Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Progress is Biological

August 12, 2010. It seems that all I’ve been hearing lately is a huge wave of pessimism. The Dollar is collapsing, the market is crashing, the credit markets are dry, the government is taking over, the US is sliding into socialism and Greece’s credit default will take out the world economy. Part of the problem is a misinterpretation of the ‘I Win/You Lose’. The theory goes like this: manufacturing jobs are lost here, and the Chinese are taking the jobs. We’re running out of oil, the Chinese are taking all the copper; the world is using too much carbon, etc. Jobs are lost, real estate is down, and none will ever recover. The US will eventually become a state of unemployed people on the government dole, sunk irreparably into sloth and lethargy.

Part of the problem is negative news reporting. With the advent of cable TV and the internet, we can now get 24 hours of doom and gloom and an inbox telling us of oil volcanoes and how there’s a pending economic collapse and the latest government conspiracy. And, now you can even send or receive You-tube videos of past or present figures making statements about some other version of conspiracy or foul play. Of course, bad news is easy to sell: if you see a forest of thousands of pine trees, and there’s a birch, which tree do you notice? If I tell you the Greek crisis will cause a domino effect and destroy the world economy, it sells. If I tell you Greece has been in default on its loans for more than 50% of the years since 1829, it is simply uninteresting.

What we fail to see is that progress is expansive in a biological way, not in a competitive way. Progress is caused by the exchange of ideas. If my grandfather Ernie wanted to get some information out, he would write a letter by hand, maybe with a fountain pen, with ink that he had to buy at the store that was 10 miles away. He’d walk to the store and spend about 2-3 days wages to pay for the ink and paper. The letter might go to an Alpena paper, where a typesetter would take tin and lead letters and carefully set them into a frame and print it on a printed press. The paper would then be circulated to the 5,000 people or so who read the Alpena paper. In all likelihood, the idea would stop, presuming it actually got published at all. All the while, Ernie was lamenting the state of the world in 1917.

If my dad, Leo, wanted to get out an idea, he might have written a letter on his Remington typewriter, using carbon paper, so he would have a copy. He could then re-type it if he wanted more copies, or he might be able to use a mimeograph machine and make a bunch of copies. He could mail them to many papers, and they would set them on a typesetting machine, and maybe he would be published. Paper would still be the preferred media, and Leo would be lamenting the state of the world in 1945. I, on the other hand, can push small buttons on a keyboard, sending electrons to magnetic media, and then send those electrons to potentially 5 billion receiving devices, who can then re-send it, argue with it, or agree with it.

The larger the connection of ideas, the faster and stronger the progress. Today, we can share and send ideas ranging from gene sequences of the human genome to scary stories about the oil volcanoes caused by BP (with assistance from Nancy Pelosi). Here is my idea: the speed at which a problem is solved is exponentially related to the number of connections to the problem. Look at your computer, your iPhone, your car, your DVD player. Progress is biological, it expands as ideas have offspring and breed with other ideas. The global world will expand, at a biological rate. Dumb ideas will expand, and are entropic, so they’ll die out. Good ideas will expand, and are syntropic. What is interesting is that while a dumb idea that keeps getting dumber is that it can eventually disappear, losing 100% of its function; a good idea can die or expand, but the expansion is virtually infinite. It’s like a stock: a stock can go down 100% (Hell’s basement, as we like to call it), but can go up 131,000% (or more, but Berkshire is still around). An idea can expand (like cellphones), or fall (like Jimmy Carter’s energy policy). Some ideas are like dinosaurs, expand and then become extinct. Others are like roses, or humans or golden retrievers, they expand and keep getting better.

Expand on.