Blog: Pavan Muzumdar

Post 3: Human Triumph and the Cross-Pollination of Ideas

Think about this:  There is no single person in the entire world that knows all the steps to make a pencil.  There are people that know how to process the wood, others that know how to process the graphite, and yet others who know what goes into the paint and glue.  Finally there are the few that know how to put this all together into the final product.

This is the premise of a recent thought-provoking essay in the Wall Street Journal written by Matt Ridley, the noted science writer and journalist.  Mr. Ridley says that human technological progress was trudging along for the last two million years.  But all of a sudden, about 45,000 years ago there was an inflection point and sudden acceleration in technical development.  

Simple evolution cannot explain this because basic human intelligence as measured by brain size and other indicators such as use of speech did not undergo any substantial changes during that period.  What changed, he says, is collective intelligence, a result of increased interaction and collaboration between individuals within a cultural unit that led to an explosion of new ideas, technologies, processes, and abilities that he refers to as the "big bang of human consciousness".  Mr. Ridley refers to this as ideas having sex with each other to create other new ideas.

The benefit of collaboration is not a new concept. In fact it is taught in economics 101 as the law of comparative advantage.  If I can make a fishing net better than you, and you are better at fishing than I am; we both benefit if I make the nets and you do the fishing.  Of course this can only happen if we trade: I give you nets for some of the fish you catch.  But Mr. Ridley takes this one step further.  He says that the both of us working together can bring our respective knowledge of fishing and net making that can lead to newer ways of doing things that perhaps neither one of us could have individually conceived.

What makes things really interesting is that sharing ideas on the Internet with nobody in particular enables all of us to collaborate with people we don't even know!

Next:  Putting it all together…