How we became innovators

by Carl Natale on May 23, 2010

Trade and specialization has made humans into the innovators we are today according to Humans: Why they triumphed, an article by Matt Ridley in the weekend’s Wall Street Journal.

When we started trading, we exchanged more than goods. We shared ideas. This helped create a sort of a collective consciousness. Ideas were like genes. Like diversity in a gene pool, these ideas blended together to help produce new ideas on improving life.

Ridley spends some time comparing the process to sex. I prefer not to explore that metaphor too far.  It will only lead to “ewwwww” images.

This exchange is boosted by specialization. As we created professions and stuck to tasks, we got better at those tasks and innovating within those fields. This paragraph ties it up nicely:

“Once human beings started swapping things and thoughts, they stumbled upon divisions of labor, in which specialization led to mutually beneficial collective knowledge. Specialization is the means by which exchange encourages innovation: In getting better at making your product or delivering your service, you come up with new tools. The story of the human race has been a gradual spread of specialization and exchange ever since: Prosperity consists of getting more and more narrow in what you make and more and more diverse in what you buy. Self-sufficiency—subsistence—is poverty.”

In case you haven’t tied all this to modern life, Ridely explains why we should care:

“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.”

Yes, all your Facebook and Twitter updates are contributing to human evolution and cumulative innovation.

This isn’t a stretch. The ability for people, goods and information to move freely is essential for any economy to prosper. The Internet is all about the exchange of information. Ideas don’t need to hitch a ride along the trade winds or a caravan. At any moment, millions of people are poised to debate and exchange information. In the real world, we have merchants heading for Asia to outsource our business. The innovation pool is deeper than it ever was.

It makes feel a little bit better about concerns about how we are disconnecting from our local communities (No one’s sitting on front porches anymore!) Maybe people are becoming less involved in their communities of geography. But they are devoting that time to communities of interest comprised of people potentially from around the globe.

You see the opportunity for evolution to repeat itself? We’re specializing our interests and tapping into an unprecedented collective knowledge.

I can’t imagine where this is going to lead anymore than a prehistoric man could when he carried a collection of hides to see what someone in the next tribe would give him for his bounty.

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