22 November 2016

Expanding us

You have heard that Usain Bolt is the world's fastest man. He ran 100 meters in a record 9.58 seconds, which works out to a speed of 23 mph. He's a phenom who deserves to have a new verb named after him. (The t-shirt "walk, jog, run, sprint, bolt" captures it). He is not, however, the world's fastest man.

That honor goes to whoever is riding in the space station. Usain ran 23 mph. The space station travels at 17,150 mph. It orbits the earth every 92 minutes, something that would take Usain 45 days to do assuming that he could find bridges to cross the ocean and could maintain his mad sprint for 6 weeks. In truth, there is no comparison; it's impossible for him to sprint around the world and will be until we've been genetically re-engineered and ocean-crossing bridges that are not even designed yet have been built. 

We love stories of individual achievement but of course what we can accomplish on our own is - at best - akin to what Usain Bolt can do racing against the space station. Progress is dependent on social inventions, social constructs and institutions as varied as language, schools, guilds, and romance. 

The social inventions that are most powerful are the ones that make our world bigger. We have a natural love and concern for our family but that's a pretty small group. In fact, families are getting smaller all the time. Interdependence among families is not enough to get us to our current standard of living.

Religion seems to have been the first social invention that successfully expanded the trusted in-group from kin to something that encompassed not just neighbors but even strangers. The Kaaba in Mecca is the magnetic pull of the pilgrimage of Muslims. Even before Mohammed and the birth of Islam, this was a place that attracted pilgrims who came to worship the many gods within it. (Later, these many idols were destroyed in honor of Allah.) Mecca became a wonderful place for two reasons: one could go to worship and feel wonder and it was a safe and holy place where no war was allowed but trade was. This - safety that allowed trade but not battle - was the stepping stone from nomadic tribes to the rise of an Arab civilization that gave us the zero, algebra and Rumi.

Throughout history one thing has been clear: progress follows from the expansion of our institutions to include more people. The bigger the group, the more specialization, experimentation, creativity and abundance that is allowed. The bigger the group we're a part of, the more abundance. 

I worked with a startup on Google campus this year. One department had hard-to-find specialists who developed robotic sensors. There were only five people in the group but they came from five different countries: South Korea, China, Poland, Turkey, and Iran. This new venture brought in the best people it could find and it drew them in from every country. (Actually, it was the universities that did; robotics programs at John Hopkins, Stanford, and Vanderbilt had already brought these people from their home countries.) If you want the best, you draw from around the world.

Whether it is finding the best programmers in Silicon Valley or best frankincense and myrrh in Mecca, progress means drawing from a wide circle. If you can draw only from a circle 100 miles in circumference "best" will be much less impressive than if you can draw from around the globe.

Progress comes from a more expansive definition of "us." Regression comes from narrowing that definition of us to something smaller, "more pure." Nigel Farage in the UK was a chief voice in the Brexit movement, an attempt to protect the UK from the corrupting influence of immigrants. 

Thandie Newton, the brilliant actor who has starred in films like Mission Impossible and Crash, represents the product of that corrupting influence of immigrants. Her English father diluted his genes with a woman from Zimbabwe and she is the result. She's a reminder there is something even more important about globalization than competition or specialization. 

Specialization is both as profound in its influence on productivity as Adam Smith claimed and is almost incidental to the real prize of globalization. Economic value is an emergent property that doesn't belong in any one place but instead emerges out of the interaction of peoples, ideas, products, and services. The very measure of economic progress is a measure of exchanges, trades, transactions. Value is the little residual of an exchange between two people. The real prize of globalization is the vast numbers of interactions it enables and what that means for the spark of creativity. A friend recently reminded me that cities have described as the place where ideas come to have sex. The product of two ideas is a new idea and those can transform or create an industry, much less a product. 

Value comes from making our world bigger, not smaller. It comes from greater exposure to ideas, some of which even make us uncomfortable, not closing ourselves off from them. 

Progress doesn't involve abandoning our institutions. It doesn't lie in the direction of Brexit or retreating from trade with other countries. Trying to go it alone means that - at best - we run about 23 mph an hour while those within the comfort of elaborate institutions are traveling overhead about 75X faster than we could ever hope to. It might be that the simplest limit to our level of affluence is the extent to which we can expand our notion of "us."

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