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Another Fatal Conceit

The lesson from evolutionary economics is bottom-up self-organization, not top-down government design

A review of The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good by Robert H. Frank. Princeton University Press, 2011, 240 pages. This review appeared online in the Journal of Bioeconomics in March 2012.

When I entered the world of competitive bicycle racing in 1980 no serious cyclist wore a helmet in training, and the leather “hair net” required by some race organizations—thin bands of leather-wrapped cotton stuffing—did nothing more than prevent your hair from getting mussed upon impacting pavement. Bell Helmets already had the technology from their motorcycle division to make a viable crash-tested safety helmet for bicycling, but elite cyclists are an elitist cohort that follows the trends of what looks good as much as what works well. The perception at the time was that a helmet was delimiting on performance and made you look like a “Fred”—two-wheel-speak for geek. Even if an individual cyclist wanted to don protection, unless everyone else did as well the competitive choice was to race sans helmet. When I was sponsored by Bell to compete in the Race Across America—the 3,000-mile nonstop transcontinental bicycle race—they engaged me to help design a helmet that elite cyclists would wear that would, in marketing theory, inspire the masses of two-wheelers to follow in emulation. We came up with the V1-Pro, a model that aped the leather hair net in design but was made of the same compressed polystyrene foam utilized in motorcycle helmets for absorbing the energy of an impact. Nonetheless, it was shunned by the pros until the Union Cycliste International (UCI)—the governing body of professional cycling—mandated the use of safety helmets for all cyclists in all races. No helmet, no race. Period. I was relieved, as were many other cyclists I knew, because I wanted to wear a helmet but didn’t want to stand out or lose a slight competitive edge. In time, as helmet use grew in popularity market forces worked effectively to make them lighter, cooler, and colorfully trendy. Now everyone wears them and we are all better for it. (continue reading…)

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Egypt, Watson & the Future of Civilization

What does the democratic uprising in Egypt and other Arab nations have to do with IBM’s Jeopardy champion Watson in determining the fate of civilization? Think bottom up, not top down; think exponential growth, not linear change; think crowd sourcing, not elite commanding; and think open access and transparency, not closed entree and secrecy. Under the influence of these four forces, such seemingly unconnected events are, in fact, connected at a deeper level when we pull back and examine the overall trajectory of the history of civilization.

  1. Bottom up, not top down. Almost everything important that happens in both nature and in society happens from the bottom up, not the top down. Water is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of hydrogen and oxygen. Life is a bottom up, self-organized emergent property of organic molecules that coalesced into protein chains through nothing more than the input of energy into the system of Earth’s early environment. Evolution is a bottom up process of organisms just trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation, and out of that simple process emerges the diverse array of complex life we see today. An economy is a self-organized bottom up emergent process of people just trying to make a living and get their genes into the next generation, and out of that simple process emerges the diverse array of products and services available to us today. And democracy is a bottom up emergent political system specifically designed to displace top down chiefdoms, kingdoms, theocracies, and dictatorships.
  2. Exponential growth, not linear change. Science and technology have changed our world more in the past century than it changed in the previous hundred centuries—it took 10,000 years to get from the cart to the airplane, but only 66 years to get from powered flight to a lunar landing. Moore’s Law of computer power doubling every eighteen months continues unabated and is now down to about a year. Computer scientists calculate that there have been thirty-two doublings since World War II, and that as early as 2030 we may encounter the Singularity—the point at which total computational power will rise to levels that are so far beyond anything that we can imagine that they will appear near infinite. And not just in raw number crunching power but in cognitive processing ability, as witnessed in the difference between IBM’s Deep Blue chess playing master and IBM’s Jeopardy champion.
  3. Crowd sourcing, not elite commanding. Knowledge production has been one long trajectory of shifting not only from top down to bottom up, but from elite commanding to crowd sourcing. From ancient priests and medieval scholars, to academic professors and university publishers, to popular writers and trade publishing houses, to everyone their own writer and publisher online, the democratization of knowledge has struggled alongside the democratization of societies to free itself from the bondage of top down control. Compare the magisterial multi-volume encyclopedias of centuries past that held sway as the final authority for reliable knowledge, now displaced by individual encyclopedists employing wiki tools and making everyone their own expert.
  4. Open access and transparency, not closed entrée and secrecy. The Internet is the ultimate bottom up self-organized emergent property of crowd sourcing millions of computer users in an open access and transparent exchange of language, knowledge, and data across servers; although there are some top-down controls involved—just as there are some in mostly bottom-up economic and political systems—the strength of digital freedom derives from the fact that no one is in charge.

For the past 10,000 years humanity has gradually but ineluctably transitioned from top down to bottom up, from linear change to exponential growth, from elite commanding to crowd sourcing, and from secrecy to transparency. Together these forces are driving us to Civilization 2.0 on a scale I derived for classifying the rich array of human societies throughout history:

Civilization 1.1: Fluid groups of hominids living in Africa. Technology consists of primitive stone tools. Intra-group conflicts are resolved through dominance hierarchy, and between-group violence is common.

Civilization 1.2: Bands of roaming hunter-gatherers that form kinship groups with a mostly horizontal political system and egalitarian economy and utilizing sophisticated tools to extract what they could from relatively resource poor environments.

Civilization 1.3: Tribes of individuals linked through kinship but with a more settled and agrarian lifestyle with the beginnings of a political hierarchy and a primitive economic division of labor and employing mostly animal and human labor.

Civilization 1.4: Chiefdoms consisting of a coalition of tribes into a single hierarchical political unit with a dominant leader at the top, and with the beginnings of significant economic inequalities and a division of labor in which lower-class members produce food and other products consumed by non-producing upper-class members.

Civilization 1.5: The state as a political coalition with jurisdiction over a well-defined geographical territory and its corresponding inhabitants, with a mercantile economy that seeks a favorable balance of trade in a win-lose game against other states.

Civilization 1.6: Empires that extend their control over peoples who are not culturally, ethnically or geographically within their normal jurisdiction, with a goal of economic dominance over rival empires.

Civilization 1.7: Democracies that divide power over several institutions, which are run by elected officials voted for by a limited number of citizens as defined by race, gender, and class, with the beginnings of a market economy.

Civilization 1.8: Liberal democracies that give the vote to all adult citizens regardless of race, class, or gender, and utilizing markets that begin to embrace a nonzero, win-win economic game through free trade with other states.

Civilization 1.9: Democratic capitalism, the blending of liberal democracy and free markets, now spreading across the globe through democratic movements in developing nations and broad trading blocs such as the European Union.

Civilization 2.0: Globalization that includes worldwide wireless Internet access, with all knowledge digitized and available to everyone, a completely global economy with free markets in which anyone can trade with anyone else without interference from states or governments. A planet where all states are democracies in which everyone has the franchise.

Reaching Civilization 2.0 is not inevitable. As we are witnessing in Arab countries this month, resistance by nondemocratic states to turning power over to the people is considerable, especially in theocracies whose leaders would prefer we all revert to Civilization 1.4 chiefdoms. But by spreading liberal democracy and free trade, science and technology and the open access to knowledge through computers via the Internet will, in the words on a plaque posted at the Suez Canal: Aperire Terram Gentibus—To Open the World to All People.

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Digits & Fidgets

Is the universe fine-tuned for life?
magazine cover

There was a young fellow from Trinity
Who took the square root of infinity.
But the number of digits
Gave him the fidgets;
He dropped Math and took up Divinity.

In the limerick above, physicist George Gamow dealt with the paradox of a finite being contemplating infinity by passing the buck to theologians.

In an attempt to prove that the universe was intelligently designed, religion has lately been fidgeting with the fine-tuning digits of the cosmos. The John Templeton Foundation even grants cash prizes for such “progress in religion.” Last year mathematical physicist and Anglican priest John C. Polkinghorne, recognized because he “has invigorated the search for interface between science and religion,” was given $1 million for his “treatment of theology as a natural science.” In 2000 physicist Freeman Dyson took home a $945,000 prize for such works as his 1979 book, Disturbing the Universe, in which he writes: “As we look out into the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.” (continue reading…)

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