OK, stay with me, because this entry will be jam-packed with seemingly unrelated elements, but I promise (hope?) it will all come together in the end.
In today’s NYTimes Thomas Friedman wrote an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao called “Advice for China.” In the open letter, Friedman asserts that Jintao had asked for impressions about what has now been termed the Arab Spring (I wish that I were creative enough to attach a pre-landing page to that link that first asked, “Seriously? You don’t know what this is?” ).
In his column, Friedman reports,
“Our conclusion is that the revolutions in the Arab world contain some important lessons for the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, because what this contagion reveals is something very new about of how revolutions unfold in the 21st century and something very old about why they explode.”
As you can imagine, this particular article is chock full of rhetoric about how social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are changing the way that revolutions are born, are changing the way revolutionaries connect, etc. Read the article if you want the whole gist.
What stuck out for me in here was:
“The second trend we see in the Arab Spring is a manifestation of ‘Carlson’s Law,’ posited by Curtis Carlson, the C.E.O. of SRI International, in Silicon Valley, which states that: ‘In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.’ As a result, says Carlson, the sweet spot for innovation today is “moving down,” closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate.”
As someone who read Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of Crowds” and found it to be such a breathtakingly accurate portrait of why social media matters in a modern political context, this paragraph really struck me. I guess I’m wondering if we have, in fact, all agreed that “all the people together are smarter than any one alone.”
I mean, I have personally read enough to be convinced that such a statement is quite accurate, despite my fears of groupthink and a mob mentality, I can see now very real and very tangible examples of why democracy is actually better than any other style of government (note please that I say better, not perfect). But have we all agreed on that?
I’m particularly inclined to believe in democracy as the best-yet model for government not only against the backdrop of what has been happening in the Arab world, but also because I have been reading up on my insects (cue the confused silence of the readers- Really? I thought that was an excellent segue).
Peter Miller’s “Smart Swarm,” is a great book for any communication or ‘wisdom of crowds’ geek. The book is sub-titled, “What ants, bees, fish, and smart swarms can teach us about communication, organization, and decision-making” and boy has it been teaching me a few things.
So far I’ve read about the fascinating networks and collaborative processes which exist inherently within colonies of bees, ants and termites. Difficult tasks such as locating new shelter, finding and foraging for food, and building a geometrically (and one might even say architecturally) complex living vessel are undertaken and achieved on a daily basis by insects to whom we ascribe the smallest of intellectual abilities. These insects all have different ways of building consensus about the best way to proceed. Bees have a special “figure 8” dance that they do in sequences at particular angles to ostensibly vote with a dancing fervor for their particular choice for the next nesting area. Ants leave scent trails behind them when striking out for food and the scent grows strong as more and more ants follow the same trail, collecting food and bringing it back to the rest of the colony.
“The Smart Swarm” basically goes to some lengths to offer a window onto how specific populations of insects and animals can offer clues as to how consensus and productivity may be alternatively achieved. The problem with humans, it would often seem, is that we have these big brains and these big mouths. Both of those things often get in the way of us agreeing, and on getting things done.
The principle behind all of these comparisons between insects and humans is the study of biomimicry, which, as Wikipedia describes, is “the examination of nature, its models, systems, processes, and elements to emulate or take inspiration from in order to solve human problems.” For example, velcro is one of biomimicry’s earliest and most infamous products. [Would anyone like to go down the rabbit hole with me on this: please provide any comments or feedback on how you think biomimicry is generally regarded as a cool, smart-people thing, but anthropomorphism is generally considered to be the realm of lunatics and cat ladies.]
For communication geeks who love to examine how different groups of people can get together to solve big problems, this stuff is gold. If you’re a real biomimicry zealot, the amazing and tantalizing fact of it is that nature holds all of the answers to our problems already, as long as you’re ready to go out and closely watch it play out. Which brings me back to this notion of the democratization of information, which Cesar Alierta writes about in Chapter 1.4 of the Global Information Technology Report.
In the chapter, Alierta focuses mainly on ICT as the platform which brings about the democratization of information. But in reality, if you follow biomimicologists(?) like Miller, information is already everywhere around us, in nature, just waiting to be plucked and used to solve problems. Alierta refers to the so-called “Solow Paradox,” which asserts that “there is a lag between investing in or deploying ICT and the generation of positive effects on productivity.” And he goes on to say “no less important (than ICT to productivity gains) is the extent to which the impact of new technologies in the social sphere benefits the entire economy.”
But as most of us know, the investment in resources such as ICT is often a top-down decision, so naturally, if Friedman’s assessment is to be believed, that “innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb” we’re constantly giving the purse strings and the power to invest in better innovation to the wrong folks.
A hive of bees leaves the decision of where to locate the next hive squarely in the capable hands (wings?) of drone worker bees to go out in search of suitable locations and come back and perform a vigorous dance for the location of their choice until a decision is made through consensus. A colony of ants puts the decision for where and how to find food for the colony solidly in the hands of its forager ants, and as they forge new trails and leave their scents behind, more and more ants find and retrace those steps, making the scent stronger and stronger and creating consensus in that fashion. The difference is, these are largely decentralized systems of building consensus, making decisions, and acting in favor of the greater good.
Which all brings me back to Friedman’s assessment of the use of social networking and messaging platforms during the incredible revolutions of the Arab Spring! As Alierta writes in Chapter 1.4 of the Global information technology Report, “technological change has not led to a progressive isolation of the individual. Instead, technology is facilitating the emergence of how forms of interaction- among individuals, groups, and companies- creating a new kind of cooperative that overcomes limitations of space, time and place.”
In other words, the Arab Spring was inevitable both from the technological and biological standpoint. The accelerated adoption of mass communication technologies in the Arab world coupled with a new awareness of the fact that what had been done and how it had been done had been harming a greater community of people than had been felt before access to these ICT were available made the hive revolt against its nasty queens in favor of what is believe to be a system for the greater good- that is, a system closer to democracy.
Gee, I hope Hu Jintao reads my blog, too.