Charles Darwin Would Have Loved the Mobile Internet

Posted on January 27, 2010. Filed under: startups, venture capital | Tags: , , , , |

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the human population as a system.  I’m assuming there is a large body of work and thought that has been devoted to this subject matter.  I have read none of it.  I tend to subscribe to the concept that our species is acting as a whole, and from an evolutionary perspective, most of the changes/advances that we are experiencing are the result of our mental (as opposed to physical) capacity.  So instead of growing a longer beak to adapt to secure food in a changing environmental context, we are genetically engineering corn to secure food in a changing environmental context.

With that in mind, I can see no greater step function in the advancement of our species than the rise of an information architecture that enables seamless transference and sharing of learnings between individuals and groups within our broader 7 billion person population.  I’ve been thinking a lot about how the existence of this central data infrastructure is impacting our individual experiences and contributions to the system as a whole, and at the simplest level I’m arriving at the subject of decision making.

I’ve asked a bunch of people to estimate the number of decisions that a human makes in a day, and the responses have ranged from 100 to 1 Billion.  I’ve googled this question and can’t find a generally accepted answer, largely because it hinges on one’s definition of a decision.  These conversations quickly arrive at the question of conscious vs. unconscious “decisions,” and for the purpose of this discussion, let’s say that a decision requires conscious thought.  Even by this definition, life looks a lot like one giant decision tree, and by that thinking, the optimization of decision making is an optimization of human life (and if the species is a system made up of 7 billion human lives, the optimization of individual decision is an optimization or evolutionary advance that will sustain our species)…I think

So I would argue that the development of a central information system shared by all humans within our system has fundamentally changed the way we make decisions…It used to be that there were two fundamental inputs into the decision of an individual: 1) that individuals prior/internal past experience and knowledge, and 2) the data readily available in his/her physical environment.  So a caveman is deciding where to hunt for food: he 1) references his past experience of where the animals tend to hang out, knows he needs to find a watering hole, etc… and then 2) surveys his physical environment for data to inform his decision.  The data readily available in our physical environment is absorbed through our senses, and manifests itself primarily in audio/visual/olfactory inputs.  So after referencing his internal experience/context he looks for animal tracks (visual data), listens for calls or rustling in the bushes (audio data), and smells for scents and their relationship to the direction of the wind (olfactory data).  The combination of these physical data sources and step 1 leads him to a decision to walk North.

Now let’s take the Cave man’s experience in 2010.  Same goal: find a place to hunt…what’s his process for decision making?  He still engages in step 1, and references his past experience and knowledge, still engages in 2 and take in the data readily available in his physical environment…but all of the sudden there is a 3rd readily available data source on which he can rely to find the animals.  The mobile device in his hand is a gateway into a shared information system in which he can reference the real time experience and learnings of the other hunters in the area.  He read’s his twitter feed, and see the Caveman 2 just killed a zebra 700 yards west of him, references his internal experience to know that zebras move in packs, and now he is in a position to make a better (optimized) decision on what direction to walk.  Blow this experience back up to the system level, and now our species is more efficient in securing food and sustaining itself.

So now, there are two types of data ingestion that impact the optimization of our decision making processes and our lives: 1) a “pull” scenario like the caveman and the zebra, where we are actively seeking a piece of information to influence an immediate decision (the most clear example of the information architectures impact on our decisions), and 2) the “ambient data ingestion” scenario, where in the absence of a data requirement for a specific decision at hand, we are pulling on data with our excess bandwidth at any given moment (we can process something like 126 bits per second) that while not applicable to an immediate decision, is applicable to future decision within our day/week/month…An example being, I have a minute that I am waiting for the subway, I may be consuming less data in my physical environment than I am capable of, and I decide to read my blog reader.  I ingest textual data in the form of a restaurant review, and when I get home an hour later, and it is time to make the decision of where to eat, I am better equipped to do so (with that piece of data pulled from the central and shared database).  So the presence of a central data source is optimizing present and future decisions.

I think subconsciously, it is the availability of this data and it’s impact on the decisions in our life that is driving the “addiction” to mobile devices, and to a lesser extent the internet at a whole.  Watching for that red light on your blackberry, waiting for the next email, is not necessarily a human waiting for an answer, but maybe just a human looking for a new piece of data, and a new decision to address.  Which brings me to a broader question of the effect of this central database on the volume of conscious decisions we make in a day (my guess is it has increased that number), and more broadly the effect of an increased volume of decisions in the system on the output of our species as a whole…

anyone have any good reading on this stuff (ideally articles, not books)?

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3 Responses to “Charles Darwin Would Have Loved the Mobile Internet”

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hmmm this post has some eerie similarities to what I am drafting right now as my first blog post (and informal personal manifesto).

But I worry that the lack of comments indicates that most people don’t have the attention spans for longer and more abstract posts like this.

ha…yea, this is the least trafficked post I have ever written…that said, you’d be surprised about comments as an indicator of interest…some of the most popular stuff I’ve written (that get’s forwarded around and retweeted, etc)…has been stuff with little to no comments… I think sometimes you write a post that opens up questions, and sometimes posts can be more declarative and don’t really invite discussion…

yeah, this post is incredibly thought provoking, but so big picture that it is hard to rap one’s arms around it.

really you are talking about a decentralized database that is universally accessible (the internet).

Also, for clarity’s sake, I wouldn’t classify the PDA as a third input so much as an augmentation of the second (environmental) input. nowadays our environment includes a little screen with access to the internet (decentralized database).

Also, no one ever seems to call into question the opportunity cost of staring at the little screen when you could be more attending to your current 1) physical environment or 2) inner state of mind. Do you think human interaction and physical observation and mental reflection is down on the subway since the advent of ipods? Of course it is. Now i can already hear your argument that the subway/gym/waiting in line were low stimulus environments (people operating below mental capacity) which is certainly in true, but perhaps that only makes my second point more valid- people are exposed to more and more information but is that really what’s best for people?
After all, more options/decisions make people less happy.

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    I’m a NYC based investor and entrepreneur. I've started a few companies and a venture capital firm. You can email me at (p.s. i don’t use spell check…deal with it)


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