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200801231520The Edge have this year an interesting question as it's Annual Edge question:

What have you changed your mind about? Why?

I happened to stumble upon Kevin Kelly's contribution on Technium, his blog. He changed his mind about the possibilities and powers of mass collaboration and uses Wikipedia as an example. I was a bit surprised about that he so late have changed his mind about that. To me that happened some years ago, but I on the other hand have been raised in the UNIX community where the Open Source model have been working for many years.

Peter Schwartz, the famous futurist tell us he in the shadow of the global climate situation have changed his mind about nuclear power. I'm a bit sceptical to that since it relies heavily on technology rather than the long term necessity of changing culture and behaviour, but it might be a step in the right direction. At least as long it doesn't sends the signal that it fixes the climate issue...

Here I take the chance to answer that question too...

What have I changed my mind about? And why??

I have changed my view about the relevance and value of taking the natural individual perspective in many questions. Is explanations based on one or a small group of individuals actions a reasonable base to explain occurrances and changes in e g societies or consumer groups?? I am not so certain anymore.

Being a firm individualist, living mostly in my brain, it is natural for me to to think that I am in control of my actions and that my thoughts and ideas really matter. I am apparently not alone in thinking this, because in this respect I am probably in good company with hoards of e g philosophers, scientists, thinkers and writers. Not to mention all others, i e probably most of the people on this earth.

In recent years research in many areas seems to step by step contradict this apparently fundamental base for our thinking.

Marketing specialists have together with psychologists and social psychologists the last decade repeatedly shown how we don't have an individual opinion about anything at all. Instead we are much more than we think influenced by externally induced unconscious cues from what we see, hear, smell, taste or feel. The result is that a cunning specialist can create an environment and by that to a high degree be able to predict our behavior. The reason that this isn't done more is mainly due to the high complexity in our environment and the impact of the hidden state of the individual brain.

The area of neurophysiology are exploding with results from research using fMRI which tells us more and more about which parts of the brain are active during our cognitive processes. The results seems to confirm that a lot of what is going on in the brain is more hardwired than we think. Yes, it is dependent on different structures and individual levels of certain substances which creates a certain range of individuality. But no, the existence of the self consciousness (the self) is now increasingly believed by neurologists to be something of an emergent phenomenon which might, just might, have had some evolutionary relevance.

In general this seems to reduce a great part of our behavior to hardwired processes. More specifically the discovery of the so called mirror neurons give us neurophysiological evidence for the ape instinct i e what marketing people and psychologists, social psychologists and sociologists can observe.

Psychologists, like e g Daniel Kahneman have even won a Noble prize for removing the archetype of the economic man. He have since many years shown us how often our thinking is flawed by built in quirks. Quirks that show that regardless of how creative and rational we can be in the classroom, these quirks makes us behave in a predictively irrational way in our daily life.

In the same period of time sociologists, economists and mathematicians have collaborated on theories around why and how herding works among humans. The basis for these theories comes from theoretical biologists who by mathematical modelling shows how a few simple mechanisms at the individual level emerges to a complex herding behavior among e g birds or ants. The conclusion is that extremely complex group behavior like that of the ant societies are not at all dependent in any individual intelligence. Rather the opposite. Seen from the emergent societal level it just a few simple parameters that counts.

In two bullet points:

  • Ok, we are not mechanical and deterministic robots in the sense that we behave predictably. The reason for this is NOT because we are rational and free individuals but because we we live in an extremely complex and situated environment where our complex mechanisms and filters interact with a complex environment. I e we are rather social copycats, who unconsciously always tries to fit in the social environment
  • Even if we have a bright analytical and theoretical brain (which we in some sense have) it doesn't seems to have that much of a real world impact since we apparently don't use it in our everyday life

How could we else understand that we (and Al Gore) have been talking about the global environmental crisis since the 1980:s and nobody did react? Even if the rational part of our brain told us what to do?

How could we else understand why it is so difficult to quit smoking or change lifestyle? Even if we are diagnosed with a lethal form of cancer, but could increase the time here on earth by just changing a bit of our behavior? (Read e g "Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life" (Alan Deutschman)

How could we else repeatedly choose the "wrong" leaders?

I have changed my mind regarding this and I think it is necessary that more people do. Because if we don't, we will continue to sit down and discuss the wrong issues and time after another make serious mistakes in the areas of public policies and management.

Just because we are individual physiological beings separated by air, we must not forget that when we are in a group we are first and foremost part of that larger group. Then it is the intelligence on group level that is the survival factor of that group and on a larger scale maybe the human race as such.

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Are things starting to go faster when it comes to the economic shift from the western economies towards the new BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) or is it just a temporary dip?

Frances Cairncross, economist and journalist summarized the current situation concerning the BRICs real good when she for one program took over Peter Day's Global Business program on the BBC. (BBC are really crappy at keeping their shows available on the web afterwards, but I think the links below lives until it's your turn).

One indication could be that according to IMF 2007 is the year when China (and according to the BBC program India) have surpassed US as the top contributors of world growth.

Yet another indication could be found in Gwynne Dyers article in Arab News, when he wonders if the dollar have started it's way down as the global currency.

In the BBC show a number of interesting conclusions and opinions are heard. I will try to summarize what I heard.

  • Many companies find the business situation difficult in US and Europe so they increase their sales in the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China). At the same time trade between the BRICs are beginning to soar. Chinas global export increase rate is about 20% a year, but the export increase rate to e g Russia and Brazil are between 40 and 50% a year.
  • The industrializing economies with their enormous amount of cheap labour keeps the economic engines of the world at full steam but keep at the same time wages for semi-skilled workers down. This results in a economic polarization with radically increased wealth at the top.
  • What is going on because of the BRICs development and huge numbers of people is that we are in for a restructuring of the global economy - the price clothes and economics goes down while the prices of energy and food goes up

Effects on the rest of the developing world

  • BRICs growth (together with the new agenda for fight the global warming) cause a really complex situation for the rest of the developing world. The resulting prices increase of food and fuel is undoubtably having a negative effect on many countries in the developing world. At the same time, the increasing prices of commodities give commodity producing countries short term benefits. In the longer run they are in fact in for a rough period since the traditional industrialization path going over a textile industry is basically blocked by the huge textile industries in India and China
  • More and more developing countries are, because of this strategically complex situation, importing ideas and strategies from successful industrialized and emerging nations and apply different strategies in order to find their own ways. This will probably have a wide range of effects. A few of them will hopefully strike gold, while others will continue struggle to establish stability with inherited tools of the wrong size and shape. A situation which in many places probably will turn out to be a fertile ground for both fanaticism, terrorism as well as strong dictators promising to solve the problems of the situation.

China is playing the game alone

  • The Chinese are all over the developing world making mutually beneficial deals. But unlike the western approach they don't ask questions or add conditionals in their business deals concerning e g democracy, human rights and environmental impact. This signals an exclusive view which is against what the industrialized world have strived for since the WWII.
  • G7 have members like Italy and Canada, but not e g China who already is a major player on the global scene and whose exclusive world view threatens to create a huge imbalance. At least from the perspective of the western world.
  • An increasingly globalized and uncertain world requires more cooperation between all nations if we are going to withstand the shocks and other difficulties which lies ahead in the future. One of the major uncertainties then seems to to be if there will be a global cooperation or not, where Chinas exclusive world view seems to be the biggest obstacle.

The discussion about the BRICs isn't new but maybe this is the time to start to recognize this development in a broader and more serious perspective.

World Economic Forum have also created a number of scenarios about the future of among others Russia, India and China which could be good complementary read.

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