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I have the following
opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal, adapted from my
forthcoming Hayek lecture.
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. Human progress waxes and wanes according to how much
people connect and exchange.
When the Mediterranean was socially networked by the trading
ships of Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs or Venetians, culture and
prosperity advanced. When the network collapsed because of pirates
at the end of the second millennium B.C., or in the Dark Ages, or
in the 16th century under the Barbary and Ottoman corsairs, culture
and prosperity stagnated. When Ming China, or Shogun Japan, or
Nehru's India, or Albania or North Korea turned inward and cut
themselves off from the world, the consequence was relative, even
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
One of the things I have tried to do in my book "The Rational
Optimist" is to take this insight as far back into the past as I
can-to try to understand when it first began to be true. When did
human beings start to use collective rather than individual
In doing so, I find that the entire field of anthropology and
archaeology needs Hayek badly. Their debates about what made human
beings successful, and what caused the explosive take-off of human
culture in the past 100,000 years, simply never include the insight
of dispersed knowledge. They are still looking for a miracle gene,
or change in brain organization, that explains, like a deus ex
machina, the human revolution. They are still looking inside human
heads rather than between them.
"I think there was a biological change-a genetic mutation of
some kind that promoted the fully modern ability to create and
innovate," wrote the anthropologist Richard Klein in a 2003 speech
to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "The
sudden expansion of the brain 200,000 years ago was a dramatic
spontaneous mutation in the brain . . . a change in a single gene
would have been enough," the neuroscientist Colin Blakemore told
the Guardian in 2010.
There was no sudden change in brain size 200,000 years ago. We
Africans-all human beings are descended chiefly from people who
lived exclusively in Africa until about 65,000 years ago-had
slightly smaller brains than Neanderthals, yet once outside Africa
we rapidly displaced them (bar acquiring 2.5% of our genes from
them along the way).
And the reason we won the war against the Neanderthals, if war
it was, is staring us in the face, though it remains almost
completely unrecognized among anthropologists: We exchanged. At one
site in the Caucasus there are Neanderthal and modern remains
within a few miles of each other, both from around 30,000 years
ago. The Neanderthal tools are all made from local materials. The
moderns' tools are made from chert and jasper, some of which
originated many miles away. That means trade.
Evidence from recent Australian artifacts shows that
long-distance movement of objects is a telltale sign of trade, not
migration. We Africans have been doing this since at least 120,000
years ago. That's the date of beads made from marine shells found a
hundred miles inland in Algeria. Trade is 10 times as old as
At first it was a peculiarity of us Africans. It gave us the
edge over Neanderthals in their own continent and their own
climate, because 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
In the same way, today, American consumers do not have to rely
only on their own citizens to discover new consumer goods or new
medicines or new music: The Chinese, the Indians, the Brazilians
are also able to supply them.
That is what trade does. It creates a collective innovating
brain as big as the trade network itself. When you cut people off
from exchange networks, their innovation rate collapses.
Tasmanians, isolated by rising sea levels about 10,000 years ago,
not only failed to share in the advances that came after that
time-the boomerang, for example-but actually went backwards in
terms of technical virtuosity. The anthropologist Joe Henrich of
the University of British Columbia argues that in a small island
population, good ideas died faster than they could be replaced.
Tierra del Fuego's natives, on a similarly inhospitable and small
land, but connected by trading canoes across the much narrower
Magellan strait, suffered no such technological regress. They had
access to a collective brain the size of South America.
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 political implications are obvious: that human collaboration
is necessary for society to work; that the individual is not-and
has not been for 120,000 years-able to support his lifestyle; that
trade enables us to work for each other not just for ourselves;
that there is nothing so antisocial (or impoverishing) as the
pursuit of self-sufficiency; and that authoritarian, top-down rule
is not the source of order or progress.
Hayek understood all this. And it's time most archaeologists and
anthropologists, as well as some politicians and political
scientists, did as well.