An Optimist in Reykjavík

Matt Ridley’s Lecture at University of Iceland

Zoologist and author Dr. Matt Ridlay recently gave a lecture at University of Iceland in Reykjavík hosted by the Research Center for Innovation and Economic Growth. Ridley is known as an author of several books, the lastest from 2010, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. His talk teaches us to take nothing for granted and question everything – in particular the common beliefs. It also teaches us that mankind will solve problems and adopt to the changing environment – thus the reason to be optimistic.

Ridley’s talk was full of interesting facts and observations. As a university teacher of technology trends (at Reykjavík University), what I was most interested in was his research on technology evolution. Here are few points that I got from this talk.

First was his study of ancient human behaviour. It shows that human evolution is closely tied to exchange. In societies where free exchange of goods and ideas is allowed, there is prosperity. Ridley used the rise of the Roman Empire, Florence during the Renaissance and England during the industrial revolution as examples. This is similar view as presented by Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas come from. Indeed, Johnson uses the English industrial revolution and the rise  of the Coffee House as example of places where ideas are exchanged. The term Johnson uses is the liquid network.

The second point was on how technology evolves. Much like human evolution, which is based upon sexual reproduction, ideas feed on other ideas to create new ones (Ridley’s TED talk was called When ideas have sex). This is exactly the view presented in my New Technology course where I talk about technology evolution and in particular the adjacent possible, another term Steven Johnson talks about in his book.

The third point is how dependent we are on technology. As an example Ridley compares the computer mouse with a ancient stone tool made for cutting. Both are sized to fit the palm of your hand, but one is made up of so many sophisticated parts that one single person couldn’t possibly know how to make a mouse. If that is the case with a simple object like mouse, what about all the other stuff we take for granted. Even a simplistic toaster is impossible to make without ready-to-use parts. This was dramatically demonstrated by Thomas Thwaites in his Toaster Project.

The fourth and last point I got from this talk has to do wit optimism. His book form 2010 is titled the rational optimist. Ridley is challenging common pessimistic views that tend to dominate. When we read the newspapers and listen to the discussions on the radio, we get the feeling that everything is getting worse. Most studies seem to look at negative impact of things, totally ignoring the relevance of any negative impact in the whole of things. Maybe scientist that compete for research grants are more successful if the subject is negative. Who would fund a study about the joy of computer games?

I think the real message from Ridley is that mankind will always find ways to adapt to changing environment. This is why we have survived for so long. When things look bleak, the pressure will be to come up with solutions to fix things. Take for example the evolution of computers. Every 18 months or so, computing power doubles and has done so since the beginning of the first electric computers. Computers have gone though several paradigms, from vacuum tubes to relay switches to transistores to integrated circuits. When each paradigm is running out of steam, research builds up and the collective brainpower behind the problem ends up with a new solution. We are now nearing the end of the current paragdim with silicon based circuits and, indeed, much research is into alternatives.

This is why we should be optimistic about the future. In fact, I’m convinced that in the coming years and decades we will see more innovation than we have in any period of mankind. This will be in, to name a few subjects, fields such as energy, food production, computing, transportation, communication, education, pollution, medicine and cure for diseases. If we should be worried, it is about governments that impose restrictions and fail to prioritize with innovation of the individual in mind.

Here is a sad example of government restrictions: example 1.