Ideas worth sharing – is “open” the new enlightenment?
I have two daughters (aged six and one and a half) and one of the things that we (my wife and myself) as well as their caregivers in daycare and similar centers they attended so far are trying to teach them so hard is the act of sharing. I believe that teaching kids to share is a very common practice across the world — growing up in one culture (Macedonia) and raising my kids in another (Canada) gives me some confidence this claim is indeed valid almost everywhere.
The question that bugs me for some time now is this: If teaching kids how to share is so ubiquitous, how come we’re not good at it as grown ups? I can’t help but wonder if our ability to share is lost somehow as we move from childhood to adolescence to adulthood? Or is it that humans are innately bad at sharing and us teaching our kids is an anomalous state of affairs that gets corrected as they grow up? I believe the former is true and I’ll explain why below as well as share with you some ideas how to correct ourselves.
Recently, I’ve thought a lot about open this, open that, the power of communities, the power of sharing knowledge, ideas… I believe we sit on an opportunity to start a new enlightenment era not dissimilar from the one back in the 17th and 18th century — if the old age of enlightenment was the way of science, this new age could be the age of unprecedented sharing. Let me give you some examples.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s something that we all know as open source software started its roots and has run strong ever since. This movement for free and open software has attracted lots of bright minds to generously contribute their ideas and efforts and is undeniably responsible for many of the advances in computer software and in particular the Internet we take for granted these days.
The motivation for these people to spend extra hours on top of their regular jobs and write software and give it away for free? It’s possible they had particularly persuasive caregivers when attending daycare as kids 🙂 but I think Dan Pink has a better explanation in his book Drive when he talks about the three factors in driving people to do great things (once money is taken out of the table): autonomy, mastery and purpose — and open software practically guarantees the first two!
What about purpose? Many organizations have turned to this question and are acting in a way to define a clear purpose for their existence — one they hope will let the people they employ will relate to and the community in which they exist will approve of.
One organization I am most fond of in particular — TED — does a lot better. TED started as a closed forum, a conference for top minds to gather together and discuss their ideas, but recently redefined itself as a platform for sharing those ideas globally and even supporting some financially, through endorsement, etc.
What TED offers is going to the core of the purpose drive that Dan is talking about. They enable people all over the world to listen to the ideas shared by top notch individuals and (crucially) engage in meaningful discussions with those individuals as well as other people from every part of the globe around those ideas. To me, TED is the epitome of open!
These examples are just few of the many things happening around us now that have sharing and openness at their core. Unfortunately, they’re still minority compared to the rest of the closed-operating world in which lots of effort is expended in redoing the same work over and over and regenerating the same knowledge from scratch because of proprietary interfaces hindering inter-communication and preventing reuse and sharing.
Just think of companies spending millions of dollars to build software to translate one proprietary format to another to be able to exchange data. Or think of loads of negative results from science research going unpublished because only positive results can justify the funds used for the research, leading among other things to wasted effort when someone else tries to run a similar research. Or simply think of our kids being limited by the materials used and the curricula implemented by the local or national school district — the same institutions that teach them to share are not sharing nowhere near enough themselves.
I recently watched Matt Ridley‘s talk at TED Global 2010 where he proposes that humanity have experienced a huge leap over our primate ancestors and the rest of the animals in the tree of life because we, uniquely among all animals, have started sharing our ideas across our tribes, villages, towns, cultures.
The sharing of ideas led to a parallel evolution to the one based on genes, with shared ideas engaging into what Matt symbolically compares to sexual intercourse leading to new ideas that didn’t exist before being brought to live. These new ideas then went back to the pool for another round of ideas “copulating” with each other and sprouting ever more new ideas, ultimately leading to “Bacchanalian orgy of ideas” — as referred to TED Global 2010 itself by The Guardian 😉
Orgy or no orgy, according to Matt, we owe it to this idea sex for all the technological advances we have seen in our short history on Earth. If Matt is right, people’s ability to share their ideas and the fruits of the work they’re doing is a precious skill we need to hone and nurture!
As he pointed out in his TED talk, we are extremely dependent on technology, but the technology reached great complexity long time ago so that no one person on this planet knows how to make from scratch even relatively simple and ubiquitous tools or gadgets (like the computer mouse or keyboard I use to work on this article) — this is, after all, why we have specialized people who are experts in certain areas and we depend on them sharing their ability with other experts from other areas to produce useful technology for us to use.
It seems that idea sharing is what made us humans so successful in the bigger game of biological evolution. However, with the advancement boosted by those ideas, comes the sense of entitlement to the fruits of those ideas being implemented by the people coming up with those ideas in the first place. But this poses a problem today as just like the biological evolution can hit a local maximum in shaping a certain feature based on the environmental context and selection pressure at the time, so can the technological evolution settle for non-optimal solutions that are satisfactory for few clusters of people, but may not work well for the global population.
To overcome this we need to stir the clusters of idea pools and bring them together into a larger sea, encouraging along the way more and more people to contribute their ideas and thus replenishing or even growing the sea with various springs and rivers of ideas.
Living in isolation due to geographical limitation from the landscape on which we evolved lead to the erection of invisible walls preventing people from freely interacting together. It is time to move from what I call the “ground model of life” where people live in patches of earth into an “ocean model of live” where everyone is connected to everyone else through many seas, rivers, springs. The “ocean model” will allow our ideas to explode and new levels of technology and advancement in our knowledge to be born out of that stir. By the way, I prefer the term ocean over network, as a network would require maintenance, while an ocean is rather free floating and fluid, a metaphor I find more useful for the idea sharing platforms I think we need.
TED provides a fine example how to turn ground-based ideas into a fluid and truly global movement. We need more platforms like this that will let education, science, politics and other areas of life to engage in idea sharing and open communication with the global community instead of working behind closed doors. This will be hard work and initially lead to overwhelming issues for weeding out the useful from less useful, but I strongly believe that open and community-driven democracy will lead to the new way many areas of our live will be governed!