Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thinking about Mark Pagel and Infinite Stupidity

Innovations in
Fitness Equipment
A really smart guy is Mark Pagel ...
"... a Fellow of the Royal Society and Professor of Evolutionary Biology; Head of the Evolution Laboratory at the University of Reading; Author Oxford Encyclopaedia of Evolution; co-author of The Comparative Method in Evolutionary Biology."
... and he just wrote a great article entitled Infinite Stupidity over on Edge, where the smartest people go to talk smartly. His basic thesis is that there may be evolutionary factors reducing our general intelligence, because as our effective groups increase in number, the fraction of us who need to be genuinely creative decreases.

But rather than have me paraphrase his article badly, go read it. I'll wait.

So what do you think? I came across this article courtesy of David Brin's "Contrary Brin" blog, and Dr. Brin dissects some of the historical data Page uses to come to a very different conclusion. You should go read that too - it's fun!

But me?  I think Pagel's discussion goes astray where he asks, "Do we need more innovators in a larger social group?"

This question uses "need" to cover a really complex social construct. To look at cases: a stable tribe in a stable environment may flourish with zero innovation; a tribe in an unstable environment may flourish only if it has a lot of innovation; in this sense the concept of "need" may have a simple meaning, but the answer to the question is different in either case. A small tribe that impacts its environment very little may "need" very little innovation to flourish, whereas a large tribe that alters its environment grossly, and/or comes into conflict with other tribes, may "need" much more innovation merely to survive.

And it's still not entirely clear what "need" means; if it's something like economic demand for innovation, then we see at once that half the analysis is missing: the concept of "supply". Even if the Demand (or "need") for innovation were to drop as tribesize increases, the supply may increase, and therefore the amount of innovation produced, if the cost of the factors of production fall.

One of the cool things about civilization is that it cuts the cost of innovation; if you spend a week crafting a new type of spear that fails utterly, the penalty is no longer starvation. (This doesn't mean that innovations can't be extremely expensive for society, but the individuals innovating on the project can lead comfortable lives while doing so, even if their innovations fail, e.g. lots of people drew paychecks from the Apple Newton.) Since 1789, we even have bankruptcy in part to encourage such risktaking!

In addition, the utility of small innovations or partial innovations increases as pool of people to share it with grows. Let us say that I have an idea for chipping a better spearpoint but it has a design flaw at the joining with the haft; today my design partner in Sweden can now spot that flaw and fix it.

Pagel offers Facebook as an example of a decreasing ratio of creativity-to-participants, but I'm not sure the data bears him out. It's true much of the internet is copyed, e.g. we all share humor and music. Because the rewards of crafting really good humor is greater than pre-internet, there is a vast competition to produce more and better stuff to share. Remember when your options for humor were three channels of sitcoms? When your music came from whoever paid the DJs for rotation time? There is undoubtedly more and better visual and musical art being created today than ever before!

Look at boardgames. I was a 60s kid and there were maybe a couple dozen board games, and very few in the strategy realm. Avalon Hill produced a couple title in a year.
Today, thanks to cheap printing, internet sales, and Kickstarter, we are in a golden age of board game design. There are probably more board games/card games coming out every year than existed in my childhood (you have 1 day to join the Schlock Mercenary game project!)

The game environment in particular may address the concern expressed by
@Twisted Scottish Bastard
"... a financial/reward structure available for them, to let them create their ideas in the real as opposed to the virtual."

Microfinancing is working for creative projects. You no longer have to sell your comics to Marvel/DC, your games to Avalon Hill, your shoe designs to (uhm, sorry, I don't know if anyone would take them!) to get them into the hands of consumers, who will reward you or punish you.

I am not accustomed to being an optimist, and I'm certainly far from as smart as Pagel, but the future is bright.

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