By Mark Pagel (pictured), professor in evolutionary biology, it explores the notion and consequences of social learning and human evolution.
In short, there’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that social learning has allowed us to take gigantic evolutionary leaps (beyond all other species). The bad news is that as we get more and more connected (Facebook and Google anyone?), we can afford to rely on our ability to copy people more than ever, meaning we no longer need to pay the costs of innovation. Which I don’t have to tell you is not great news.
Pagel also explores the notion – and presents a compelling argument – that instead of us really being intelligent and shrewd beings, our ideas evolution that has driven our brilliant progress might all be based on random idea generation and selection. He literally suggests that Einstein might actually have been more lucky than bright!
Some choice quotes:
“…social evolution may have sculpted us not to be innovators and creators as much as to be copiers, because this extremely efficient process that social learning allows us to do, of sifting among a range of alternatives, means that most of us can get by drawing on the inventions of other”
“… as the Internet connects us and wires us all up, we can see that the long-term consequences of this is that humanity is moving in a direction where we need fewer and fewer and fewer innovative people, because now an innovation that you have somewhere on one corner of the earth can instantly travel to another corner of the earth.”
“…our brains might be whirring around at a subconscious level, creating ideas over and over and over again, and part of our subconscious mind is testing those ideas. And the ones that leak into our consciousness might feel like they’re well-formed, but they might have sorted through literally a random array of ideas before they got to our consciousness.”
“…these ideas, I think, are received with incredulity, because humans like to think of themselves as highly shrewd and intelligent and innovative people. But I think what we have to realize is that it’s even possible that, as I say, the generative mechanisms we have for coming up with new ideas are no better than random.”
The most frightening provocation of the article is when Paget links the growth in social technologies with these possibilities. He writes, “we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet.”
It sent chills down my spine to think that these tools might be domesticating us. It brings to mind Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.”
Pagel us not a lonely contrarian in his reflections. But by no means is he in the techno-phobe, ‘world is falling in’ band of neo-luddites. (This would be missing the basis of his argument).
There is the (slightly scary) phenomenon of ‘filter bubbles’, beautifully articulated at TED by Eli Pariser, that explore how technology makes decisions about what and who we see or read based on relevancy rather than value. There’s another TED talk (that I can’t find) about the herd mentality of social networking in which the presenter presents a vivid analogy about ants that get into the habit of following the ant in front of them, and literally if they happen to form into a circle, they will march around and around until they die.
As for Paget’s ideas, I don’t know how they reconcile with the many, varied and beautiful benefits of social technology that helps us feel more connected and closer to the people we care about.
And there’s significance and relevance to the whole field of social recommendations and whether they could potentially be doing us as much harm as good.
On a personal note, of late I have been getting vague hints and fleeting suspicions that Facebook (and especially the trend towards frictionless sharing) sometimes makes me think I like my friends less!
Regardless, it’s the most thought-provoking piece of writing I’ve read in a long time, and you should do yourself a favour and read it… now:
Edge.org: Mark Paget on Infinite Stupidity