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The Reason for Boundless Optimism

This, from a wonderful op/ed piece in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend entitled: From Phoenicia to Hayek to the ‘Cloud’ by Matt Ridley.

The crowd-sourced, wikinomic cloud is the new, new thing that all management consultants are now telling their clients to embrace.  Yet the cloud is not a new thing at all.  It has been the source of human invention all along.  Human technological advancement depends not on individual intelligence, but on collective idea sharing, and it has done so for tens of thousands of years…

Knowledge is dispersed and shared. Friedrich Hayek was the first to point out, in his famous 1945 essay “The Uses of Knowledge in Society,” that central planning cannot work because it is trying to substitute an individual all-knowing intelligence for a distributed and fragmented system of localized but connected knowledge.

So dispersed is knowledge, that, as Leonard Reed famously observed in his 1958 essay “I, Pencil,” nobody on the planet knows how to make a pencil. The knowledge is dispersed among many thousands of graphite miners, lumberjacks, assembly line workers, ferrule designers, salesmen and so on. This is true of everything that I use in my everyday life, from my laptop to my shirt to my city. Nobody knows how to make it or to run it. Only the cloud knows…

…good ideas can spread through trade. New weapons, new foods, new crafts, new ornaments, new tools. Suddenly you are no longer relying on the inventiveness of your own tribe or the capacity of your own territory. You are drawing upon ideas that occurred to anybody anywhere anytime within your trading network….

That is what trade does. It creates a collective innovating brain as big as the trade network itself.

So far this is already inspiring. We are advanced by the collective brain power of everyone we trade with… need there be any further discussion of free markets and open trade?  Why, other than in pursuit of enslavement, would anyone suggest limiting the “collective innovating brain?”  But there’s more; there’s reason for unbridled optimism.  Not just a positive outlook, not just a subtle feeling that the world will work itself out, but a genuine, over-the-top realization of optimism perfected.

Which is of course why the Internet is such an exciting development. For the first time humanity has not just some big collective brains, but one truly vast one in which almost everybody can share and in which distance is no obstacle.

The power of the one, vast, collective brain found in the Internet is the greatest development in mankind’s civilization since the creation of civilization itself.  Up till now, when areas were “socially networked by the trading ships of Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs or Venetians, culture and prosperity advanced. When the network collapsed … prosperity stagnated.”  The social networking of mankind is now instantaneous and worldwide.  Even systems that effort to control information cannot control the Internet; information will out because the innovation crossed the tipping point.  Once we became “one truly vast (collective brain) in which almost everybody can share…” we became a force beyond the reach of any man’s desire to control.  What could possibly overcome the innovation and prosperity of one, worldwide collective brain? Only another equally worldwide collective brain, yet this is not possible. The space was filled at the moment of the tipping point.  It cannot be unfilled and replaced with a lack of knowing.  It has happened.  The future is very bright indeed.

Related posts:
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  • Reasons to be cheerful: Defying the specter of ugly fates.
  • What Happens to the Early Worm?

  • 6 comments

    6 Comments so far

    1. Greg Swann September 28th, 2011 10:27 pm

      This is an iron law of BloodhoundBlog, going back five years and more: When you slam it out of the park, the response is a stunned silence. Bravo!

      This is what I have called the unchained epiphany, but, of course, I’m as much interested in the tech revolution from the other direction: That we can trade with whom we choose is wonderful, but just as wonderful is not being forced to trade with whom we’d rather didn’t — or being forbidden to trade at all.

      The purpose of all legislation malum prohibitum (wrong because forbidden) is to outlaw the human mind. The farther and faster we can run, the harder we are to enslave. It’s a shame that we have to lose so much energy to pest-control, but at least our burden promises to get lighter going forward.

      I have huge objections to the epistemology undergirding the quoted article, but that doesn’t really matter: The things he is right about are already actively erasing the negative premises he starts from. The next few years promise to be decisive for Greek civilization, and the race, for now, is between the mind’s Big-Bang-like eruption into the Agora and the rage and fear of the tyranny’s coming irrelevance.

      But for you: This is a lighthouse post for you, I think, a navigational beacon. I love the metaphor of the number line, because it makes a quantified understanding of progress possible. This essay lives well to the right of the zero on the number line, a place I love to be. Thanks for this. I’m in your debt.

    2. Sean Purcell September 29th, 2011 7:11 am

      “I’m in your debt”…

      In psychology we refer to DABDA as a theory on coping with grief. It has amazed me how closely the journey of Egoism has followed the steps of grieving:

      Denial – “government is a necessary evil…”
      Anger – “Damn those who indoctrinated me!”
      Bargaining – “Some of this was necessary, right?”
      Depression – “Everything I know is wrong…”
      Acceptance – …

      It’s that last stage where Egoism parts ways with coping with grief. Because the final stage of egoism is much more than acceptance, it’s a realization that leads to optimism: We, as a species, are free as a natural state of being. We, as a species, are naturally drawn to and resonate with truth.

      That in itself is very powerful and good cause for optimism. But the internet… the explosion of human connection… For the longest time I did not understand the outright optimism that you and others expressed when discussing egoism and the internet; but I suddenly do. The battle has already been won – the tyrants just don’t know it yet (of course, neither do most people… but that’s another conversation).

      Greg, it was you that started me down this path of egoism (kicking and screaming, I might add). And you have pointed out paths and shone light into dark corners ever since.

      You are wrong, Mr. Swann… I, am in your debt.

    3. Greg Swann September 29th, 2011 9:59 am

      > it was you that started me down this path of egoism

      Possibly, but your journey down that path was all your own doing. That’s my objection to the “collective brain” idea. We can share ideas, but only a living individual human mind can can discover, learn, master and deploy a new idea for the first time, and each one of us must engage in that process alone — even as we stand on the shoulders of all those giants of the human mind, living and dead — for every idea we comprehend. What’s changed is not the creation of a new kind of brain, but the discovery, on the part of many millions of people, that the life of the mind is theirs to live, too.

      Here’s the fun part: We are literally just kids playing with brand new toys. Five years from now, we’ll all be more adept. Ten years from now, we’ll start meeting young adults who have never lived any other way. Twenty years from now, we could be at or very near the singularity. We are within sprinting distance of being beyond the reach of any sort of anegoistic domination. That’s an epoch-making revolution, and everyone here will live to see it.

      A side note for Jim Klein: Cancel the endarkenment. Human minds can change, and you are witnessing the creation of that lever you’ve been looking for.

    4. Tim Riggins October 3rd, 2011 10:09 am

      I must agree when it comes to human technological advances, it usually isn’t by individual thought, but by a collective of numerous of people sharing of idea’s.

    5. Jim Klein October 3rd, 2011 3:47 pm

      If you look a little closer, Tim, you’ll see that there’s nothing there /except/ individual thought. Besides the obvious trivial sense, which shouldn’t be discounted IMO, it’s also the case that these shared macro-projects happen because each individual alone is able to focus on his particular endeavor, making /it/ the very best it can be, allowing the macro-project to come into existence in the first place.

      And natch, there’s more than a drop of individual thought with regard to knowing how to share it all and put everything together.

    6. Greg Swann October 3rd, 2011 11:17 pm

      > these shared macro-projects happen because each individual alone is able to focus on his particular endeavor, making /it/ the very best it can be, allowing the macro-project to come into existence in the first place.

      Did you read the link Sean cited? The author is looking for clues to an advantage by which homo sapiens overtook homo neanderthalensis thousands of years ago. It’s the invention of fathertongue, of course. If one species graduates from subjunctive charades — of which Roman numerals are a recent vestige — to conceptual reckonings — notation systems — the universe of people with whom one can bargain explodes from family to village to the whole of the world.