Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Archeology of Innovation

My last Bloomberg column appeared a few days ago. Anyone interested can read it here. I wanted to bring some attention to what I think is a truly profound argument being made by anthropologist Sander van der Leeuw of Arizona State University on the nature of innovation (technological, social, or otherwise).

Obviously, humans excel at innovation and this is what probably accounts for our great (rampant) success as a species. This innovation has also brought us to the brink of catastrophe. A recent study published in Nature concluded that the next few generations should expect "a sharp reduction in biodiversity and severe impacts on much of what we depend on to sustain our quality of life, including fisheries, agriculture, forest products and clean water." This is also the outcome of our innovation, which is a double-edged sword. A deep question is WHY? Why is our innovation like this, always (it seems) leading to unintended consequences?

My Bloomberg column gives the basics of the argument, but I strongly recommend reading van der Leeuw's paper, "The Archeology of Innovation," for the full picture. It's a fun, mind-expanding paper in an informal style, and what really makes it unique is that it looks at human evolutionary history (over the past 50,000 years or so) through the lens of information and information processing. This is a novel idea, and especially novel given our current information revolution. The paper argues that most of the fundamental transitions in human history -- including the agricultural and industrial revolutions -- were essentially revolutions in which we learned to use information in a new way. As he notes, 
... the current emphasis in certain quarters on our present-day society as the ‘information society’ is misguided—every society since the beginning of human evolution has been an ‘information society.’
Learning from the past is of course a good way to see what might happen in the future.

But the most interesting part of his argument, for me, concerns what past patterns might imply for the future of humanity and our ability to overcome our current global challenges. He essentially suggests that we need to think very carefully about how we innovate, rather than do it recklessly with more or less blind hope (as we do today, encouraged by short-sighted economic return). I'll just give a few short segments:
Human cognition, powerful as it may have become in dealing with the environment, is only one side of the (asymmetric) interaction between people and their environment, the one in which the perception of the multidimensional external world is reduced to a very limited number of dimensions. The other side of that interaction is human action on the environment, and the relationship between cognition and action is exactly what makes the gap between our needs and our capabilities so dramatic.
The crucial concept here is that of ‘unforeseen’ or ‘unanticipated’ consequences. It refers to the well-known and oft-observed fact that, no matter how careful one is in designing human interventions in the environment, the outcome is never what it was intended to be. It seems to me that this phenomenon is due to the fact that every human action upon the environment modifies the latter in many more ways that its human actors perceive, simply because the dimensionality of the environment is much higher than can be captured by the human mind. In practice, this may be seen to play out in every instance where humans have interacted in a particular way with their environment for a long time—in each such instance, ultimately the environment becomes so degraded from the perspective of the people involved that they either move to another place or change the way they are interacting with the environment. 
Ultimately, this necessarily leads to ‘time-bombs’ or ‘crises’ in which so many unknowns emerge that the society risks being overwhelmed by the number of challenges it has to face simultaneously. It will initially deal with this by innovating faster and faster, as our society has done for the last two centuries or so, but as this only accelerates the risk spectrum shift, this ultimately is a battle that no society can win. There will inevitably come a time that the society drastically needs to change the way it interacts with the environment, or it will lose its coherence. In the latter case, after a time, the whole cycle begins anew—as one observes when looking at the rise and decline of firms, cities, nations, empires or civilizations.
Van der Leeuw's point is that it's rather simple minded -- and not really consistent with a real knowledge of history -- to have blind faith in the ability of humanity to innovate its way out of the various global crises we're now confronting. Our innovation in the past is what has caused them. We need, therefore, to innovate differently and more predictably. Can we?
Some readers of my Bloomberg column offered my some insightful criticisms by email, which I intend to share tomorrow.