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May 22, 2010

Blogging's virture (and partisanship's vice) given the value of "ideas having sex"

This terrific piece in the Wall Street Journal, which is headlined "Humans: Why They Triumphed," provides an enjoyable and stimulating read. The piece is full of fascinating ideas about human progress and intellectual evolution, while also coining my latest favorite term "ideas having sex."  Here are snippets from the start and end of the piece that showcase its key ideas:

Human evolution presents a puzzle. Nothing seems to explain the sudden takeoff of the last 45,000 years — the conversion of just another rare predatory ape into a planet dominator with rapidly progressing technologies. Once "progress" started to produce new tools, different ways of life and burgeoning populations, it accelerated all over the world, culminating in agriculture, cities, literacy and all the rest. Yet all the ingredients of human success — tool making, big brains, culture, fire, even language — seem to have been in place half a million years before and nothing happened. Tools were made to the same monotonous design for hundreds of thousands of years and the ecological impact of people was minimal. Then suddenly — bang! — culture exploded, starting in Africa. Why then, why there?

The answer lies in a new idea, borrowed from economics, known as collective intelligence: the notion that what determines the inventiveness and rate of cultural change of a population is the amount of interaction between individuals.  Even as it explains very old patterns in prehistory, this idea holds out hope that the human race will prosper mightily in the years ahead — because ideas are having sex with each other as never before....

There's a cheery modern lesson in this theory about ancient events.  Given that progress is inexorable, cumulative and collective if human beings exchange and specialize, then globalization and the Internet are bound to ensure furious economic progress in the coming century — despite the usual setbacks from recessions, wars, spendthrift governments and natural disasters.

The process of cumulative innovation that has doubled life span, cut child mortality by three-quarters and multiplied per capita income ninefold — world-wide — in little more than a century is driven by ideas having sex.  And things like the search engine, the mobile phone and container shipping just made ideas a whole lot more promiscuous still.

Though this WSJ piece can be assessed and explored in many ways, my first follow-up thoughts produced the title of this post.  In light of this provocative article, I would contend that a chief virtue of sophisticated blogging (and maybe even unsophisticated blogging) is that it provides a convenient setting and cost-effective means for ideas having sex.  Relatedly, I would contend that a chief vice of partisanship and group-think is that it can impede ideas from having sex (and can make it seem politically unsafe for ideas from warring factions to have sex).  Continuing the sexual metaphor, I may start calling blogging Viagra for ideas (and start calling partisanship idea VD).

May 22, 2010 at 07:11 PM | Permalink


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Doug --

Participating on your blog has been like going on a blind date with Heidi Klum, only to find out that half the time it turns out to be Danny DeVito. Still, the site itself has been like a high school senior winding up with his prom date at 2 a.m. at the Ritz Carlton -- whatever happens, you sure can't blame the location.


Posted by: Bill Otis | May 22, 2010 8:15:23 PM

"Ideas having sex" == Memetics.

Posted by: Naomi Most | May 23, 2010 6:41:30 PM

Many ideas should still wear a condom.

Posted by: Michael Drake | May 26, 2010 7:58:18 PM

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