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Selection is Only Natural

May 24, 2010

Maybe this is just a gut reaction to an idea that seemed obvious and well-established to me but needed explication and popularization in the population in general, but Matt Ridley seems to be attempting to position his new book, The Rational Optimist, as a political-philosophical version of Freakonomics.  I.e., a set of non-profound, cherry-picked observations related by a journalist with a knack for narrative in a way that makes an idea more accessible and readable (and supported by a heavily stylized blog).  Of course, communicating important ideas to a broader audience is a totally worthwhile purpose, but his sense of self-importance in relating the idea may betray a bit of his conceited libertarianism.

His thesis is quite simple (proven by its reduction to an only slightly longish Wall Street Journal article): trade, commerce, and the intermingling of ideas were the drivers of human evolution, pure and simple.  Forget the random genetic mutations, Ridley says; they take too long.  Instead, it was the collective intelligence, the marketplace of ideas, the aggregation of successful adaptations through a more overt and active set of choices.  Really, this is just a natural extension of the concept of selection:

Trade is to culture as sex is to biology. Exchange makes cultural change collective and cumulative. It becomes possible to draw upon inventions made throughout society, not just in your neighborhood. The rate of cultural and economic progress depends on the rate at which ideas are having sex.

Citing Leonard Read’s I, Pencil and the famed cosmopolitanism of all the great societies of the ancient world, Ridley composes a pleasant narrative that extols the virtues of collective intelligences that draw on the fullest set of ideas as laying the groundwork of sociological advances that set up the material conditions for societal evolution.  And his titular optimism lies in the fact that ideas are having sex like never before, leading to potentially limitless advancement and growth.

The only thing one can disagree with is his characterization that this is a “new” idea.  The notion that democracy, openness, commerce and exchange have led to both the great material and ideological advances in society has existed long before Darwin and was made explicit on the political-philosophical level by Hegel at the absolute latest.  The idea can be traced to dozens of points in history, whether it was Aristotle’s observation that only democracies with a dispersed locus of power will tolerate a radical like a Socrates in their midst for very long or Adam Smith’s basic account of how freedom of markets leads to specialization, the refinement of processes into efficiencies and more universal technological advance.  Hegel very clearly drew out the explicit process of ideological conditions giving rise to new plateaus of material advance.  And Hegel’s postulation cannily doesn’t require freedom of trade or exchange to advance the thesis that ideas are the key motivators of societal growth, even though that may have been a sufficient cause.  In Hegel’s view, even repression would lead to the adoption of the better ideas in the end because ideas are judged by their actual import; all it takes is the cunning of reason to get them adopted in the long run.

Karl Popper probably best summarized the connection between societal and ideological advancement in his work The Open Society and its Enemies by drawing out the connection between politics and epistemology.  Popper said that the fact that knowledge is provisional and fallible implies that society must be open to alternative points of view, which would also be associated with cultural and religious pluralism on a social level.  An open society is always open to improvement because knowledge is never completed but always ongoing, and therefore can assimilate any idea that proves itself better down the line.  Nowadays we refer to it by the easy shorthand of the free market of ideas, even though the resort to a canned phrase such as that one mutes the meaning that ought to be associated with such a powerful concept.

As Timothy Ferris points out in The Science of Liberty, the founding fathers were certainly aware of the importance of free markets of ideas and free inquiry, even if they didn’t put it in terms of biological development.

Science, [Ferris] notes, is antiauthoritarian, self-correcting, meritocratic and collaborative. As John Dewey, one of his heroes, put it, ‘freedom of inquiry, toleration of diverse views, freedom of communication, the distribution of what is found out to every individual as the ultimate intellectual consumer’ are all as ‘involved in the democratic as in the scientific method.’ In a like vein, Ferris also cites the theoretical physicist Lee Smolin: ‘Good science comes from the collision of contradictory ideas, from conflict, from people trying to do better than their teachers did, and I think here we have a model for what a democratic society is about.’

All of this should ring almost implicitly true to any student of democracy or epistemology.  However, that doesn’t mean we can just kick back and forget about our duties to preserve the necessary “ecological” conditions that enable a free markets of ideas, regardless of Ridley’s optimistic long-term outlook.  The most important ecosystem to the communication of ideas, as you would have guessed, is the Internet, and that ecosystem is beginning to look a lot less like a melting pot of ideas and more like a salad bowl of discrete and insular communities.  In the name of civilizing the wild west that defined the burgeoning Internet, Apple and other companies adopting the “walled garden” approach are making the web “safe for consumers.”

[N]ow, with the purchase of an iPhone or an iPad, there’s a way out, an orderly suburb that lets you sample the Web’s opportunities without having to mix with the riffraff. This suburb is defined by apps from the glittering App Store: neat, cute homes far from the Web city center, out in pristine Applecrest Estates. In the migration of dissenters from the ‘open’ Web to pricey and secluded apps, we’re witnessing urban decentralization, suburbanization and the online equivalent of white flight.

Little boxes on the hillside, anyone?  Is consumerism the value we want to promote if we’re serious about preserving the openness of society to any set of ideas?  Should we just trust concentrated economic interests that are in a position to extract consumer surplus to act in a way that does not maximize their profits for the sake of the ecosystem?  That seems doubtful, though there might be exceptions to the rule.  While those doomsayers may be slightly overstating their case right now, when we even begin to concentrate power into the hands of online oligopolies and start airing suspicions of those who do not comply with such “standards,” we are undermining our own freedom in the process.  In Google’s case, with the market on information gathering pretty much cornered, the potential for market abuse is significant, and antitrust enforcement may be a necessary nuclear option to keep on the table in plain sight.

Google is the ‘arbiter of every single thing on the Web, and it favors its properties over everyone else’s’ . . . ‘What it wants to do is control Internet traffic. Anything that undermines its ability to do that is threatening.’

Google says its mission is to give users the information they’re looking for even if that means giving its own content priority and de-emphasizing sites it believes offer poor experiences.

Doesn’t “giving its own content priority” and “de-emphasizing sites it believes offer poor experiences” sound a lot like tampering with the free market of ideas–i.e., censorship–when you are the gateway to the web?  What happened to those promises to not be evil?  Of course, it wouldn’t be any better to force any standard form of speech out of Google, since that would undermine that value that it is the strength or functionality of the ideas that should win out.  But it almost seems desirable to require Google to stick blindly to the results produced by its famed algorithms rather than allowing them to tamper with the results after the fact.

If we want to have a free market of ideas, we might have to either start demanding it as consumers or as a polity with our antitrust enforcement.  Which will work better is an open question.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2010 2:29 am

    Heh am I honestly the first reply to this amazing post.

  2. June 12, 2010 10:45 am

    The issue is that someone/something has to be the final arbiter in judging content. The very nature of algorithms necessitates judgment, or rather, preferences. And if we agree that algorithms are necessary, then we agree to forfeit the right to a truly free market, and all that follows (the Google bump, for example). The real question is whether or not it’s worth giving up a completely free market for the convenience of easy access. For instance, take Walmart (no really, take it). In exchange for getting all your pirate booty in one place, we give them the power to decide what pirate booty we’re even aware of. Worth it?

    So then implicitly, the quality of being “evil” or “not evil” means very little on its own. “Evilness” is judged by effects, which takes us back to Walmart and tradeoffs. This is the real issue. Cost versus benefits.

    Bababooie, bababooie, bababooie!


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