The 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.