Parasites of the mind

Inception-inception-2010-15204307-1280-800INCEPTION: “The most resilient parasite is an idea planted in the unconscious mind”

Innovation is on the rise. It is the holy grail of modern economies, the engine of growth and efficiency. Creativity is on the rise. It has become the new witchcraft, the incredible, supernatural power that lets us conjure the gods of creation and tap into the sources of an ever-rising quality of life. There are all sorts of innovation theories, creativity techniques and design methodologies put forward to understand where ideas come from and how to generate them, hundreds of them, when solving our present problems or facing the challenges the future will bring.

Today there is no hotter topic in management theory than “sperm in the air”. How do companies generate new ideas? And how do they turn those ideas into products? Hardly a week passes without someone publishing a book on the subject. Most are rubbish. (The Economist, “The Innovation Machine”)

Surprisingly, ideas themselves seem a bit devalued these days. Common wisdom presumes they are of little value, perhaps because there are so many of them and they are so easily generated. Emphasis is on entrepreneurial spirit and execution, that tortuous process that is necessary to morph an idea into something real and release its potential:

It’s an ongoing theme around here, but ideas are everywhere. The real trick to making something great often has extremely little to do with the idea, and much more to do with the execution (Techdirt, “Ideas Are Easy… Execution Is Difficult”)

It’s well understood among longtime entrepreneurs that ideas don’t create success. Execution creates success. (Gregg Fairbrothers, “Entrepreneurship Comes Down to Execution, Not Just Ideas”)

I think those statements overlook the fact that everything begins with ideas themselves, and that precisely because the effort to nurture and rear an new idea is potentially huge, good ideas can make a real difference after all:

Sadly, there is also an often-repeated saying, “ideas are cheap.” This statement discounts the value of creativity and is utterly wrong. Ideas aren’t cheap at all–they’re free. And they’re amazingly valuable. Ideas lead to innovations that fuel the economies of the world, and they prevent our lives from becoming repetitive and stagnant. They are the cranes that pull us out of well-worn ruts and put us on a path toward progress. Without creativity we are not just condemned to a life of repetition, but to a life that slips backward. In fact, the biggest failures of our lives are not those of execution, but failures of imagination. As the renowned American inventor Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” We are all inventors of our own future. And creativity is at the heart of invention. (Tina Seelig, “The Science of Creativity”)

Ideas are like seeds: it is not always obvious what they hide or carry; sometimes stupid, futile weeds; sometimes the essence of a magnificent sequoia or the beauty of a rose. But they always start as fragile shoots:

Steve loved ideas, and loved making stuff, he treated the process of creativity with a rare and a wonderful reverence. You see, I think he better than anyone understood that while ideas ultimately can be so powerful, they begin as fragile, barely formed thoughts, so easily missed, so easily compromised, so easily just squished (Philip Elmer-DeWitt, “Jonathan Ive on Steve Jobs and the fragility of ideas”)

We know practically nothing about ideas, much less about their value. How many ideas are there? How much is an idea worth? Are there hidden ideas with an unimaginable potential to transform our lives, which might boost our society? Or have we picked most of the fruits from the universe of ideas already, and what remains is a long tail of low value ideas? Are breakthroughs fundamentally the result of a single, great, path-breaking idea? Or are they the result of the accumulation of myriads of small ideas? Are great ideas intrinsically difficult to discover?

Let me begin at the begining: What’s an idea?

One of the first things that struck me when I began to gather information for this post, is that the very concept of idea is absolutely vague. Ideas seem to belong to that realm of undefined entities that underlie our knowledge, but are completely inaccessible to knowledge itself.

The Webster dictionary defines an idea as an entity, such as a thought, concept, sensation, or image; actually or potentially present to consciousness; a formulated thought or opinion; whatever is known or supposed about something. It can be also a plan for action. Philosophy is suspiciously mute about ideas. Having a whole branch, epistemology, devoted to knowledge, it is surprising that there is not an introductory section with a 101 on ideas, an “All you wanted to know about ideas”. There is no such thing.

In striking contrast with the normal usage of the word idea in natural language, philosophers have often limited its broad meaning. For example, Plato identifed ideas with far-reaching ideals and Hume with the images that populate our mind. In “An essay Concerning human understanding”, John Locke provided one of the most sensible definitions: the object of understanding when a man thinks. Unfortunately Locke devoted most of his efforts in the essay to argue about where ideas come from, and not to specify what ideas are or why they are important.

Therefore I will proceed with the Webster definition for ideas. Let me summarize the features that define an idea:

  • It is an object of thought and understanding
  • It is consciously held and appreciated by the mind
  • It is something you can remember and recall to your consciousness
  • It is something you can communicate, which implies you can transmit and reproduce your idea in another mind, either in an accurate, approximate, or even a wrong way
  • It is potentially a plan for action

If you turn your mind to yourself and use introspection to think about what an idea is, what you most probably appreciate is that your brain is like a pot where there is a boiling soup of sensations, images, words, sentences, a continuous stream that ebbs and flows. Many of those things flowing in the brain are elusive, slippery ghosts difficult to grasp. Some ghosts frame themselves into something more stable, something you can play with, elaborate, repeat, and eventually transmit. That’s an idea.

The emphasis on transmissibility is epitomized today by the concept of meme. Memes were initially proposed by Richard Dawkins in his famous “The Selfish Gene” in 1976. Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator, and the concept has been spreading and growing in popularity since then.

If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell (Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene”)

Memes have the properties of ideas in which I am mainly interested and I have emphasized above. I will continue to use the term idea, but if you prefer, you can think about memes instead. If you have 20 minutes, you can also watch Susan Blackmore’s talk about memes at TED in 2008 (where, by the way, she explains that a meme is not equivalent to an idea, starting at 6:15 min.)

So, what’s my plan?

My plan is to argue in the sequel to this introductory post that:

  • Although the number of ideas that we can potentially come up with is infinite, the number of useful, durable ideas is likely to be very limited. That limitation would be mainly due to the contextual conditions that favour the appearance of a given idea in the first place, and then the replication of the idea.
  • Ideas need not have a physical implementation to have value. They can exert a strong influence in the way we behave and act, and have a great value (or disastrous consequences) without any physical associated reality.
  • The value of ideas can be wildly variable, with most ideas having practically no value, and a very reduced number of ideas having a disproportionate amount of value

My plan is to infect your mind with a parasite: ideas matter. More than you can imagine!

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