The Reason for Boundless Optimism

This, from a wonderful op/ed piece in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend entitled: From Phoenicia to Hayek to the ‘Cloud’ by Matt Ridley.

The crowd-sourced, wikinomic cloud is the new, new thing that all management consultants are now telling their clients to embrace.  Yet the cloud is not a new thing at all.  It has been the source of human invention all along.  Human technological advancement depends not on individual intelligence, but on collective idea sharing, and it has done so for tens of thousands of years…

Knowledge is dispersed and shared. Friedrich Hayek was the first to point out, in his famous 1945 essay “The Uses of Knowledge in Society,” that central planning cannot work because it is trying to substitute an individual all-knowing intelligence for a distributed and fragmented system of localized but connected knowledge.

So dispersed is knowledge, that, as Leonard Reed famously observed in his 1958 essay “I, Pencil,” nobody on the planet knows how to make a pencil. The knowledge is dispersed among many thousands of graphite miners, lumberjacks, assembly line workers, ferrule designers, salesmen and so on. This is true of everything that I use in my everyday life, from my laptop to my shirt to my city. Nobody knows how to make it or to run it. Only the cloud knows…

…good ideas can spread through trade. New weapons, new foods, new crafts, new ornaments, new tools. Suddenly you are no longer relying on the inventiveness of your own tribe or the capacity of your own territory. You are drawing upon ideas that occurred to anybody anywhere anytime within your trading network….

That is what trade does. It creates a collective innovating brain as big as the trade network itself.

So far this is already inspiring. We are advanced by the collective brain power of everyone we trade with… need there be any further discussion of free markets and open trade?  Why, other than in pursuit of enslavement, would anyone suggest limiting the “collective innovating brain?”  But there’s more; there’s reason for unbridled optimism.  Not just a positive outlook, not just a subtle feeling that the world will work itself out, but a genuine, over-the-top realization of optimism perfected.

Which is of course why the Internet is such an exciting development. For the first time humanity has not just some big collective brains, but one truly vast one in which almost everybody can share and in which distance is no obstacle.

The power of the one, vast, collective brain found in the Internet is the greatest development in mankind’s civilization since the creation of civilization itself.  Up till now, when areas were “socially networked by the trading ships of Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs or Venetians, culture and prosperity advanced. When the network collapsed … prosperity stagnated.”  The social networking of mankind is now instantaneous and worldwide.  Even systems that effort to control information cannot control the Internet; information will out because the innovation crossed the tipping point.  Once we became “one truly vast (collective brain) in which almost everybody can share…” we became a force beyond the reach of any man’s desire to control.  What could possibly overcome the innovation and prosperity of one, worldwide collective brain? Only another equally worldwide collective brain, yet this is not possible. The space was filled at the moment of the tipping point.  It cannot be unfilled and replaced with a lack of knowing.  It has happened.  The future is very bright indeed.

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