I spent some time digging into Christopher Alexander, one of the more influential architects of the 20th century.
I don’t have a natural interest in architecture, but I found his thinking to have wide ranging application – from software to biology to creativity. I later learned that his seminal book, A Pattern Language set the foundation for the first wiki (the tech behind Wikipedia), as well as the agile software development movement.
His thinking around value, quality, life, evolution, wholeness, and simplicity will stay with me for a long time to come. If you get some fraction of the value and joy out of reading this teacher’s reference guide as I did reading the books, I trust it to be a worthwhile use of your time
Quantum mechanics would not have been of more than academic interest to a few university professors if it were not for its immense field of practical applications, such as in electronics. Here, too, in the sphere of building, we have a practical aim. We wish to create living structure in the build world; we wish to apply this model of the universe in order to reproduce the phenomena that we are interested in.
The “I” is that which connects all of us. It may occur in a leaf or in a picture, in a house, in a wave, even in a grain of sand, or in an ornament. It is not ego. It is not me. It is not individual at all, having to do with me, or you. It is humble and enormous; that thing in common which each of us has in us. It is the spirit which animates each living center. When I am building, I am searching for the “I” – the myself, lying within all things. It is that shining something which draws me on, which I feel in the bones of the world, which comes out of the earth and makes our existence luminous …I can feel it, nearly always, almost before I start. Or, rather, I do not usually let myself start until I can feel this thing.
The life in a structure can be measured by the extent that it awakens this connection to the personal
My hypothesis is that all value depends on a structure in which each center, the life of each center, approaches this simple, forgotten, remembered, unremembered “I”…that in the living work each center, in some degree, is a connection to this “I”, or self…that the living steel and concrete bridge is one in which each part is connected to this self, awakens it in us…that the living song is one in which each phrase, each note, is connected to this self, awakens it in us, reminds us of ourselves…I believe that the ultimate effort of all serious art is to make things which connect with this I of every person. This “I” , not normally available, is dredged up, forced to the light, forced into the light of the day, by the work of art…Effectively, what all this amounts to is that in the process of making things through living process, gradually I approach more and more closely knowledge of what is truly in my own heart…I learned to value only that which truly activates what is in my heart. I came to value those experiences which truly activates what is in my heart. I came to value those experiences which activate my heart as it really is. I sought, more and more, only those experiences which have the capacity, the depth, to activate the feeling that is my real feeling, in my true childish heart. And I learned, slowly, to make things which are of that nature
Gradually, I began to recognize that in the midst of that cleverness, which I never truly understood anyway, the one thing I could trust was a small voice, a tiny soft-and-hard vulnerable feeling, recognizable, which was something I actually knew. Slowly that knowledge grew in me. It was the stuff which I was actually certain of – not because it aped what others had taught me, but because I knew it to be true of itself, in me
Flaw of a mechanical world view is that it does not and cannot take into account our inner, subjective lives. Matter and mechanisms compared to actual experience. This is what Whitehead calls the bifurcation of nature and I believe we can again weave them together into a united, single picture
One of the key questions I’m seeking to answer is “What is the life that we discern in these things?” The buildings that have life create relatedness between the person and the universe. This relatedness is primary, inherent and not there because of you. Centers are ‘beings’ – having life and related to you – becoming “I-like”. With practice, you can discern the things that have more life – those that are genuinely related to your self – and those which are less so typically found in innocence, playfulness, openness, coupled with iteration and unfolding
Each center is a focused zone of space which may be characterized by saying that, to some degree, space in that zone itself comes to life. Life is an attribute of space itself and increases in some measure according to the organization of the space. The degree of life of any given portion of space, thus appears like a color, or like an overall attribute – a quality which appears in the space itself, along with the structural organization that also signals its appearance
To the degree a c enter is a living center, it is also a picture of the true self, and – very startlingly – has this character for all people, not just for any individual
The structure-preserving transformations which continually modify one wholeness in space and replace it by another that preserves the structure of the first, slowly cause space to be filled with unfolded I-like centers
Only a deliberate process of creating being-like (or self-like) centers in built structure throughout the world, encourages the world to become more alive
The more life something has, the more it seems to internally glow
The self exists ‘underneath’ all things and the greater the connection to this, the brighter a thing shines, the more life it has. It is luminous, connected directly to wholeness, to heaven, to “I”, to unity
Hierarchy of colors
Colors create light together
Contrast of dark and light
Boundaries and hairlines
Sequence of linked color pairs
Families of color
Intensity and clarity of individual color
Color depends on geometry
A thing does not get its unity from being beautiful. The unity comes from the fact that the various centers are harmoniously connected, and that every center helps every other center. That is the great thing and it is this which causes real unity to exist. But above all, it comes from the fact that in the thing, throughout the thing, we see the I in every part, at every scale. We see only one I, the same I, shining out from every part.
Making wholeness heals the maker – When you make a beautiful thing, the depth of the person within becomes more vivid, lives more intensely for a moment. In each of us, a person is existing or waiting to exist. This person – the most free version of that person – does exist, occasionally, for brief glimpses. When one of us becomes free, this latent person inside comes to the light of day, exists then for a few moments, more vividly, more intensely. People are deeply nourished by the process of creating wholeness because there is a direct connection between the living structure of the world and the achieved person-ness we experience in ourselves…Here we come to the core connection between the field of centers – the phenomenon of life in the physical world – and the process of human growth, self-knowledge, insight, and human discovery of the true self which resides in every person. They are profoundly linked. It means that at root, the process by which a person comes in touch with wholeness – as it is in the world and as it is in the world around them, and as it is inside themselves – the more, then, that person actually discovers the meaning of their own existence, sees himself accurately in relation to phenomena, and the more that person becomes aware of the real structure which exists inside him and which links him to the universe.
In order to create living structure, we need to please ourselves. And you need only please yourself. But you must please yourself truly. And to do that you must first discover your own true self, come close enough to it, and to listen to it, so that I can be pleased. It all comes down to self-awareness and authenticity
The best things are always childlike, vulnerable. I move towards the vulnerable by asking what I would really like, if I were doing it for myself and only myself. Therefore, the fundamental question we have to ask as we produce order is: does it create feeling in me, does it make me feel more whole within myself, when I confront it? This childish level of awareness is not normally available to us. Indeed, paradoxically, it is only the awareness of order which can allow us to release ourselves enough to even get this level of awareness…What I have described in these 4 books is the structural part of what you need in order to reach this human childlike part of yourself. It works because living structure – what I call the field of centers – really is a mirror of the human heart. It is only knowledge of this structure, and the practice of making it, which gives you a key to unlock your own heart
What pleasing yourself truly IS, is the process in which we create living structure…Creating living structure is to be attained, in the end, by the greatest and most sublime process which can happen: that each person lives, works, exists, in such a fashion that they truly please themselves
It is worth really contemplating this fact. For when you finally realize that these two things, 1) pleasing yourself and 2) doing what is right is one and the same, you will not only feel free to do them, but you will also have reached a deeper level in your understanding. At that stage, you will finally understand how the oneness of some system in the universe is not only an abstract thing outside your own self but that it is also finally and truly personal, the most personal thing there is. All that I have written in these four books leads, in the end, to the core of what is most vulnerable, most personal in us.
This brings me, then, to a last aspect of the process which produces life in things, a necessary state of mind. The core of this necessary state of mind is that you make each building in a way which is a gift to God. It belongs to God. It does not belong to you. It is made to serve God, to glorify God. It is not made to glorify you. Perhaps, if anything, it humbles you. Of course, I do not say this with any intention to suggest that this state of mind is specifically Christian…The essence of this state of mind is that the building must not shout. Emotionally, it must be completely quiet…The reason why I must try and make the building as a gift to God is that this state of mind is the only one which reliably keeps me concentrated on what is, and keeps me away from my own vainglorious and foolish thoughts
The more any portion of space is unified, the more inseparable it becomes from all the rest. So, in the end, the intricacy and richness of a beautiful thing does not arise from the desire to make something rich or intricate, it only arises from the particular desire to make it perfectly one in itself, and with the world. It is perhaps surprising, but necessary to recognize, that I cannot make a thing which has this not-separateness, unless I honestly want it. That means I must give up my wish to draw attention to myself. I must honestly want the thing which I am making to become part of the greater world, inseparable from it. In order to see, or feel, or listen for the glimmers of the I, it is necessary to be in a very definite state of mind. I have to want to be not-separate…It requires definite intention to become one with the world
This is, perhaps, the central mystery of the universe: that as things become more unified, less separate, so also they become most individual, and most precious
What I got out of it
A beautiful, thought provoking ending to what was a life changing series for me
Architecture becomes living when non-mechanical, fluid, unique to its circumstances, responds to what is there rather than impose on what is there (similar to aikido), grow with nature, arise out of nature, looseness and symmetry. Deep feeling appears in these buildings, as it does in nature, because they emerge through subtle adaptation from the whole, and because at each stage of their unfolding they support the whole
A proper environment makes you feel like you belong to it – a feeling of joy and connectedness that hinges on the sensation that we have the right to be there, that we belong to the world and it belongs to us. Only living process can generate belonging. When living processes are working well, our belonging comes about naturally
Buildings should enliven the land they’re on
Seek an interlocking of positive and negative space. What is most remarkable of all, is that the structure which is created by a feeling for centers and by a conscious and deliberate aim towards the feeling of the whole, will often turn out to be an efficient structure…Apparently good engineering structure follows, directly or indirectly, from the use of living process
Save 20% of building cost towards gardens and outside structures
Shared vision not gotten through a meeting, but from talking to each person quietly, one at a time, drawing from each individual his, her, their most important feelings, and their most authentic visions
In each case, the forms, because they are generated in time, not designed at the drawing board, display qualities of life, and do have life…One of the most fundamental aspects of a living world is that every part of it will be unique. If we learn to use a living process well, its most essential nature will be to create structures which are unique, because they are perfectly adapted to their local unique conditions
In general, the geometry will be created by differentiation, not by addition or accretion, the parts given their dimensions by differentiating operations within the space of the land, or within the space of the room where the thing is being made
City planning comes about as a sequence of adaptive acts, a result of unfolding in time. It unfolds directly from people’s ordinary instincts
Close your eyes and dream up your idyllic space – ideal working conditions, natural centers, windows, entrance, main work surface, daylight, working chairs, computer setup, reclining chair, different chairs, thick walls, filing, desk lights, comfortable sofa
Fine structure – every element has to have a living center, details that make it come to life. The field of centers is a convenient way of representing the substance of our minds. It is the substance itself which actually creates the field. Life will not exist in a building unless it exists in the actual physical fabric of the building, in all the details of the way the thing is made. The actual physical geometry of the foundation, walls, windows, roof edge, boards, tiles, plaster, paint work, moldings is itself crucial to the existence of life. The sensuous quality of the building comes from its detail; substance is fundamental to beauty. Wholeness will not exist in the large unless it also exists in the small…and for it to exist in the small, it must be made. The large scale order is absolutely interwoven and dependent on the tiniest details of the microstructure. The large scale order depends for its existence on the most subtle ordering of details at the smallest subatomic scale. And the same is true, and must be true, in architecture. If we are trying to construct a field of centers in a building, we must realize the field will not be whole, cannot even sustain itself as a structure, unless it is carried through from the larger scale structure to the fine structure. The macrostructure of the field is dependent on the microstructure of the field. If it is ignored or treated without respect, the larger field will fail
Unfolding vs. construction / production – this must happen in the actual construction of the building, not only on paper. This is incredibly difficult to do in practise. Same is true for the details, the colors you use. If it is living, it will have its own, luminous, inner light
In a building which has life, whatever is made is always the simplest thing consistent with its necessities of feeling and with the close and continuous attention to feeling while it evolves into form. This, I think, is the closest I can come to describing the core of architecture. When everything is going right, when the fundamental process is used well, what comes out is not only natural, not only simple, not only living structure. It has, too, an archetypal quality – something savage (wild, untamed)
Each living structure has the minimal structure for its situation that carries weight of feeling, leading to a structure in which local symmetries are so densely packed that the highest possible density of local symmetries occurs, but without having an overall symmetry
In the best cases, in the cases which have the most life, the building form will most often by interwoven in some fashion with nature itself. In the best cases, it will seem, almost indistinguishably, to be part of nature, thus forming a seamless whole. The clearest way I can say this, is to point out that it will – in this case – seem extremely ordinary. It will appear normal, and be normal
What I got out of it
Pragmatic implications of Alexander’s ideas as it relates specifically to architecture and construction
In book 2, the author defines conditions for a process to be living, capable of generating living structure rather than life destroying. It is all about the process – poor process, poor result. This awareness of continuous becoming is the most essential portion of the building process. It must unfold in such a way to allow wholeness to spring forth.
Real kindness is something quite different, something valuable in itself. It is a true process, not guided by the grasp for a goal, but guided by the minute to minute necessity of caring, dynamically, for the feelings and well-being of another. This is not trivial, but deep; sincerely related to human feeling; and not predictable in its end result, because the end result is not the goal. Unlike the goal-oriented picture, which is imposed intellectually on our substance as persons, real kindness is a process true to our essential human instinct and to our knowledge of what it means to be a person. But the machine-age view showed a process like kindness as being oriented toward a goal, just as every machine too has its purpose – its goal, what it is intended to produce.
Not just goal oriented, but process oriented
The wholeness is essentially preserved at each step, and the new structure is introduced in such a way that it maintains and extends – but almost never violates – the existing structure. It is globally structure-preserving. That is why the unfolding seems smooth
All about process – not just what we do, but how we do it. 9/10 of the beauty is from the process itself
Living process to be guided by feeling – adherence to the whole. If this were to be truly understood and followed, it would change nearly everything we know about modern society. This is a gargantuan shift, but humans and human nature are more in tune with feelings than with mathematics…The idea that feeling itself can become criterion and instrument – that what is done, no matter how large or how small, can become personal, connected to the personal self of all human beings – and that this process then opens the door to a new form of society. That is truly revolutionary. That can shake the world
You might say that this is all just common sense. I believe you would be right. But this common sense flies in the face of many processes which 20th century architecture and construction practice set in place. When we try to make a building in such a way that it gets its life, what we have done here is the most natural way to do it: we get one thing right at a time. We do what we know. We get things right as we come to understand them. That gets good results. Expressed in the language of this book, it is a process of unfolding in which centers are established, modified, improved, one at a time
This is a startling and new conception of ethics and aesthetics. It describes good structure as a structure which has unfolded “well,” through these transformations without violating the structure that exists. The structure we know as living structure, is just that kind of structure which has unfolded smoothly and naturally, arising step by step from what exists, preserving the structure of what exists, and allowing the “new” to grow in the most natural ways as a development from the structure of “what is.” This startling view provides us with a view of ethics and aesthetics that dignifies our respect for what exists and treasures that which grows from this respect. It views with disfavor only that which emerges arbitrarily, without respect for what exists, and provides a vision of the world as a horn of shimmering plenty in which the “new” ‘grows unceasingly from the structure that exists around us already. That this horn of plenty is inexhaustible, and that we may conceive an everlasting fountain of novelty without ever having to beat ourselves over the head for the sake of novelty per se – that may perhaps be one of the greatest potential legacies of this new view of the world
What is natural, of value, is that which unfolds naturally from the whole that exists
Do one small, good thing, then another, and another…
Growing bone adds material at the point where stress is greatest
Paying attention to the wholeness = love of life
By preserving structure, one always gets surprising results. The creative work is to illuminate, to reveal what is already there…but this takes depth of perception and love…certainly profound knowledge of the nature of space and its structure. To do it, successfully, we are called upon to make another crucial revision in our views about the nature of things: we have always assumed that the process of creation is a process which somehow inserts entirely new structure into the world…in the form of inventions, creations, and so on. Living process teaches us that wholeness is always formed by a special process in which new structure emerges directly out of existing structure, in a way which preserves the old structure, and therefore makes the new whole harmonious. Thus the process of making wholeness is not merely a process which forms centers or the field of centers in space…it is a process which gives special weight to the structure of things as they are. The enigma is that something new, unique, previously unseen – even innovative and astonishing – arises from the extent to which we are able to attend to what is there, and able to derive what is required from what is already there…and that all this, then, will lead to astonishing surprises. It is a process in which we most deeply express our reverence for what exists
When we published The Pattern Language for the Peruvian houses, people in Peru said that our pattern language and our houses we designed from the pattern language were a more accurate reflection of Peruvian reality than even the Peruvian architects had managed…The essential technique in the observation of centers, in any social situation, and in any culture, is to allow the feelings to generate themselves inside you. You have to say, “What would I do if I were one of the people living here, what would it be like for me?” thus inserting yourself into the situation and then using your own common sense and feelings as a measuring instrument
Ridley takes one gene at a time and makes it a chapter – diving into how genes work and affect is
Genome contains information from both our recent and far distant past. It has clues to questions that help highlight why we do certain things and have certain characteristics – an autobiography of our species
Life is a slippery term to try to pin down but it requires the ability to replicate and the ability to create order
A reduction in entropy
Shannon’s Information Theory is more helpful for understanding life than mountains of knowledge from biology and chemistry
The importance of being multidisciplinary
Genes contain the recipe for both anatomy and behavior. The code for how to make proteins which enable and allow for nearly everything that happens in the human body
The discovery by Watson and Crick of the double helix DNA structure and that it was the language by which genes express themselves to form proteins was the most momentous scientific discovery of the 20th century, maybe the whole millennium
Intelligence has a large component which is inherited but it is important to remember that heritability does not mean immutability.
Our genes contain a history of infectious disease showing us our ancestors survived or were able to cope with the disease better than others
Our genes are linked filled with parasitic clusters of DNA – sometimes they have disastrous consequences but most often they have no noticeable impact
Lower levels of serotonin are associated with alphas, but this is an effect, not a cause. The alpha’s view of themselves and their position in the pack raises or lowers their serotonin levels. Leaders are in fact calmer, less aggressive than lower-status people in the same group. They tend to be better at reconciliation and remaining calm under pressure
Although genes have a tremendous impact on us, behavior is a great determinant as well. Behavior impacts genes as much as genes impact behavior. The psychological drives the physical. Hormones and chemical makeup changes based on how much control you have in your life, your status and stress, and much more
An ability to metabolize alcohol it’s linked to ancestors in regions that had consistently clean drinking water such as Native Americans. European’s ancestors lived in dirty cities, where the only safe liquids were fermented or boiled and therefore they had to develop the ability to metabolize alcohol relatively quickly.
People who have the ability to digest milk share one common ancestral similarity – their ancestors herded cows and sheep. This is a fascinating discovery that shows how cultural changes (a pastoral lifestyle) lead to evolutionary changes the genetic ability to digest lactose
Instinct is genetically determined behavior whereas learning is behavior modified by experience. Learning slowly gives way to instinct
Genetic diagnosis followed by conventional treatment is likely genetics’ biggest boom to medicine today
It is so important to note that genetic determinism is not fatalism. You may be predisposed today some condition or intuition, but it does not mean you have no say
What I got out of it
Deep dive into how the genome works – some interesting mechanical / logistical things that I hadn’t heard of before
Bloom argues that the individual is merely a “cell” within the larger group and that these groups are the primary units of selection no genes and human psychology. Hierarchy is front and center in Bloom’s understanding of the world. “This book is about the social body in which we are the unwitting cells. It is about the hidden ways in which that social group manipulates our psychology, and even our biology. It is about how a social organism scrambles for survival and works for mastery over other organisms of its kind. It is about how we, without the slightest sense of what the long-term results of our minuscule actions may be, contribute to the social organism’s ponderous and sometimes earth-shattering deeds. It is about how in our preoccupations with sex, our submission to gods and leaders, our sometimes suicidal commitment to ideas, religions, and trivial details of cultural style, we become the unconscious creators of the social organism’s exploits…Superorganism, ideas, and the pecking order—these are the primary forces behind much of human creativity and earthlc good. They are the holy trinity of the Lucifer Principle.”
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
We do strive as individuals, but we are also part of something larger than ourselves, with a complex physiology and mental life that we carry out but only dimly understand.
At its heart, the Lucifer Principle looks something like this: The nature scientists uncover has crafted our viler impulses into us: in fact, these impulses are a part of the process she uses to create. Lucifer is the dark side of cosmic fecundity, the cutting blade of the sculptor’s knife. Nature does not abhor evil; she embraces it. She uses it to build. With it, she moves the human world to greater heights of organization, intricacy, and power.
The Lucifer Principle contends that evil is woven into our most basic biological fabric.
We must build a picture of the human soul that works. Not a romantic vision that Nature will take us in her arms and save us from ourselves, but a recognition that the enemy is within us and that Nature has placed it there. We need to stare directly into Nature’s bloody face and realize that she has saddled us with evil for a reason. And we must understand that reason to outwit her. For Lucifer is almost everything men like Milton imagined him to be. He is ambitious, an organizer, a force reaching out vigorously to master even the stars of heaven. But he is not a demon separate from Nature’s benevolence. He is a part of the creative force itself. Lucifer, in fact, is Mother Nature’s alter ego.
Among humans, groups have all too often been the prime movers. It is their competition that has driven us on the inexorable track toward higher degrees of order. This is one key to the Lucifer Principle.
Nature is like a sculptor continually improving upon her work, but to do it she chisels away at living flesh.
Each of us is sewn by invisible threads into the superorganism. We are cells in the beast of family, company, and country. If those social ties are severed we begin to shrivel and die. There’s more. Hard work and the pursuit of challenge have seldom been demonstrated to hurt us, but we can be damaged powerfully by the lack of control. And without striving to achieve, we cannot control our lives. Position in the pecking order makes an additional contribution to many of the symptoms we blame on stress. With our dream of eliminating competition, we try to wish the pecking order away. But the fact is that we will continue to live in pecking order structures whether we like it or not.
Hierarchy, Groups, & Pecking Order
Pecking orders exist among men, monkeys, wasps, and even nations. They help explain why the danger of barbarians is real and why the assumptions of our foreign policies are often wrong.
Then, three years after Goodall’s book was printed, a series of incidents occurred that horrified her. The tribe of chimps Goodall had been watching became quite large. Food was harder to find. Quarrels broke out. To relieve the pressure, the unit finally split into two separate tribes. One band stayed in the old home territory. The other left to carve out a new life in the forest to the south. At first, the two groups lived in relative peace. Then the males from the larger band began to make trips south to the patch of land occupied by the splinter unit. The marauders’ purpose was simple: to harass and ultimately kill the separatists. They beat their former friends mercilessly, breaking bones, opening massive wounds, and leaving the resultant cripples to die a slow and lingering death.
Japan is a society of groups, not individuals.
Then, in 1962, the Scottish ecologist V. C. Wynne-Edwards, a careful observer of his country’s native red grouse, concluded that these birds sometimes sacrificed their reproductive privileges to keep their flock from starvation. The grouse, Wynne-Edwards contended, gauged the amount of food the moors could provide each year and adjusted their behavior accordingly, delaying breeding when supplies looked meager or even opting for total chastity.
The simians raised without social contact frequently sat in a corner of their cage, curled into a ball, their eyes staring emptily into space, and chewed at their own skin, gouging themselves until they bled. That is intropunitive behavior.
The individual is a cell in the social superorganism. When he feels he is no longer necessary to the larger group, he, too, begins to wither away.
Durkheim seemed to sense that beneath the surface, the suicide was destroying himself to rid the wider social group of a burden.
If our actions are geared to increasing the odds that our personal genes or those of our near relatives will make it into the next generation, what is the reason for suicide’s existence? And what about the other bits of death-in-life built into the human psyche? Why do humans get depressed? Why do they sometimes feel like crawling off into a corner and dying? There is an answer, but it doesn’t quite square with the notion of genes fighting for themselves no matter what. We are parts of a larger organism and occasionally find ourselves expendable in its interests.
Remove the sponge cell from the sponge, prevent it from finding its way back to its brethren, and it dies. Scrape a liver cell from the liver, and in its isolation it too will shrivel and give up life. But what happens if you remove a human from his social bonds, wrenching him from the superorganism of which he is a part?
A host of other studies have shown the same thing: babies can be given food, shelter, warmth, and hygiene, but if they are not held and stroked, they have an abnormal tendency to die.
Flint’s mother died. Theoretically, Flint’s instincts should have urged him to survive. But three weeks later, he went back to the spot where his mother had breathed her last and curled up in a fetal ball. Within a few days, he, too, was dead. An autopsy revealed that there was nothing physically wrong with Flint: no infection, no disease, no handicap. In all probability, the youngster’s death had been caused by the simian equivalent of the voice that tells humans experiencing a similar loss that there’s nothing left to live for. Flint had been cut loose from his single bond to the superorganism, and that separation had killed him.
Eventually, Ike went to Camp David for five weeks of rest. It was the worst thing he could have done. Stripped of his sense of social purpose, he went into severe depression, the first setback Eisenhower had experienced since his heart attack. The ailing chief executive recovered only when he was allowed to go back to work.
Like ants, each one of us is built with all the equipment necessary to be a master or a slave, a beggar or a king. Most of us, however, will be only one of these. We will dream of the higher fortunes that could have befallen us, but, for the most part, we will never taste those possibilities in real life. And, as we grow older, many of us will carry an increasing burden of resentment for the fates we failed to have. In some ways, it is the social organism and its needs that determine the role each of us will play and the many more roles that each of us will never be given the power to act out.
Some of these Hymenoptera are lazy and sit around all day doing very little; others work their tails off in the interest of the community. But try separating the ne’er-do-wells from the industrious and setting them up as two new colonies—one composed exclusively of layabouts and the other made up entirely of nose-to-the-grindstone types. A strange thing happens. In the community of laggards, a large proportion of the lazy little beasts suddenly become imbued with a furious sense of industry. They turn into workers. On the other hand, in the community composed completely of workers, a small portion of the formerly zealous toilers seem overcome with boredom and settle down to spend their days doing nothing. They become the new leisure lovers. Each new colony takes on the shape of the old one.
In a chick, you can take a cell that was about to develop into a wing feather and move it to the location that’s destined to be a foot. If you perform the maneuver in time, the former wing-feather cell will turn into a perfectly normal piece of claw. The process is called cellular differentiation. The same thing happens in the all-worker and all-drone ant colonies. They undergo differentiation. There seems an implicit sketch for the contours of the community. A lone ant, in some peculiar way, looks around and sees where it sits in the social matrix, then becomes what it has to be to make the community fit the master plan. Human groups go through a similar process.
Schjelderup-Ebbe had discovered that in the world of chickens there is a social hierarchy, a division into aristocrats and commoners—a lower, middle, and upper class. The alert researcher called the phenomenon a “pecking-order.” It wasn’t long before naturalists were discovering similar social orders in a bewildering variety of species.556 Research on pecking orders (known technically as dominance hierarchies) has gone on now for roughly seventy years and has yielded some startling revelations. Position in the pecking order determines far more than just how many feathers you lose. It readjusts your life-style, your chances of survival, your sex life, and your physiology. The pecking order can determine whether you live or die…The barnyard chickens studied by naturalist Schjelderup-Ebbe had their periods of peace, but they never had equality.
The new king of the castle goes through a biological transformation simply because he’s moved up on the hierarchical ladder. For a monkey’s physiology, position in the pecking order is everything.
Position in the pecking order reshapes physiology. After a while, top or bottom position in the pecking order gets to be a habit. Numerous studies show that a creature who has won a fight is more likely to win the next one. An animal who has lost barely shuffles through his next contest. The odds are high he’ll lose again.
A position at the top of the pecking order is not permanent. Far from it. Animals who make it to the peak know that simple fact. They see that yesterday’s adolescents have become today’s restless adults and watch warily as these youthful challengers size up the odds of knocking their elders off the top of the heap.
Dominant beasts remain vigilant. But a strange thing happens to nations at the pecking order’s apogee. The dominant superorganism sometimes goes to sleep. It falls complacently into a fatal trap, assuming that its high position is God given, that its fortunate lot in life will last forever, that its lofty status is carved in stone. It forgets that any pecking order is a temporary thing and no longer remembers just how miserable life can be on the bottom. The results are often an unpleasant surprise.
Behind the threat of barbarians is a simple fact. Social super organisms itch to move up on the hierarchical ladder, and many of those who want to ascend would like to do so at our expense. The legitimate wish for peace often blinds us to this fact. But there is another impulse that also distracts us from the danger of barbarians: the itch to battle our fellow citizens.
The tendency to bicker internally had totally obliterated our ability to look carefully at outside threats. And we will never be able to overcome threats we refuse to see. No one stays on top of the pecking order forever. This is a difficult lesson to learn. Debate is a necessity, but if it becomes irrational, violent, and blind to the menaces beyond our borders, it can doom us as surely as it did the Byzantines.
We assume that humans desire, food, clothing, and shelter, but we forget that people crave something far more vital: status and prestige. They yearn to move up in the pecking order!…Our relief agencies ship food and medicine to the poor of South America, but when allowed to buy what they prefer, women of South America’s underclass purchase something they consider more vital than penicillin or protein-rich nutrient: they spend their precious funds on lipstick. Lipstick brings the admiring glances of men and the envy of women. To the shanty-dwelling women of South America, that pecking order bonanza is worth more than a well-balanced meal. We should know better than to think that the citizens of underdeveloped countries are motivated by the simple desire to escape poverty. We have the evidence right here in the United States. In Harlem, a hotbed of deprivation, the driving desire of teenagers is not for something of practical merit; it’s for status symbols. According to Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land, adolescent boys above Manhattan’s 125th Street feel compelled to wear a new pair of designer jeans twice a week, to “show fly” (to dress up), and to wear high-priced, status brands like Fila and Adidas. One teenager told Brown, “It’s embarrassing not to have a pair.” In Harlem, prestige frequently means more than food, shelter, and clothing.
So powerful is the pecking order impulse that pride has frequently meant more than survival to human beings. Pilots in the First World War refused to wear parachutes because safety devices were not “manly.” The fliers chose going down in flames over slipping a notch in the pecking order.
The spadefoot toad is following a basic biological law. That same principle makes the rapid rise in good fortune among humans a dangerous thing indeed. Nature shuts down the expenditure of energy when resources disappear, but she unleashes energy when fresh resources arrive. She makes those who are deprived sit still and endure their fate, but when good fortune lifts the curtain of hopelessness, biology gives the lucky souls who’ve landed on an upward track a burst of manic zeal…But give a social group a jolt of resources, and suddenly it is infused with energy, optimism, and restlessness. Servants may feel ready to grab the knife with which they have been cutting the meat for the master and put it to the master’s throat…The lesson is simple. Defeat makes superorganisms sleepy. So does poverty. But a military win or a shower of new wealth rouses social energies, inspiring the pecking order instincts to lift their contentious heads. And when a society is aroused, watch out.
Peace is another word abused by those with hidden pecking order goals. It usually means, “Since I’m on top, let’s keep the status quo” or, “Now that I’ve managed to climb on your back, would you please be kind enough to sit still. ‘’ Justice is the term used by those on the bottom of the heap who are itching to move up. When these folks refer to “the struggle for justice,” they generally mean, “Let’s keep fighting until I come out on top.” Once the devotees of justice have seated themselves on the uppermost rung of the ladder, they too almost invariably become staunch defenders of “peace.”
In Queen Victoria’s day (1837–1901), productivity per person in Britain rose 2.5 times!…But as they grew fat with prosperity, British industrialists overlooked three simple facts: (a) every technological breakthrough eventually grows old; (b) new inventions arrive to replace it; and (c) the country that dominates these new technologies often rules the world.
The British may have invented the new synthetic dyes, but in the long run, they were not the ones to profit from them. Despite Perkin’s rapid rise to millionaire status, most British industrialists turned up their noses at his discovery. The Germans, however, did not. They worked like maniacs to find out what else they could extract from the grunge produced by coal. In 1863, one German researcher came up with a rich shade of green. When the Empress Eugenie wore it to the Paris Opera, it became the fashion rage. The most impressive theoretical chemical research was still going on in English laboratories. So German industrial firms offered huge amounts of money to German chemists working in Britain. Then they put the British-trained recruits to work making useful new substances in the fatherland. Among those the Germans lured back was the professor whose suggestion had stimulated young Perkin to attempt the synthesis of quinine to begin with. Perkin himself had made his fortune. At thirty-six, he retired to pursue a life in “pure science.” The British dye industry shriveled in his absence, but the German dye business became the first step in a technology that would revolutionize the future. It was the foundation of the chemical industry.
Until 1870, Britain had been without question the strongest nation on the earth, yet she had spent the least on military hardware. From 1815 to 1865, a minuscule 3 percent of her GNP had gone into military budgets. Her strength had come from the spinning jenny, the steam-driven loom, the Cunard steamship, and the railroad. But Britain forgot that industrial innovation was the key to her power. Floundering British industrial titans dreamed of holding on to their old position by force.
Meanwhile, Germany was moving up the hierarchical ladder, and the German leaders were gripped by the testosterone high that makes a nation belligerent. Friedrich Naumann was typical of those who gloated over Teutonic good fortune. He said, “The German race brings it. It brings army, navy, money and power. . . . Modern, gigantic instruments of power are possible only when an active people feels the spring-time juices in its organs.”
Like the English under Victoria, we were trying to fool ourselves with the notion that weapons are the real source of strength. In the 1800s, the British lost their preeminence. They did it by forgetting what counts the most in the pecking order of nations. To stay in place, you have to run. To get anywhere, you have to run even harder!
When the pecking order status of a national superorganism slides, a frustrated populace looks for someone to blame, preferably a character located conveniently close to home.
We humans, alas, are built with the same pusillanimous circuitry. When we are battered by forces beyond our control, we look around for someone smaller to punch.
But chimpanzee leaders, like human power brokers, eventually grow old and weak. In their younger days when a potential rival showed up to challenge them, they reared back on their hind legs and made a dramatic show of brawn and agility. But when strength and swiftness fade, the aging leaders use another tactic. Like my dog, they pretend they do not see. A rival may swagger toward the reigning monarch determined to assert his claims. The muscular youngster jumps up and down. He makes terrifying noises by pounding on any resonant object in sight. He swings huge branches intimidating!y through the air. But the weakened elder deals with this pecking order challenge in a strange way. He turns his head and pretends to be utterly absorbed in examining a banana peel. For a time, the aging leader who refuses to see his rivals retains his top position. His old system of alliances props him up. But if the youngster has played his cards right, he has quietly built up coalitions of his own and gained the favor of the populace. Then the challenger’s public humiliations of his elder may one day prove decisive. Eventually, the older statesman will be forced to yield his position, and the young turk will become the new head chimp…The nation slipping downward averts its eyes, but the country on the rise is often vigorously alert, looking for the tiniest opportunity to lunge toward the top. Instead of turning their backs and hoping for peace, superorganisms on the move often manufacture confrontations.
Once Bismarck was confident that his military buildup was complete, he did not flinch from confrontation. Far from it. He sought it out.
A rise or fall in the hierarchy of superorganisms has other profound effects on a society’s collective psyche. It transforms the emotions and shared values of the human herd. The nation moving up embraces adventure. The country moving down abandons the strange and buries its head in the familiar. It tries to march backward in time. These shifts in attitude are the result of prewired natural strategies.
The brutal fact is that the more we opt out of competition, the lower our position is likely to be. That holds true in our lives as individuals, and it holds even more true in our life as a nation.
Stress is not a product of the desire to achieve the extraordinary…The Japanese know what we have forgotten: that work and challenge are the keys to a vigorous life.
Experts & Ideas
A moment of defeat is a great time for an ambitious idea to seize minds that are fleeing from the precepts of a luckless leader. The result was a revolution.
The measure of the success of a web of memes—a myth, a hypothesis, or a dogma—is not its truth but how well it serves as social glue. If a belief system performs that function well enough, it can trigger the growth of a superorganism of massive size, even if its most basic tenets prove dead wrong.
If you can convince enough people of your worldview, no matter how wrong you are, you’re right! The real significance of a meme is its power to pull together a superorganism.
Why are humans drawn to ideas like filings to a magnet?
Ritual, Malinowski concluded, was a means of creating a false sense of control when reality was intolerably slippery. In his 1927 The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud went a step further and declared that man will cling to religion’s fantasy of control as long as science fails to give him actual power over his destiny.
Why would a man selling his ability to deal with disease pretend that your affliction is a whim? After all, the symptoms one generation swears are “in your head” are often shown by research to be real a few decades later. But a doctor does not generally confess ignorance. He is selling the illusion of omnipotence: the illusion that through consulting him you gain control over your body, the same illusion sold by the sorcerers of India. Occasionally, your physician changes tactics. He gives you a name for your problem but no cure. The name alone—like a magic talisman—makes you feel you have a problem your doctor can control. Or the doctor gives you a prescription.
When we are pathetically attempting to deal with the invisible, when we have the least evidence of reality, that is when we are most vulnerable to the power of the experts.
Pictures of the invisible world can have wild inaccuracies, but every view that flourishes does so because it solves at least one major problem.
The secret behind the problem-solving abilities of worldviews is the same as that behind the success of superorganisms. It lies in the power of networks.
A conventional computer also stores a sizable batch of information in a kind of holding pen but has to shoot it, one small bit at a time, through a processor where the real work of computation and comparison is accomplished. This is called serial processing. Neural nets function in a radically different way. They don’t use the narrow, railroad-track approach to information processing. Instead, they are shaped like spiderwebs that process information in parallel. The lines of the webs are electrical channels whose conductivity can be raised or lowered. The junctions where the lines meet are switches that can be turned on or off. Neural nets can solve problems by making rough models of the real world as they learn from data we give them.
Worldviews share the neural network’s fuzziness. They are not precise, but they’re frequently close enough. They can be wildly inaccurate. It isn’t accuracy that counts, however; it’s utility. They may be sloppy, but they render solutions to real world problems fast. As neural-net builder Hopfield says, “Biology, by and large, is not interested in finding the best things, just things that are pretty good that can be found quickly.”
The brain of a bee is an insubstantial thing—a slender thread of neural fiber scarcely capable of anything we would call intelligence. But the strength of a neural net does not lie in the limited abilities of any one node in the web. The strength of the connectionist intelligence—its problem-solving ability—is in the web itself: the constant feeling, touching, and communicating between the bees that pool their brains into one. The problem is solved not by a single bee but by the interconnected mass.
Humans rally around ideas because they solve some of our problems, because they offer the biological blessings of the illusion of control, and because they are the threads that hold us together in the vast network of a superorganismic mind, weaving scattered individuals into a cooperative entity of awesome power and size.
The appeal of prophets often lies in their ability to paint a picture of an irresistible Utopia and to convince us that this better world is almost within our grasp.
Humans grab at ideas because ideas knit them together in groups of people who agree with them. They provide the comfort of companionship and mutual aid. That’s one way memes seduce humans into their power.
An ideology is usually a high-minded mask for a group’s itch to take power and resources from other social groups.
Hans Morgenthau, the political theorist, has said that men don’t willingly accept the truth about human nature and especially about political nature. The aim of politics, Morgenthau says, is not to make people better or to alleviate their misery: it is to increase the power of one man or group of men against the power of another man or group of men. Morgenthau says our enemies are never as bad as we make them out to be, and we are never as good as we think.
Ideas do more than merely bond a group together. They justify that group’s expansion. Like the hungry amoeba, the superorganism is anxious to grow. It is anxious to feast on the flesh of its neighbors.
A strange thing happens to the memes of the superorganism that mounts the pecking order’s peak. They spread as rapidly as the germs of plague, exultantly leaping from mind to conquered mind. Today, most of the populations of Europe, South America, and North America speak languages rich in Roman words. They do their public business in buildings adorned with the flourishes of Roman architecture. They read and write the Roman alphabet.
If you occasionally feel that you are of several minds on one subject, you are probably right. In reality, you have several brains. And those brains don’t always agree.
The female runs out to the edge of her husband’s territory and tries to provoke another duck, then runs back to her male, stands next to him, and looks behind her at the enraged rival in the hope that her mate will jump into the fray. Many are the human females who have tried to stir up a similar fight.
Women encourage killers. They do it by falling in love with warriors and heroes. Men know it and respond with enthusiasm.
It is useless for women to blame violence on men, and it would be futile for men to blame violence on women. Violence is built into both of us.
Research shows that predators almost invariably go for a herd animal that is acting differently from the rest.
But the gazelle who has just spotted the clawed creature does not quietly blend into the bunch. She breaks into a strange run punctuated by abrupt jumps into the air. Her behavior alerts her herd-mates to the prowling cat. One after another, they join the running and jumping. The leopard, thrown off by the commotion, eventually gives up and walks away.
Two means have been discovered to produce depression in laboratory animals: uncontrollable punishment and isolation.
Hitler used to go through something similar at the height of his power. He would bully an opposing head of state, shouting, fuming, seemingly invulnerable to the inhibitions that weaken other men. Then, when he was alone in his room, the indomitable leader would collapse into a screaming nervous wreck.
Margaret Mead says every human group makes a simple rule: thou shalt not kill members of our gang, but everyone else is fair game. According to Mead, each group says that all humans are brothers and declares that murdering humans is out of the question. Most groups, however, have very strange means of defining who is human.
Perception is a highly selective process. We see and vividly remember some things that pass before our eyes. We ignore many others. And still others we work to actively deny.
Men were designed for short, nasty, brutal lives. Women are designed for long, miserable ones. Dr. Estelle Ramey
In northern areas, it also takes more than one human to raise an infant. No wonder monogamy tends to be a practice of the north, while polygamy is a custom of the prodigal south.
William H. Calvin hypothesizes that the art of throwing was responsible for the rapid increase in size and complexity of the early human brain.
The cursus honororum was a splendid motivator. It impelled Rome’s best and brightest to dedicate nearly all their energies to the betterment of their society.
Nature’s way of testing any self-replicating device is competition. For over three and a half billion years, she has set the products of the genetic system in a race to see who can corner the good things of this life.
Roman military engineers pored over the battered vessel, examining every detail. They took it apart and noted each trick of the boat’s construction, then built a copy of their own. When the Roman technicians tested their warship, it worked as well as the original. So the Romans rapidly hammered together an entire fleet, turning out 220 ships in only three months. These traditional landlubbers were now the proud possessors of a navy.
This pious self-aggrandizement of a conquering barbarian tribe led to the Indian caste system.
Why does the Hindu religion tell its adherents to go with the flow, to abhor the things of this world, to set aside earthly desires, to hope only for an improvement of their lot after this life is over? Because Hinduism was designed to keep the conquered Shudras in their place.
They forgot that the real danger often comes from a people everyone has totally dismissed. So the great Persian leader Darius didn’t bother with the scarcely civilized yokels who squabbled interminably on a bunch of islands and rocky coasts to the west and who called themselves the Greeks.
“Physical affection—touching, holding, and carrying.” The societies that hugged their kids were relatively peaceful. The cultures that treated their children coldly produced brutal adults.
In the eleventh century, once again convinced that: she could use her great strength to usher in an era of peace, China turned to diplomacy and did so brilliantly. She discovered that it cost far less to pacify her enemies with tribute than it did to maintain an elephantine army, so she paid her enemies off. To keep these hulking powers from her throat, she worked insidiously behind the scenes to stir up trouble. Not trouble that would threaten her own security , but that would create squabbles among her enemies. After all, the more they quarreled with each other, the less they’d bother the Chinese. The whole scheme worked like a charm. It worked so well that both the Chinese and their enemies were able to dismantle their military complexes and pour the savings into the domestic economy. That diverted treasure produced a burst of prosperity.
Poverty with prestige is better than affluent disgrace
In many cultures, however, giving things to people is a way of humiliating them. It is a sneaky technique for drawing attention to the recipient’s lowliness on the hierarchical ladder…The ritual drove home the fact that the noble was on top and the peasants on the bottom. The Anglo-Saxon word for someone on the crest of a social heap—lord—was a testament to the put-down power of the handout. The word’s literal meaning: “loaf giver.”
Compassionate gestures have a purpose we seldom admit: they confirm our feeling of superiority, gratifying us with the certainty that those who receive our “help” are, indeed, below us. This makes the recipients loathe us. They’d gladly exchange the food and blankets we send for the opportunity to look down upon their “benefactors.”
You can see a similar biological conservation device at work in yourself. You sit down to a meal. A half-hour or less after you’ve started eating, you begin to feel warm. The food you’re chewing hasn’t reached your bloodstream yet—in fact, it will take hours before it is digested. So where does the sudden spurt of fuel that warms you come from? The body has held energy in reserve, just as it does in the case of the spadefoot toad. Those stored calories are designed to tide you over in case you skip lunch or find yourself in the middle of a famine. Once the first bite of a new meal passes your lips, however, your metabolic regulators conclude that there’s new food at hand and release some of the hoarded nutrients into your bloodstream.
The phenomenon of the well-fed, adventurous bird showed up in even more subtle ways. To succeed, a rock ‘n’ roller had to be a young man on his own, totally free of parents and family, a rebel who had bailed out of his childhood home and become a vagabond, roaming the countryside in the company of other young men like himself—his band. The ideal rocker was a hero who had cut himself loose from the old, smothering ways. There was one cardinal rule for rock interviews: never mention the existence of your father and mother. Admitting that you had once been tied to apron strings could instantly kill your appeal.
Progress is possible only when people believe in the possibilities of growth and change. Races or tribes die out not just when they are conquered and suppressed but when they accept their defeated condition, become despairing, and lose their excitement about the future. Norman Cousins
But the Chinese were more interested in the opiate of illusion than the bitter draught of reality. Like the rat who cannot control his fate, they huddled in their corner of the world, indulging in the endorphin strategy, with its dulling of the senses and crippling of the intellect.
For the athlete under high stimulation, there is more time. His world is richer, and far more data is processed by his brain. One difference between a society on the rise and a society in decline may be that the rising society is on the fast clock. It sees each impediment as a challenge, absorbs information quickly, and finds new ways to overcome its obstacles. It operates on tennis time. But the society that has peaked has moved to the slow clock. It has ceased to absorb data rapidly. It is on beach time.
For a brilliant evocation of this aspect of life, see “Shedding Life: On the Mysteries of Dying, Cell by Cell,” by Czechoslovakian research immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub, Science 86, April 1986, 51–53. See also Wicken, “Thermodynamics, Evolution and Emergence,” in Weber, Depew, and J. D. Smith, Entropy, Information, and Evolution, 166.
What I got out of it
Quite a dark book, and I’m sure many consider it “dangerous”, but it forces you to ask some fundamental questions and confront some of the less pleasant sides of nature and human nature.
Latticework: success in investing based on a working knowledge of a variety of disciplines
Latticework is itself a metaphor. And on the surface, quite a simple one at that. Everyone knows what latticework is, and most people have some degree of firsthand experience with it. There is probably not a do-it-yourselfer in America who hasn’t made good use of a four-by-eight sheet of latticework at some point. We use it to decorate fences, to create shade over patios, and to support climbing plants. It is but a very small stretch to envision a metaphorical lattice as the support structure for organizing a set of mental concepts
Physics – Equilibrium
Physics is the science that investigates matter, energy, and the interaction between them – the study, in other words, of how our universe works. It encompasses all the forces that control motion, sound, light, heat, electricity, and magnetism, and their occurrence in all forms, from the smallest subatomic particles to entire solar systems. It is the intellectual foundation of many well-recognized principles such as gravitation and such mind-boggling concepts as quantum mechanics and relativity.
Equilibrium is defined as a state of balance between opposing forces, powers, or influences. An equilibrium model typically identifies a system that is at rest; this is called “static equilibrium.”
The concept of equilibrium is so deeply embedded in our theory of economics and the stock market, it is difficult to imagine any other idea of how these systems could possible work…One place where the question is being raised is the Santa Fe Institute, where scientists from several disciplines are studying complex adaptive systems – those systems with many interacting parts that are continually changing their behavior in response to changes in the environment…If a CAS is, by definition, continuously adapting, it is impossible for any such system, including the stock market, ever to reach a state of perfect equilibrium. What does that mean for the stock market? It throws the classic theories of economic equilibrium into serious question. The standard equilibrium theory is rational, mechanistic, and efficient. It assumes that identical individual investors share rational expectations about stock prices and then efficiently discount that information into the market. It further assumes there are no profitable strategies available that are not already priced into the market. The counterview from SFI suggests the opposite: a market that is not rational, is organic rather than mechanistic, and is imperfectly efficient.
The SFI pointed out 4 distinct features they observed about the economy: dispersed interaction, no global controller, continual adaptation, out of equilibrium dynamics.
Biology – Evolution
What we are learning is that studying economic and financial systems is very similar to studying biological systems. The central concept for both is the notion of change, what biologists call evolution. The models we use to explain the evolution of financial strategies are mathematically similar to the equations biologists use to study populations of predator-prey systems, competing systems, or symbiotic systems.
Complex systems must be studied as a whole, not in individual parts, because the behavior of the system is greater than the sum of the parts. The old science was concerned with understanding the laws of being. The new science is concerned with the laws of becoming
Social Sciences – Complexity, Complex Adaptive Systems, Self-Organized Criticality
Although Johnson’s maze is a simple problem-solving computer simulation, it does demonstrate emergent behavior. It also leads us to better understand the essential characteristic a self-organizing system must contain in order to produce emergent behavior. That characteristic is diversity. The collective solution, Johnson explains, is robust if the individual contributions to the solution represent a broad diversity of experience in the problem at hand. Interestingly, Johnson discovered that the collective solution is actually degraded if the system is limited to only high-performing people. It appears that the diverse collective is better at adapting to unexpected changes in structure.
Folly to think you can eliminate every waste, every performer who doesn’t meet the highest bar, and excel and survive. Can shift the entire bell curve to the right, but you still need the full spectrum
Notes: We have observed anecdotal evidence of emergent behavior, perhaps without realizing what we were seeing. The recent bestseller,Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of american Submarine Espionage, presents a very compelling example of emergence. Early in the book, the authors relate the story of the 1966 crash of a B-52 bomber carrying four atomic bombs. Three of the four bombs were soon recovered, but a fourth remained missing, with the Soviets quickly closing in. A naval engineer named John Craven was given the task of locating the missing bomb. He constructed several different scenarios of what possibly could have happened to the fourth bomb and asked the members of the salvage team to wager a bet on where they thought the bomb could be. He then ran each possible location through a computer formula and – without ever going to sea! – was able to pinpoint the exact location of the bomb based on a collective solution
It is when the agents in the system do not have similar concepts about the possible choices that the system is in danger of becoming unstable. And that is clearly the case in the stock market…The value of this way of looking at complex systems is that if we know why they become unstable, then we have a clear path to a solution, to finding ways to reduce overall instability. One implication, Richards says, is that we should be considering the belief structures underlying the various mental concepts, and not the specifics of the choices. Another is to acknowledge that if mutual knowledge fails, the problem may center on how knowledge is transferred in the system.
Psychology – Mr. Market, Complexity, Information
Another aspect of behavioral finance is what some psychologists refer to as mental accounting – our tendency to think of money in different categories, putting our funds into separate “mental accounts,” depending on circumstances. Mental accounting is the reason we are far more willing to gamble with our year-end bonus than our monthly salary, especially if it is higher than anticipated. It is also one further reason why we stubbornly hold onto stocks that are doing badly; the loss doesn’t feel like a loss until we sell
Philosophy – Pragmatism
Strictly for organizational simplicity, we can separate the study of philosophy into 3 broad categories. First, critical thinking as it applies to the general nature of the world is called “metaphysics”…Metaphysics means “beyond physics.” When philosophers discuss metaphysical questions, they are describing ideas that exist independently from our own space and time. Examples include the concepts of God and the afterlife. These are not tangible events like tables and chairs but rather abstract ideas that metaphysical questions readily concede the existence of the world that surrounds us but disagree about the essential nature and meaning of the world. The second body of philosophical inquiry is the investigation of 3 related areas: aesthetics, ethics, and politics. Aesthetics is the theory of beauty. Philosophers who engage in aesthetic discussions are trying to ascertain what it is that people find beautiful, whether it be in the objects they observe or in the state of mind they achieve. This study of the beautiful should not be thought of as a superficial inquiry, because how we conceive beauty can affect our judgments of what is right and wrong, what is the correct political order, and how people should live. Ethics is the philosophical branch that studies the issues of right and wrong. It asks what is moral and what is immoral, what behavior is appropriate and inappropriate. Ethics makes inquiries into the activities people undertake, the judgments they make, the values they hold, and the character they aspire to achieve. Closely connected to the idea of ethics is the philosophy of politics. Whereas ethics investigates what is good or right at the individual level, politics investigates what is good or right at the societal level. Political philosophy is a debate over how societies should be organized, what laws should be passed, and what connections people should have to these societal organizations. Epistemology, the third body of inquiry, is the branch of philosophy that seeks to understand the limits and nature of knowledge. The term itself comes from two Greek words: episteme, meaning “knowledge,” and logos, which literally means “discourse” and more broadly refers to any kind of study or intellectual investigation. Epistemology, then, is the study of the theory of knowledge. To put it simply, when we make an epistemological inquiry, we are thinking about thinking. When philosophers think about knowledge, they are trying to discover what kinds of things are knowable, what constitutes knowledge (as opposed to beliefs), how it is acquired (innately or empirically, through experience), and how we can say that we know a thing.
For pragmatism, anyone who seeks to determine the true definition of a belief should look not at the belief itself but at the actions that result from it. He called the proposition “pragmatism,” a term, he pointed out, with the same root as practice or practical, thus cementing his view that the meaning of an idea is the same as its practical results. “Our idea of anything, Peirce explained, “is our idea of its sensible effects.” In his classic 1878 paper, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” Peirce continued: “The whole function of thought is to produce habits of action. To develop its meaning, we have, therefore, simply to determine what habits it produces, for what a thing means is simply what habits it involves.”
A belief is true, James said, because holding it puts a person into more useful relations with the world…People should ask what practical effects come from holding one philosophical view over another
If truth ad value are determined by their practical applications in the world, then it follows that truth will change as circumstances change and as new discoveries about the world are made. Our understanding of truth evolves. Darwin smiles.
So we can say that pragmatism is a process that allows people to navigate an uncertain world without becoming stranded on the desert island of absolutes. Pragmatism has no prejudices, dogmas, or rigid canons. It will entertain any hypothesis and consider any evidence. If you need facts, take the facts. If you need religion, take religion. If you need to experiment, go experiment. “In short, pragmatism widens the field of search for God,” says James. “Her only test of probable truth is what works best in the way of leading us.”
Pragmatism, in summary, is not a philosophy as much as it is a way of doing philosophy. It thrives on open minds, and gleefully invites experimentation. It rejects rigidity and dogma; it welcomes new ideas. It insists that all possibilities should be considered, without prejudice, for important new insights often come disguised as frivolous, even silly notions. it seeks new understanding by redefining old problems.
One of the secret to Bill Miller’s success is his desire to take a Rubik’s Cube approach to investing. He enthusiastically examines every issue from every possible angle, from every possible discipline, to get the best possible description – or redescription – of what is going on. Only then does he feel in a position to explain. To his investigation he brings insights from many fields…He continually studies physics, biology, and social science research, searching for ideas that will help him become a better investor…In an environment of rapid change, the flexible mind will always prevail over the rigid and absolute…Because you recognize patterns, you are less afraid of sudden changes. With a perpetually open mind that relishes new ideas and knows what to do with them, you are set firmly on the right path.
Literature – self-education of a Latticework through books, Adler’s Active Reading
We must educate ourselves and the vehicle for doing so is a book supplemented with all other media both traditional and modern…So we are talking about learning to become discriminating readers: to analyze what you read, to evaluate its worth in the larger picture, and to either reject it or incorporate it into your own latticework of mental models…We can all acquire new insights through reading if we perfect the skill of reading thoughtfully. The benefits are profound: not only will you substantially add to your working knowledge of various fields, you will at the same time sharpen your skill at critical thinking.
The central purpose of reading a book, Adler believes, is to gain understanding…This is not the same as reading for information.
Reading that makes you stop and think is the path to greater understanding – not solely because of what you are reading but also because of the process of reflection in which you are engaged. You are learning from your own thinking as well as from the author’s ideas. You are making new connections. Adler describes as the difference between learning by instruction and learning by discovery. It’s evident of in the satisfaction we feel when we figure out something on our own, instead of being told the answer. Receiving the answer might solve the immediate problem, but discovering the answer by your own investigation has a much more powerful effect on your overall understanding.
Adler proposes that all active readers need to keep 4 fundamental questions in mind: what is the book about as a whole, what is being said in detail, is the book true, in whole or in part, what of it? The heart of Adler’s process involves 4 levels of reading: elementary, inspectional, analytical, and syntopical. Each level is a necessary foundation for the next, and the entire process is cumulative.
Elementary reading is the most basic level, the one we achieve in elementary education
In inspectional reading, the second level, the emphasis is on time and the goal is to determine, as quickly as possible, what the book is about. It has two levels: prereading and superficial reading. Prereading is a fast review to determine whether a book deserves a more careful reading. Look at the table of contents, index, how much can you learn about the main themes through this overview. Next, Adler recommends systematic skimming. Read a few paragraphs here and there, read the author’s conclusion. These two activities should take between 30-60 minutes and help you determine if it is worth your time to read the book
Analytical reading is the most thorough and complete way to absorb a book. Through analytical reading you will answer what is the book about as a whole and in detail and provide you the most complete answer to if the book is true. It has goals: develop a detailed sense of what the book contains, interpret the contents by examining the author’s own particular point of view on the subject; and to analyze the author’s success in presenting that point of view convincingly. Take notes, make an outline, write in your own words what you think the book is about, write the author’s main arguments
The fourth and highest level is what Adler calls syntopical reading, or comparative reading. In this level of reading, we are interested in learning about a certain subject, and to do so we compare and contrast the works of several authors rather than focusing on just one work by one another. Adler considers this the most demanding and most complex level of reading. It involves two challenges: first, searching for possible books on the subject; and then deciding, after finding them, which books should be read
The challenge for us as readers is to receive that knowledge and integrate it into our latticework of mental models. How well we are able to do so is a function of two very separate considerations: the author’s ability to explain, and our skills as careful, thoughtful readers. We have little control over the first, other than to discard one particular book in favor of another, but the second is completely within our control
I believe in…mastering the best that other people have figured out, [rather than] sitting down and trying to dream it up yourself…You won’t find it that hard if you go at it Darwinlike, step by step with curious persistence. You’ll be amazed at how good you can get…It’s a huge mistake not to absorb elementary worldly wisdom…Your life will be enriched – not only financially but in a host of other ways – if you do. – Charlie Munger, Poor Charlie’s Almanack
Decision Making – Continuously add more building blocks to your knowledge base in order to build more robust mental models
Failures to explain are caused by our failures to describe
Our institutions of higher learning may separate knowledge into categories, but wisdom is what unites them.
What I got out of it
A beautiful book on how to approach being a multidisciplinary thinker as it applies to investing.
The tendencies of basic biological, social and technological evolutions can be explained in scientific, physical terms. Directionality seems to be imputed and the author argues that Non-Zero Sum games has been the driving force for biological life. The core of biological and human history can be traced back to more numerous, larger, more elaborate, more interdependent forms of NZS games being played. “Non-Zero Sumness” can be thought of as the tendency which gives time its directionality, helping explain how NZS was likely to lead to complex life forms and technology which further enriched how these life forms interacted
Game theory was developed by von Neumann. Zero sum games are games in which one person’s win means another person’s loss (sports) whereas Non-Zero sum games aren’t necessarily negative for one party. The authors argue that NZS games are a driving force for the world has been shaped. NZS games can be win/win, win/lose, lose/win, or lose/lose
Human history has shown that technological advancements allow for richer and more widespread NZS thinking and actions to occur, and social structures evolve from these interactions to more fully capitalize on these positive sum interactions, increasing social complexity and depth. NZS is not always win/win, but it trends in that direction and this causes people to become more embedded in webs of mutual interdependence.
Hunting large prey requires coordination which spurs altruism, reciprocity, social complexity, and positive sum games. “The best place to store your excess food is somebody else’s stomach.”
The author argues that population density is the overriding factor in predicting technological evolution and social complexity in a group of people
A quick summary of NZS would be the extent to which outcomes are shared, also known as skin in the game
Writing builds trust in a society (lenders don’t have to worry about debtors cheating them and vice versa, etc.) which helps streamline much of life and leads to positive sum outcomes
Increasing NZS leads to a more interconnected and codependent world where you not only care about your local neighbors but also the global community as trade commerce and ideas seamlessly transfer from one area to another
Increasing seamlessness in travel, commerce, communication, mostly driven by improvements in technology lead to new areas and opportunities for NZS, and how open and willing countries are to adopt the new technology and drive it’s future success and ability to capitalize on these positive sum games.
Technology, freedom, and increasing wealth seem to be inherently and intimately intertwined
NZS is responsible for reciprocal altruism love has evolution selected for those who could cooperate with each other and survive and this helped in hard times when others with chip in to pay back your favor
Time’s arrow does not necessarily point towards complexity but competition, survival, and natural selection push species to become more adapted and more complex in their thinking and behavior just in order to survive. If there was no competition and no threat of being eaten, animals don’t naturally just become more complex. Positive feedback at play
Natural selection beautifully fills in open inches
Truly valuable traits evolve independently. For example eyesight and reciprocal altruism evolved in multiple times and species. These are prime behaviors that have helped species survive for eons and are traits that we can bank on
What I got out of it
Really interesting idea that non-zero games, technological advancement, win/win have spurred evolution towards complexity in behavior
This book is an argument about what technology is and
how it evolves. Technologies are put together from pieces – themselves
technologies – that already exist. Technologies therefore share ancestry,
combine more, and combined again to create further technologies.
Technology evolves similar to how a coral reef builds itself from
activities of small organisms – it creates itself from itself; all
technologies are descended from earlier technologies. Technologies are not
“inventions” that come from nowhere so in a sense, technology created
Technology, Evolution, Recursion, Phenomena
Technologies have a recursive structure and
collectively advance by capturing phenomenon and putting them to use. The
economy arises from technologies and therefore issued forth from all
these capturings of phenomena and subsequent combinations
We are caught between two huge and unconscious forces:
our deepest hope as human’s lies in technology but our deepest trust lies
in nature. These forces are like tectonic plates grinding inexorably into
each other in one long slow collision. The collision is not new but more
than anything else it is defining our era. Technology is steadily creating
the dominant issues and upheavals of our time. We are moving from an
era where machines enhance the natural to one that brings in technologies
that resemble or replace the natural. As we learn to use these
technologies we are moving from using nature to intervening directly
within nature. And so the story of the century will be about the clash
between what technology offers and what we feel comfortable with.
We have great understanding about individual
technologies but very little in the way of the general understanding.
Much like in 1800 there was a great understanding about the family
relationships among animals but few principles like evolution to hold all
this knowledge together. Missing in other words is the theory of
technology – an “Ology” of technology
For me how technology evolves is the central question
in technology because if we could understand its evolution we could
understand that most mysterious of processes: innovation. Combination
drives change or at least the innovation of technology. Invention
proceeds from the constructive assimilation of pre-existing elements into
new syntheses. So the very cumulation of earlier technologies begets
further accumulation. The more there is to invent with the greater
will be the number of inventions. These two pieces lead to a theory of
evolution of technology that novel technologies arise by combination of
existing technologies and that existing technologies beget further
Why we are seeing change, innovations, disruption at
levels never before seen – there are more building blocks than ever
before that can be combined and recombined in new ways, leading to new
innovations. This trend seems likely only to continue
The change in vision I am proposing is from standalone
technologies, each with a fixed purpose, to seeing them as objects that
can be formed into endless new combinations. These technologies can be
easily combined and they form building blocks which can be used again and
again. Technology, once a means of production, is becoming a chemistry
Arthur gives three definitions of technology:
A means to fulfill a human purpose
An assemblage of practices and components
An entire collection of devices and practices
available to a culture.
A means to fulfill a purpose: a device, method, or
process (combination, recursiveness, reliance on a natural
Technology consists of parts organized into component
systems or modules and some of these form the central assembly and others
have supporting functions. This is a general rule: what starts as a
series of parts loosely strung together, if used heavily enough, congeals
into a self-contained unit. The modules of technology over time become
standardized units. In this sense technologies have a recursive
structure as they consist of technologies within technologies all the way
down to the elemental parts. There is no characteristic scale for
technology as every technology stands ready, at least potentially, to
become a component in further technologies at a higher level
Combination is inherently a very disciplined process
as all these different modules must not only work together but further
the primary function
Just like higher level technologies are composed of a
series of assemblies and subassemblies, they’re also composed of a series
of natural phenomenon. For example, maybe one or two phenomena such as
trucks use the burning of fuel and low friction to roll or several
phenomena such as detecting planets that are too far away to see
directly. But, in either case, it is combinations of natural effects that
we can exploit for greater technology
Phenomena are the source of all technologies. In the
essence of technology lies and orchestrating them to fulfill a purpose.
Phenomenon or simply natural effects exist independently of humans and of
technology. They have no use attached to them. The principal by contrast
is the idea of use of a phenomenon for some purpose and it exist very
much in the world of humans and of use. In practice, before phenomenon
can be used for technology, they must be harnessed and set up to work
properly. They can barely be used in raw form and must be coaxed to
operate satisfactorily and may only work in a narrow range of conditions.
So, the right combination of means to set them up for the purpose
intended must first be found. Therefore the practical technology consists
of many phenomena working together. Technology can then be thought of as
a collection of phenomenon captured and put to use. In its essence a
technology consist of certain phenomenon programmed for some purpose.
Technology can then be seen as a metabolism where the phenomenon are the
genes of technology – they interact in complex ways, converse with each
other, similar to how subroutines and computer programs call each other. Biology
programs genes into myriad structures and technology programs phenomena
to myriad uses
I like to think of phenomena as hidden underground –
not available until discovered in mind into. This is general with
phenomena as a family of phenomena is mined into effect. Some covered
earlier begin to create methods and understandings that help uncover
later. One effect leads to another, then to another, until eventually a
whole vein of related phenomenon has been mined into. A family of a facts forms a set of chambers connected
by seams and passageways – one leading to another. And that is not all.
The chambers in one place, one family, of the facts leads through
passageways to chambers elsewhere to different families. Quantum
phenomenon could not have been uncovered without the prior uncovering of
the electrical phenomena. Phenomenon form a connected system of excavated
chambers and passageways. The whole system underground is connected.
This build out happens slowly as it earlier forms of instruments and
devices help uncover later ones. In this way, the uncovering a
phenomenon builds itself out of itself. Phenomena accumulate by
bootstrapping their way forward.
Not every phenomenon of course has an immediate use
but when a family of phenomenon is uncovered, a train of technology typically
Technology is not merely applied science. It is better
to say it builds both from science and from its own experience. Science
is in no small part the probing of nature via instruments and methods –
Evolution works by new technologies forming from
existing ones which act as building blocks. Sometimes these blocks come
from radical innovation but novel building block elements also arise from
standard day-to-day engineering.
Novel technologies come from linking, conceptually or
physically, the needs of some purpose with an exploitable effect (or set
of effects). Invention, we can say, consists in linking a need with some
effect to satisfactorily achieve that need
Technologies tend to become more complex – much more
complex – as they mature.
The greatest innovations are new domainings – a
switching to a new cluster of technologies. They allow not only a wholly new and more efficient
way to carry out a purpose but allow entirely new possibilities. As when
the provision of power switched from being expressed in waterwheel
technology to steam. A change in domain is the main way in which
technology progresses but a novel domain may appear to have little direct
importance early on. Such components and the way they are used do not
just reflect the style of the times, they define the style of the times.
An era does not just create technology, technology creates the era
Half of the effectiveness of a domain lives in its
reach. The possibilities it opens up. The other half lives in using
similar combinations again and again for different purposes
The domain’s grammar determines how its elements fit
together and the conditions under which they fit together determines what
works. Where do such grammars arise from? Well, of course ultimately from
nature. Behind the grammar of electronics lies the physics of the
electron motions and the laws of electrical phenomena. Big grammar
determines how the elements interrelate, interact, and combine to
generate structures. Grammars in large part reflect our understanding of
how nature works in a particular domain. Mastery in the technology in
fact is difficult to achieve because of technology grammar. Unlike a
linguistic one, this grammar changes rapidly.
Domains are worlds in the sense that experts lose
themselves in them. They disappear mentally into them just as we
disappear into the world of English when we write a letter. They think in
terms of purposes and work these backwards into individual operations in
their mental world. Much as a composer works a musical theme back into
the instrumental parts that will express it. Some domains have deep
worlds with a lot of possibilities. What can be accomplished easily in
the domain’s world constitutes that domains power. So, understanding
this leads to the natural conclusion that an object or business activity
to be worked on effectively must be brought into more than one world to
make use of what can be accomplished in each. But there is a general
lesson here: cost accumulates anywhere and activity leaves one world and
enters another. Shipping a freight containers by sea is not expensive but
transferring freight from the domain of rail into the shipping container
world requires the cumbersome and expensive technologies of railhead,
stocks, container handling cranes, and stevedoring. Such bridging
technologies are usually the most awkward aspect of a domain. They create
delays and bottlenecks and therefore run-up costs but they are necessary
because they make the domain available in control what can enter and
leave its world. We can think of a domain as containing a small
number of central operations that are streamlined and cheap – maritime
container transportation say. But, surrounding these on the outer edges
of the domain, are the slower and more awkward technologies that allow
activities to enter the world and leave it when finished – the docs and
gantry cranes of that world. These in general are costly. Domains
reflect the power of the worlds they create but they also reflect its
limitations. There is nothing static about these worlds. What can be
accomplished constantly changes as a domain evolves and as it expands its
base of phenomena. One implication is that innovation is not so much
a parade of inventions with subsequent adoptions. It is a constant
re-expressing or redomaining of old tasks within new worlds of the
If we can see technologies as having dynamic insides
we can better understand how technology can modify themselves over their
lifetime. We can see that technologies interior components are changing
all the time. As better parts are substituted, materials improve, methods
for construction change, the phenomenon the technology is based on are
better understood, and new elements become available, its parent domain
develops. So, technology is not a fixed thing that produces a few
variations or updates from time to time. It is a fluid thing – dynamic,
alive, highly configurable, and highly changeable overtime. The second
difference lies in how we see technology’s possibilities in its
collective sense. Technology does not just offer a set of limited
functions. It provides a vocabulary of elements that can be put together
or programmed in endlessly novel ways for endlessly novel purposes.
Design & Invention
Requirements start from the key purpose and proceed
outward, the needs of one assembly determining those of the next. A
design is a set of compromises. Intention comes first and the means to
fulfill it – the combination of components – fall in behind it. Design is
Many innovations and great designs do not come from
genius but from an accumulation of knowledge and expertise slowly
gathered over years
The search is continuous, conceptual, wide, and often
obsessive. This continuous thinking allows the subconscious to work, possibly
to recall an effect or concept from past experience, and it procures a
subconscious alertness so that when a candidate principle or a different
way to define the problem suggests itself the whisper at the door is
heard. Strangely, for people who report such breakthroughs, the insight
arrives whole, as if the subconscious had already put the parts together.
And it arrives with a “knowing” that the solution is right – a feeling of
its appropriateness, its elegance, its extraordinary simplicity. The
insight comes to an individual person, not a team, for it wells always
from an individual subconscious. And it arrives not in the midst of
activities or in frenzied thought, but in moments of stillness. One must
be open to see a purpose for what appears to be a spurious effect
At the creative heart of invention lies appropriation,
some sort of mental borrowing that comes in the form of a half conscious
Invention at its core is mental association.
Principles often apply across field and at the core of this mechanism –
call it principle transfer – is seeing an analogy.
An emerging technology always emerges from a
cumulative of previous components and functionalities already in place.
This is the pyramid of causality. Particularly important is knowledge –
both scientific and technical – that has cumulated over time
Origination is at bottom a linking – a linking of the
observational givens of a problem with a principle (a conceptual insight)
that roughly suggests these, and eventually with a complete set of
principles that reproduces these. At heart, all inventions had the same
mechanism: all link a purpose with a principle that will fulfill it, and
all must translate that principle into working parts
A technology develops not just by the direct efforts
applied to it. Many of a technology’s parts are shared by other
technologies, so a great deal of development happens automatically as
components improve in other uses “outside” that technology. A technology
piggybacks on the external development of its components. This internal
replacement is part of what makes technologies more complex as they age
but so does structural deepening. Sometimes changing internal components
won’t do, so adding assemblies or systems is needed.
Origination is not just a new way of doing things, but
a new way of seeing things. But it threatens. It can cause an emotional
mismatch between the potential of the new and security of the old. Old
technologies can lock in because of this and causes a phenomenon we will
call adaptive stretch. It is easier to reach for the old technology and
adapt it by “stretching” it to cover the new circumstances. There is a
natural cycle. A new principle arrives, begins development, runs into
limitations, and its structure elaborates. The new base principle is
simpler, but in due course it becomes elaborated itself.
Just as pulling on one thread of a spider’s web causes
the web to stretch and reshape itself in response, so the arrival of a
new technology causes the web of prices and production in the economy to
stretch and reshape itself across all industries. Cheaper steel due to
the Bessemer process caused railroads, construction, and heavy machinery
to changed their costs and what they could offer their consumers
Innovation emerges when people are faced by problems:
particular, well-specified problems. It arises as solutions to these are
conceived of by people stating many means or many functionalities that
they can combine. It is enhanced by funding that enables this by training
and experience in myriad functionalities. By the existence of special
projects and labs devoted to the study of particular problems and by
local cultures which foster deep craft. But it is not a monopoly of a
single region or country or people. It arises anywhere problems are
studied and sufficient background exists in the pieces that will form
solutions. In fact we can see that innovation has two main themes. One is
this constant finding or putting together of new solutions out of existing
tool boxes of pieces and practices. The other is industries constantly
combining their practices and processes with functionality is drawn from
newly arriving toolboxes, new domains. This second theme, like the first,
is about the creation of new processes and arrangements, new means to
purposes. But it is more important. This is because it is a new domain of
significance. Think of the digital one – it is encountered by all
industries in an economy. As this happens, the domain combines some of
its offerings with arrangements native to many industries. The result is
new processes and arrangements, new ways of doing things – not just in
one area of application but all across the economy.
Because all technologies come from some combination of
past technologies, the value of the technology lies not only in what can
be done with it but also in what further possibilities it will lead to.
Inventions beget more inventions as there are more possible combinations,
leading to exponential growth. Even if new technologies can potentially
be supplied by the combination of existing ones, they will only come into
existence if there exist some need, some demand for them. Or, even better
yet, opportunities for technology niches they can usefully occupy.
Ironically we can say that design works by combining
and manipulating clichés. But, still, a beautiful design always contain
some unexpected combination that shocks us with its
We must get comfortable with technology with
non-physical effects such as organizational or behavioral effects like
the monetary system, contracts, symphonies, algorithms, legal codes, and
All explanations are constructions from simpler parts
I do not believe there is any such thing as genius.
Rather it is the possession of a very large quiver of functionalities and
New bodies of technology tend to have their leading
edge highly concentrated in one country or region as real advanced
technology issues not from knowledge but from something we’ll call deep
craft. It is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowing. Knowing what is
likely to work and not work. Knowing what methods to use, what
principles, what parameters. It derives from a shared culture of beliefs,
an unspoken culture of common experience. Deep knowings in a technology
can be levered into deep knowings in another. Technology proceeds out of
deep understandings of phenomena and he’s become embedded as a deep set
of shared knowing that reside in people and establishes itself locally
and that grows over time. This is why countries that lead in science lead
also in technology. And so, if a country wants to lead in advanced
technology, it needs to do more than invest in industrial parks for
vaguely foster innovation. It needs to build its basic science without
any stated purpose of commercial use and it needs to culture that science
in a stable setting with funding and encouragement. Let the science sow
itself commercially and small startup companies allow these nascent
ventures to grow and sprout with minimal interference. Allow the science
and its commercial applications to seed new revolutions. Building a
capacity for advanced technology is not like planning production in a
socialist economy but more like growing a rock garden. Planting,
watering, and weeding are more appropriate than five year plans
Human needs are not just created by biological nerds
or prosperity but are also created directly by individual technologies.
Once we possess rocketry, we experience a need for space exploration.
However the vast majority of niches for technology are created not from
human needs but from the needs of technologies themselves. The reasons
are several. For one thing every technology by its very existence sets up
an opportunity for fulfilling its purpose more cheaply or efficiently.
And, so, for every technology there exists always an open opportunity.
And, for another, every technology requires supporting technologies to
manufacture it, organize for its production and distribution, maintain
it, and enhance his performance. And these require their own sub
supporting technologies. The third reason technology generates needs is
because they often cause problems indirectly. In this it generates needs
or opportunities for solutions
These technologies and their needs grow fractally.
Entertainment used to consist of public speeches or shows but now novels,
movies, podcasts, sports and so much more exist too.
Arthur thinks of the economy as the set of
arrangements and activities by which a society satisfies its needs. The
economy is an expression of its technologies. The economy in this way
emerges from its technologies. It constantly creates itself out of its
technologies and decides which new technologies will enter it. Notice the
circular causality at work here. Technology creates the structure of
the economy and the economy mediates the creation of novel technology and
therefore its own creation
Technologies can cause structural change in the
economy and this change is fractal – it branches out at lower levels just
as an embryonic arterial system branches out as it develops into smaller
arteries and capillaries
The more high-tech and sophisticated technologies
become, the more they become biological we are beginning to appreciate
the technology is as much metabolism as mechanism. As we come to better
understand biology we are steadily seeing it as more mechanistic as we
better understand the mechanisms behind it. Conceptually at least,
biology is becoming technology and physically technology is becoming a
biology. The two are starting to close on each other and, indeed, as we
move deeper into genomics, more than this, they are starting to
As technology becomes more biological and generative,
the economy reflects this too. In the generative economy, management
derives its competitive advantage not from its stock of resources and its
ability to transform these into finished goods but from its ability to
translate its stock of deep expertise into ever new strategic
combinations. Reflecting this, nations will prosper not so much from the
ownership of resources as from the ownership of specialized scientific
and technical expertise
What I got out of it
A fascinating and deep read about technology, how it
evolves, permeates, and builds off of itself. Some rich language and
concepts to apply to many disparate fields