Sunday, May 24, 2009

Fixing Education, Evolution in Virus, Human and Business

Duplicate post from Tough Love for Xerox where I blog about the Print industry, as opposed to how Print fits into the Communication Ecology.

The question is "Why do smart/good people do stupid/evil things?

Given that smart-stupid and good-evil is most likely similarly distributed at all levels of the pyramid attributing smart-good to just the top is frankly stupid. Likewise attributing stupid-evil to just the top is also not plausible. Contrary to the populist common wisdom, Congress, Boards of Directors, High School Principals, Printers and their customers have no monopoly on stupid.

Smart-stupid is most often used as an explanation at the top. Good-evil is used as an explanation at the bottom. Good/evil is often described as hard working/lazy.

They are all useless thought models/memes/categories/words if the job is to get from here to there. They are useless in government, education, business and selling stuff. Evolutionary thought models/memes/categories/words are much more useful.

Since it's the 150th anniversary of Origin of the Species there have been numerous publishing events that have captured the evolutionary framework in Print. Once so captured it is easily accessible to those not in the various guilds that talk about this kind of stuff as their day job. It was true when movable type emerged. It is still true today.

The most interesting recent book that has gotten onto my radar is the Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton. In it, he makes a very compelling argument that the mechanism of sexual selection is at the base of language and art. Thus it helps clarify the mechanisms that led to the evolved patterns in the brain that make humans predisposed to use language and experience proximate rewards from humor, fashion, love and the other specific human manifestations we call consciousness.

Evolution is driven by two forces, not one. Darwin himself articulated the thought model. But it has been under appreciated in the public discourse. One mechanism is adapting to ever changing proximate physical environments. The other mechanisms surround sexual selection. Adapting to changing physical environment is about minimizing risk. Sexual selection is about taking risks.

As the two mechanisms play out, some evolved characteristics of living bodies have no real effects on either. Consider a tank of tropical fish. Some characteristics seem to make no sense for survival by minimizing risk.

But then consider the peacock's tail. It has been convincingly argued that the enormous energy required to create the peacock's tail has been evolutionarily selected as a signal to the pea hen of health. It takes lots of invested energy to get to the peacock's tail. The DNA that presented in living bodies as that big tail increased in the gene pool because more peacocks with that tail were chosen by mates.

Viruses replicate asexually. They are single purpose DNA whose only activity is to replicate. They thrive in living bodies. But they are not burdened by the overhead or the slow cycle time of generations necessitated by living bodies. They can iterate a gezillion times in the cycle time that it takes a living bodies to iterate. The cycle time of random mutation, differentiation and selective destruction is very short. The AID virus is just the most recent example of a DNA virus that thrives by being able to take advantage of these short cycle times to change faster than humans can design ways to stop it.

Humans iterate slowly in human measured time. The time to get from infant to adult is very long. The amount of focused energy required is massive. Human mating decisions are critical path decisions that must be made in with imperfect information. Compared to mating decision, a high stakes test or a business decisions is a walk in the park. At any rate, the point is that human generations have a very long cycle time.

In the couple of hundred iterations since humans evolved to make a living from agriculture instead of hunting, the change in human DNA is relatively small. It took the many thousands of generations in the Pleistocene era to get to humans from the various living bodies that preceded them.

Businesses have much faster cycle times than living bodies. Since a business is merely a set of mutual expectations that enable exchange, they are a merely a product of culture.

Community based exchange has been an evolutionarily significant activity of humans since at least the emergence of cities in the Fertile Crescent and of course at other locations around the glove. Exchanges grow fastest in the informal economy. But to scale means risk has to be managed at a much larger scale. So exchanges evolve most reliably in formal economies governed by laws. It seems likely that economies will grow both quickly with the minimum risk as law becomes better to minimize risk of exchange failure at the bottom of the pyramid.

Once the large scale use of physical money emerged, it signaled less risky and easier exchanges. Less risk and easier leads to more iterations.

As is now well recognized, money is not a thing. Money is a signal that a specific exchange has acceptable risk. Now that the internet is replacing physical money with Cloud based signals of trust, the cycle time of exchange keeps moving towards zero. As the cycle time of exchanges move towards zero, money-in=the-Cloud can lose it's value as a signal of trust. Without constraint, money replicates like a virus. Sometimes that virus presents in living bodies as cancer. It presents in business as financial meltdowns.

In order to get from here to there, the blablabla is very important. Sometimes the words that are the stuff of blablabla are useful to point to a piece of reality. The overwhelming amount of the blablabla is only a good signal of the stories they tell themselves to create meaning about what they are doing and what is happening. If carefully considered blablabla can also be useful signals about what they might do as they get from here to there.

The real levers of getting to new behavior are about opportunity, constraints, proximate rewards and aligned incentives. At it's base it is about organizing the time and space in which humans move using their Pleistocene era evolved brain to deal with the changing environment of the 21st century.

That's why education can be fixed much more easily and quickly than is commonly believed. While it's almost impossible to change what people believe and hard, but not impossible to change how they think, it's pretty easy to change time and space constraints.

1. The effects of $4.00 gasoline on US driving habits vs the gezillion of dollars spent on blablabla about sustainability and conservation.

2. That the US savings rate went from -6% to +4% in eight months when real risk entered the picture v the gezillion dollars that were spent on blablabla about getting Americans to save.

3. That it took just a couple of months for GM to get out of banking business and refocus on the car business vs the gezillions of blablabla about ROI and good management.

4. That it took about 6 months to go from Financial Meltdown to merely Serious Recession for some and a once in a lifetime opportunity for others.

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