Why the Web Will Implode, Search Will be Obsolete, and Everything Else You Need to Know about Technology is in Your Brain
By Jeff Stibel
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Jeff Stibel
All rights reserved.
INTRODUCTION | REINDEER | NETWORKS
In 1944, the United States Coast Guard brought 29 reindeer to St. Matthew Island, located in the Bering Sea just off the coast of Alaska. Reindeer love eating lichen, and the island was covered with it, so the reindeer gorged, grew large, and reproduced exponentially. By 1963, there were over 6,000 reindeer on the island, most of them fatter than those living in natural reindeer habitats.
There were no human inhabitants on St. Matthew Island, but in May 1965 the United States Navy sent an airplane over the island, hoping to photograph the reindeer. There were no reindeer to be found, and the flight crew attributed this to the fact that the pilot didn't want to fly very low because of the mountainous landscape. What they didn't realize was that all of the reindeer, save 42 of them, had died. Instead of lichen, the ground was covered with reindeer skeletons.
The network of St. Matthew Island reindeer had collapsed: the result of a population that grew too large and consumed too much. The reindeer crossed a pivotal point, a breakpoint, when they began consuming more lichen than nature could replenish. Lacking any awareness of what was happening to them, they continued to reproduce and consume. The reindeer destroyed their environment and, with it, their ability to survive. Within a few short years, the remaining 42 reindeer were dead. Their collapse was so extreme that for these reindeer there was no recovery.
Reindeer do not typically fare this poorly in the wild. In North America, reindeer are migratory, so when they run out of lichen, they simply move on to new locations. This migration allows the lichen in the area to be replenished before the reindeer return. Of course, on an island, migration is not an option.
Nature rarely allows the environment to be pushed so far that it collapses. Ecosystems generally keep life balanced. Plants create enough oxygen for animals to survive, and the animals, in turn, produce carbon dioxide for the plants. In biological terms, ecosystems create homeostasis. But take something biological outside of its normal environment and chaos can ensue. This is the reason we can't bring fruits and vegetables on airplanes, why pets must be sequestered for months before being brought into a new country, and why reindeer shouldn't be placed on remote islands.
Most animals are genetically programmed to reproduce and to consume whatever food is available. This is the case for humans as well. Back when our ancestors started climbing down from the trees, this was a good thing: food was scarce so if we found some, the right thing to do was gorge. As we ate more, our brains were able to grow, becoming larger than those of any other primates. This was a very good thing. But brains consume disproportionately large amounts of energy and, as a result, can only grow so big relative to body size. After that point, increased calories are actually harmful. This presents a problem for humanity, sitting at the top of the food pyramid. How do we know when to stop eating? The answer, of course, is that we don't. People in developed nations are growing alarmingly obese, morbidly so. Yet we continue to create better food sources, better ways to consume more calories with less bite.
Mother Nature won't help us because this is not an evolutionary issue: most of the problems that result from eating too much happen after we reproduce, at which point we are no longer evolutionarily important. We are on our own with this problem. But that is where our big brains come in. Unlike reindeer, we have enough brainpower to understand the problem, identify the breakpoint, and prevent a collapse.
It is not just the physical stuff of life that has limits. The things we can't see or feel, those things that seem infinite, are indeed bounded. Take knowledge, for example. Our minds can only digest so much. Sure, knowledge is a good thing. But there is a point at which even knowledge is bad. Psychologists call this "information overload," and it has become an increasing problem in the information age. Even the sturdiest shelf crumbles under the weight of too many books.
We have been conditioned to believe that bigger is better and this is true across virtually every domain. When we try to build artificial intelligence, we start by shoveling as much information into a computer as possible. Then we stare dumbfounded when the machine can't figure out how to tie its own shoes. When we don't get the results we want, we just add more data. Who doesn't believe that the smartest person is the one with the biggest memory and the most degrees, that the strongest person has the largest muscles, that the most creative person has the most ideas? Then we hear about the humble German patent clerks, the Einsteins of the world. We call them virtuosos, outliers perhaps, but what they really are is balanced — unique individuals with the right amount of physical and mental abilities.
Growth is a core tenet of success. But we often destroy our greatest innovations by the constant pursuit of growth. An idea emerges, takes hold, crosses the chasm, hits a tipping point, and then starts a meteoric rise with seemingly limitless potential. But more often than not, it implodes, destroying itself in the process. Ideas are consumed just like lichen.
Technology may not need food to survive, but it too has limits. Energy is an important consumption limit, and we are seeing the environmental effects of ignoring that. Usefulness is also a key limit: often times, the more something grows beyond a certain point, the more cumbersome it is to use. With networks, such as the internet, Facebook, and Twitter, the users themselves are often the problem. Too many people on one network create congestion not unlike that on a busy highway: eventually the entire network gridlocks. Rather than endless growth, the goal should be to grow as quickly as possible — what technologists call hypergrowth — until the breakpoint is reached. Then stop and reap the benefits of scale alongside stability.
The problems associated with too much growth are as relevant in business and economics as they are in technology and biology. It is often thought that for an economy to be healthy, it must be growing; otherwise it is in recession. Inflationary growth has become a proxy for economic health, but growth and health are not synonymous. In fact, the effects of even a "healthy" amount of inflation can be detrimental in the long run. This is because of the many systems built on top of institutions that are forced to exceed inflation: bonds must grow greater than inflation; stocks must grow beyond the rate of bonds; and companies must grow beyond the rate of their stocks. Few companies are able to maintain the hypergrowth required in this type of economic environment. The effect is an ecosystem out of balance: only 65 of the companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1925 still exist as independent businesses today.
This book is not about failure, not even about breakpoints. It is about understanding what happens after a breakpoint. Breakpoints can't and shouldn't be avoided, but they can be identified. It turns out that all successful networks go through a breakpoint, but while some fail, many succeed spectacularly. The brain, for instance, overgrows and then shrinks; in doing so, we gain intelligence. It is because we build up too many neurons and neural connections as children that we become intelligent as adults. Without this process, we could never grow wise. The warning to heed isn't to avoid breakpoints; it is to avoid too much expansion after a breakpoint. Growth is not a bad thing unless it becomes the only thing.
Studying biological systems is perhaps the best way to understand the complex networks that humanity has created. This book is not about biology, but it relies on examples from the animal kingdom — deer, ants, bees, even cellular biology. But the main focus is on technology: how to recognize when a network hits a breakpoint, what to do when it does, and how to manage it to success. This book is centered on the internet, the biggest technological revolution of the twentieth century and likely the driving force of innovation for the next hundred years. The internet is approaching a breakpoint, as are many of the technologies and businesses that now rely on it. That is the bad news. The good news is that the breakpoint will bring better things, and we can look to nature as a guide for what those will be.
Nature has a lesson for us if we care to listen: the fittest species are typically the smallest. The tiniest insects often outlive the largest lumbering animals. Ants, bees, and cockroaches all outlived the dinosaurs and will likely outlive our race. Single-cell organisms have been around since the beginning of life and will likely be here until the end. The deadliest creature is the mosquito, not the lion. Bigger is rarely better in the long run.
What is missing — what everyone is missing — is that the unit of measure for progress isn't size, it's time.
ANTS | ANTERNETS | MANURE
Deborah Gordon digs ants. Once a year she leaves her post at Stanford, says goodbye to her two children, and heads to the Arizona desert with a van full of shovels, pickaxes, and undergraduates. She labels each of the hundreds of ant colonies at her research site, writing the names on nearby rocks. Dr. Gordon and her students also label the ants. They use special Japanese markers to paint a specific color right on their backs. Year after year, for almost three decades now, Deborah Gordon has been going through this routine.
It would be hard to find a child who hasn't spent some time staring at ants, wondering why they always seem so busy, why they march in a straight line, and why they appear out of nowhere as soon as you sit down for a picnic. Deborah Gordon was likely one of those children, but unlike the rest of us, she remained dedicated to answering those questions through adulthood. A few biology degrees later, Dr. Gordon has made some fascinating discoveries.
Ant colonies are interesting for many reasons. Ants have been around for over a hundred million years, and there are about 12,000 different classified species, covering every continent except Antarctica. They communicate, they defend themselves, they travel incredibly large distances to find food. They are animals of legend — mentioned in the Old Testament, the Koran, Aesop's fables, and Mark Twain's novels. How did such small creatures build such large reputations?
By digging up ants, Dr. Gordon has been able to separate fact from fiction, and it turns out that real life is more intriguing than any fairy tale or Pixar film. It all starts with a single female winged ant who leaves her home to mate with one or more male ants, who immediately die. After mating, she flies out into the wild, finds a suitable piece of real estate, gets rid of her wings, and digs a small nest in the dirt to lay her eggs. She takes great care of her first group of eggs, nursing them to adulthood.
The young adult ants at that point begin to forage for food, dig and maintain the nest, and take care of the young larvae and pupae. The original female ant is now queen of her own colony, where she lives deep inside the nest, her sole responsibility being the laying of eggs. She does this prolifically, and the number of ants grows rapidly within the first five years, all of them sons and daughters of the queen.
Here's where it gets interesting, and Deborah Gordon was the one who figured out exactly what happens. The queen lives — and continues to lay eggs — for 15 to 20 years, but the colony doesn't grow in size past the fifth year. (How does Dr. Gordon know this? She's dug up colonies of a certain age and counted all the ants.) The queen keeps having babies but they either replace older ants (a worker ant only lives for about a year), or they're sent off into the world to mate and start their own colonies. Ant colonies have a breakpoint.
You may think the average ant is somewhat intelligent, as you watch it crawl across your desk with a piece of bread three times its size. Strong yes, but intelligent no. There is no simpler way to describe it than what Dr. Gordon has to say: "Ants aren't smart." Individually, an ant is about as dumb as you can get. Their brains have something on the order of 250,000 cells (compared to the 16 million brain cells of the average frog).
Despite not being smart, ants do some pretty sophisticated things. As a colony matures beyond its breakpoint, the ants show increasing signs of collective intelligence. They communicate through chemical pheromones that pass information from ant to ant. They decide which tasks to undertake at any given moment based on information they receive from other ants. They also somehow seem to share information through time to future ants within the colony; that is, they have some sort of collective memory (biologists aren't sure yet how this works). Groups of ants learn and remember sophisticated routes and can return to them to gather food. They protect their queen and defend their territory from predators and imperialistic ant colonies. They also keep their nests clean and in good repair and nurture the newborn ants who will eventually go out into the world, mate, and create new colonies.
So here we have this tiny biological machine, the ant, that's very primitive in terms of intellectual capacity, but the colony does tremendously sophisticated things. When mature ants act as a group, a single unit, they defy logic. It turns out that the intelligence of ants does not lie with the individual — it lies with the group. "Ants aren't smart," but the colonies are downright brilliant. A mature colony of 10,000 harvester ants has 25 billion neurons, five times the number of a chimpanzee. After the breakpoint, a colony's intelligence grows to a level that rivals even the most sophisticated brains. Colonies can keep time and do complex navigation (without GPS or even good eyesight). They effectively manage issues of public health, economics, agriculture, even warfare.
In many ways, this colony intelligence poses more questions than it answers. Why do ants grow wiser after the colony stops growing? Why is it better for the ants to create new colonies than just keep growing their own colony? Wouldn't the colony get more and more intelligent if it could grow past its breakpoint? And most importantly, how does intelligence come from a network of ants?
Of course, you should already know all about networks because you have a pretty sophisticated one right inside your head. Our brains are perhaps the most complex networks but, like ant colonies, they too have humble parts.
Until recently, the brain was truly a mystery. It is only in the last 50 years — with the emergence of new brain-imaging technology — that we have been able to peer into our minds. Before that point, we considered the brain a peculiarity, something unknowable, beyond science, even mystical. Many people still hold this belief today. It's easy for us to compare the human heart to a pump, the eye to a camera lens, and a bone joint to a hinge. What analogy could there possibly be to the brain — a three-pound sticky lump of wrinkled matter lying silently in the skull?
Turns out, the brain is nothing more than an ordinary organ doing extraordinary mechanics. Like a colony of ants, the brain is basically a huge network, albeit composed of neurons instead of ants. There are around a hundred billion neurons in the humanbrain, each less than a millimeter in size. Individual neurons are pretty dumb — each neuron does only one thing: it turns on and off. Collectively, however, neurons are capable of doing robust calculations, making decisions, communicating, and storing information. Individual neurons communicate through chemicals (like the ants) but also through electrical currents. These tightly packed neurons work together, forming patterns that allow us to think, move, and communicate. "It's like they are sending each other little Twitter messages that have no content; they just use the rate at which they receive them to decide what to do next. It's a system of communication where the interaction itself is the whole message." Dr. Gordon said this of her ants, but it could just as easily have been said of the neurons in her brain.
Like an ant colony, the human brain grows rapidly early on. The growth of our early years helps create network connections. We're talking about one hundred billion neurons connected to each other a hundred trillion times. Those connections are nothing more than a way of passing along little bits of on/off information. This is the language of the mind. Combine enough simple messages and pretty soon they become complex: 300,021 firing neurons (neurons that are turned "on") combined with 22,011 suppressed ("off") neurons in one brain region can yield a pretty sophisticated message — "Don't forget to turn off the stove." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Breakpoint by Jeff Stibel. Copyright © 2013 Jeff Stibel. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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