw any one of these people, have I ever met some of the subscribers (or information grazers) ? what will happen when I meet someone who knows me as twitter handle @mitensampat in person. (disclaimer: i have had a couple of these encounters already)

I am sure a lot of you have probably thought about this question; have interesting interpretations and done some form of course correction. platforms such as facebook, twitter, yelp, flickr, wordpress and their ilk have increasingly become “public”.

the reasons I am classifying them as being more public today than 12 months ago, are as follows:

a) online social networking is mainstream: I guess the title of the topic says it all. Facebook has gone from being a platform for me to hangout with my friends, to one where I now also find my colleagues, family, and my extended social network. the same holds true for twitter (while linkedin is still niche).

b) search penetrates the social sphere: I vividly recall searching for my name on Google in 2006/2007 (close to when I was graduating from VT) and being delighted at the fact that Google was able to locate my research papers and a link to my homepage. Compare that with today, and a search for my name reveals most of my activity on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and wherever else I exist in the online world. Scary and amazing at the same time.

c) ease of publishing: I can co-publish a Tweet to my Facebook status message, and my LinkedIn profile with one click on anyone of my 4 devices (phone, tablet, laptop, tv) and through the magic of the internet that message will appear in feeds globally. My point is that the cost of performing the task of sharing has come down to zero.

d) noise: given ©, everyone is now able to create content and express themselves with ease. the freedom and ease of expression is a great thing, dont get me wrong. at the same time, the volume of information makes it feel like standing in the middle of a town square trying to take in whats going on.

so where do we go from here? there are several interesting platforms that will emerge (and are already popping up) with their own flavor of focused/niche/elite/restricted/vertical social networks. Path, Fridge, GroupMe and a host of others are busy at work in the space. I must add that Ning was the first company to build vertical social networks, but perhaps they were ahead of their time.

the notion is that people want to share different kinds of stories about their lives with different groups of people. I dont want my work colleagues to know everything about my collegiate adventures, and I want to continue to do those when I am off work. taking it one step further, there may be certain events where I’d like to have follow up conversations and restrict them only to the in-person participants.

Focusing such social sharing will also increase the value each one of us can extract from participation: less noise (a.k.a. better quality), separation, and better control. I for one, have become a bit more measured about sharing photos, videos, and increasingly now my status updates/thoughts as well. It isnt a anti-social-network thing at all, I think its a realization that all that is being shared is public.

Lastly, a shout-out to the work done by Danah Boyd. She did her dissertation on how teens conduct themselves on social networks, and is currently a social media researcher at Microsoft Research. I would love to hear your reactions in the comments section below.

network operators need evolutionary innovation in the mean time

(this post was sparked by a recent article about a speech given by the CTO of Ericsson, Hakan Eriksson at the 4G World conference in Chicago)

Network operators have been dealing with tremendous growth in bandwidth requirements for most part of this decade with a constant cry for new business models and ways to be compensated for the increase. I know that this is the crux of the Net Neutrality debate, and this post is not about that. My point is pretty simple: if you want new revenues, you have to innovate to create new value propositions to parties that might be willing to pay for that value.

To their credit, its not easy ! …Network Operators have to worry about several criteria before making changes to their infrastructure, and that is a well understood constraint. However, that does not completely eliminate opportunities to introduce incremental innovations by leveraging gaps in the existing network infrastructure, or imagining new use cases for existing assets. When one reads the common folk lore, it seems like they are waiting for a penicillin to come out of left field and cure all their troubles. In other words, they are waiting for revolutionary innovation to come through and transform their business models.

I would argue that given the debt of legacy infrastructure (both financial investments and a user base), they need to look at evolutionary models to create new value in the mean time.

One such opportunity is providing audience intelligence to the OTT (over the top) players to enhance their applications. Audience intelligence is a broad term and can include (but not limited to) technographic, demographic, usage, behavioral, location, temporal, and other forms of data originated by users, or the network infrastructure. Audience intelligence can provide the necessary context for many forms of personalization on the web — when done in a tasteful and privacy sensitive manner. Another evolutionary service offering can include a network originated privacy protection solution, given the current sensitivities around privacy on the web.

the revolutionary breakthrough may or may not come, they need to look at evolutionary models in the mean time.

Tying it all together — the end game of present day silicon valley (circa — October 2010)

As silicon valley goes about disrupting one industry after another, it has at this point in time, laid it’s sights on the combined fuzz of commerce, social networks, mobility, and payments.

In the quest of the holy grail for a system that understands consumers and anticipates their likes and dislikes across several dimensions, a group of companies are at the precipice of a massive opportunity to build the ultimate system of systems (SoS). This SoS combines identity, commerce (online & brick-mortar), social networking, mobility, and likes/dislike across services (both traditional services, and information services).

Let’s first start out with my premise of why we are far from the end. As much as we like to believe otherwise, the vast majority of commerce still occurs “offline”, i.e. happens away from your computer desk. The majority of this offline commerce also happens within a relatively short driving distance of the domicile or work place of the average consumer. Therefore, while the world is flat, you still buy the majority of your consumables from your neighborhood. Note: my argument is focused around the “transaction”, and not the production of goods and services.

I will now describe the capabilities of the SoS, and then towards the end of the article prescribe a method to tie it all together.

The SoS is a platform that provides each user with a hub for the consumers digital life: an interface to manage and manipulate incoming/outgoing communications of all types (personal, professional, social, financial, medical, entertainment, news, etc). This first piece is an anchor tenant of the system: since this is the interface which enjoys the greatest amount of #attention from a user. Until 5 years ago, this interface was the desktop computer, and today that is changing rapidly toward being untethered. The race to own this piece is being fought by the giants of information technology today, and there are several flavors of solutions out there. The vocal debate sparked by Chris Anderson of Wired summarizes the shifting landscape of this interface well. Let us name this interface “the hub”, for the sake of this article.

The SoS then extends the hub to the mobile experience, and brings along a few key elements such as: identity, a communication end point, the social network, a financial toolset, and some sensors. For users with smartphones today, you know what I am talking about.

Now that we’ve covered the interfaces extended by the SoS to consumers, let’s shift our focus and think about what it does for merchants and service providers.

The SoS provides merchants an interface similar to the hub, let’s call it “the register”. The register is a system that comprises of a point of sale interface, ties into the merchants CRM system, interfaces with social networks, and ties into the merchants accounting solutions. We hardly find a lot of discussion about innovation in this arena and I believe this is facet of the SoS that is the most under developed at this point in time. Yes, IBM has had point-of-sale solutions for decades, but they have hardly changed in my life time. With the exception of Square (by Jack Dorsey), I don’t know of a single startup or tech major focusing time and R&D efforts on “the register”.

Tying the millions of registers and billions of hubs together is the central fabric of the SoS that extracts context from transactions conducted between the various hubs and registers connected with each other. While the central fabric is built on top of the Internet, it is not the internet itself: but has a combination of capabilities possessed by a search engine, a recommendation system, a social broadcasting system, and a trusted provider (bank). These different components put together comprise the SoS.

The end game that the tech giants are chasing is to build and own this central fabric, its engines, and it’s interfaces for consumers and merchants.

Google and it’s Android platform are best suited to realize this SoS.

The Google search engine is a dominant onramp to the internet, Gmail and the Google Apps suite is fast supplanting the Microsoft Windows desktop paradigm, and Android is fast becoming a pervasive mobile hub. While Google has failed to own the social networking experience, they play well with tying into them from other Google services.

The biggest gap in their portfolio is a foray into owning “the register”, and providing a value exchange to merchants to incentivize them to adopt. The Android platform in it’s tablet avatar is a good starting point. Tie it with other services described above and allow the transaction to flow. Merchants get subsidized analytics and broadcasting tools in exchange for adopting the Android platform.

If I had a venture fund, or access to large financial resources, I would invest in a business or a project to go after the register.

the power of place (even in a networked economy)

this post was sparked as a result of a series of articles by Kevin Kelly, on his blog called New Rules where he has a collection blog posts about what the networked economy is doing to distinction of places versus spaces, and the economic implications of these shifts.

 in the networked economy, what is the importance of place?

 how does where you live and work influence your economic activities, social life, political views and vice versa? on the other hand, how does your online presence effect these? 

 while it is easy to be infatuated by an increasing trend of social and economic activities being conducted over the “network”, the vast majority of these interactions are bound by physical distance. You cannot have a college reunion on Facebook, and cant enjoy a long night of conversations with your high-school friends digitally (unless of course you are the kind who lives in Second Life); at least not with the same intensity.

 the network has done, and continues to do tremendous good to society and the economy, I am not trying to dispute that. my point is simple, the large majority of social and economic activities will continue to occur based on proximity to your domicile.

 as a society, and as consumers (i believe) we are still undergoing the transformative effects of digital networking, and where on the spectrum of influence we end is up for grabs. silicon valley is a great place to witness entrepreneurs (revolutionaries) try to subvert the paradigm for one activity at a time. many lessons from successes and failures.

 the latest target of digital invasion is the coupon business. Groupon and its ilk are transforming the outreach (or customer acquisition activities) of traditional local businesses and driving them online. 

 and this is where my thesis is the strongest ! …while the network makes it tremendously more engaging and effective to reach your audience, the transaction is still bound (in most cases) by proximity.

 i wonder whether equilibrium will ever be reached, or is this a case of sinusoidal movement.

excess capacity helps accelerate innovation

Historically, the supply curve of utility services (electricity, public transport, water supply) has trailed the demand curve by a matter of several years (if not decades). From an economic standpoint, there is a clear alignment with the basic principles of micro-economics and the rules of supply and demand.

Why build excess capacity when there is no clear demand ?

But, for a moment let’s think about the excess build up of fiber connectivity and internet infrastructure before the bubble burst in 2000. Following the episode of gloom, the surplus of capacity across the globe helped initiate a wave of innovations that would not have been attempted without easy (and cheap) access to infrastructure.

I would argue that Web 2.0, voice over IP, peer-to-peer technologies, and more recently cloud computing wouldn’t have come about this rapidly.

So, the question that comes to mind is: 

“what is the role of abundant infrastructure in the growth of innovative applications of a fundamental technology ?”

Clearly a complex question to address, but I will try nonetheless. To do justice to the topic, I will break this down into the following posts (as follow ups to this one):

1) what is infrastructure for innovation?

2) who is responsible for building infrastructure? (can companies do this?)

3) when do we end up in situations of excess/abundance ?

4) what are the tell signs? 

5) role of Investors? (or investor community in general) 

6) does excess infrastructure really help accelerate innovation?

If you specific questions in addition to these, please add your comments and I will try ton address them as well.

While I am not a planning or forecasting expert, this topic is close to my heart as a systems designer who thinks about systems at scale, and systems that have tremendously interconnected fates.