Will Social Media Enable Humanity’s Next Evolutionary Step?

The topic of evolution has sparked controversy since Charles Darwin proposed it in 1858. Even in the twenty-first century, some education boards are seeking to replace textbooks describing evolution with those positing Intelligent Design. But regardless of whether you believe in evolution by natural selection or not, most people believe that human beings exist in their final form, and that we are not subject to evolving or changing in a significant way. However, a number of thought leaders are challenging that idea, and social media may have a role in taking humanity to the next level.

The End of Humanity as We Know It

Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, is a noted computer scientist, inventor and futurist. According to Kurzweil, the singularity he predicts is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” In Kurzweil’s vision, this change will take place through a merger between human and machine, exponentially boosting our intelligence through advanced computing power.

To a limited extent, this process has already started, through our widespread and increasing use of the Internet as a resource. Wikis, blogs and the explosion of educational and informational websites put nearly any piece of information within reach. As technology has moved into smaller and more portable devices such as smart phones, we now have the ability to access any fact at any time, from practically any location, and the trend is towards smaller and more powerful devices.

Although our use of the Internet may not seem like a paradigm shift, Kurzweil predicts that the process will start off slowly, almost imperceptibly, and will then accelerate exponentially. Vernor Vinge, a retired mathematician from San Diego State University, suggests that one way we can achieve superhuman intelligence is to “exploit the worldwide Internet as a combination human/machine tool.” He goes on to say, “Computer networks and human-computer interfaces seem more mundane than AI [artificial intelligence], and yet they could lead to the Singularity. I call this contrasting approach Intelligence Amplification (IA). IA is something that is proceeding very naturally, in most cases not even recognized by its developers for what it is. But every time our ability to access information and to communicate it to others is improved, in some sense we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence.”

Tapping the Crowd

Another vision of humanity’s next evolutionary step is the emergence of a collective consciousness. More and more, social media is being thought of as enabling global consciousness because it allows us to harness and coordinate the collective intelligence and talent of large groups of people.

Social media enables “ordinary” people to collaborate and engage in commerce and information exchange in ways that were impossible to imagine a few short years ago. By tapping into the latent information, talent and intelligence of the masses, social media brings everyone up to a higher level of productivity and problem solving.

In The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki notes that when a group of people works to solve a problem, the group’s answer is almost always significantly more accurate and intelligent than that of even the smartest members of the group. The process works when each individual proposes his or her solution, and then all answers are averaged, like in the stock market or a horse race. Interestingly, it is also the model used by social bookmarking sites like Digg, Reddit and Stumbleupon.

Surowiecki points out that this sort of group intelligence is what is emerging in the blogosphere, where thousands of bloggers, mostly amateur and unpaid, are replacing or at least augmenting, traditional media written by professional journalists. Lon Safko, author of The Social Media Bible, says that soliciting, encouraging and using user-generated content is one of the keys to a successful social media strategy, and this idea is transforming both entertainment and industry.

Writer Jeff Howe has a term for this: crowdsourcing. More and more, companies looking to solve thorny problems are turning not to scientists in their R & D departments, but to the general public. For example, a company called InnoCentive has an online platform where Fortune 100 companies post their problems and pay amateurs between $10,000 and $100,000 per solution. Other social media sites also use this model. Flickr, for example, is not only a network where people share their photos with friends, but also provides a platform for aspiring photographers to distribute their photos to companies for low or no cost. Crowdsourcing, by providing more value for a lower cost, increases overall productivity. Particularly successful individual contributors benefit economically, and companies may also benefit from even the less successful ideas generated by the crowd.

Facebook and Twitter are not collaboration platforms, but they do provide virtual watering holes where people can find and share interesting projects and information. As such, they work to enable viral spreading of memes, which depending on what meme is circulating around, may contribute to or detract from a higher collective consciousness.

LinkedIn, on the other hand, facilitates cooperation in its groups, which are more participatory than Facebook’s group/business pages. In LinkedIn, if a member of a group posts a business question such as “how can I market my website with a very small budget?” numerous members of the group with expertise in the subject will respond with long, well-thought out responses in order to prove that they are experts and possibly secure some business from the asker or other group members who appreciate the depth of the answer. The asker is then presented with a number of possible solutions and strategies and can choose from among them, all without spending a dime.

Master Mind Vs. Groupthink

While it is true that social media facilitates cooperation and collaboration, there are different ways that groups can operate. The most extreme are Master Mind and groupthink, and their outcomes are very different.

Back in 1928, Napoleon Hill coined the term “Master Mind” to describe a synergistic relationship between people where the intelligence of the group was more than the individual intelligence of its members, and thus the group was able to achieve things that the members could not, had they been acting alone. In order to get to this Master Mind level, the members of the group had to share a common goal, and all members had to “willingly subordinate their own personal interests for the attainment of the objective for which the group is aiming.” When the people in the group have unity among them, Hill says, their minds blend and become more creative and intuitive in regard to their purpose. He credits this kind of cooperation with the success of some of the giants of his day, such as Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie and Thomas Edison.

The flip side of the Master Mind is a phenomenon called “groupthink.” First named and discussed in 1972 by social psychologist Irving Janis, groupthink is when a group makes bad, and even immoral decisions because of group pressures. In groupthink, a strong leader and a majority of members hold the same preconceived opinion, suppress any dissention from the majority view and refuse to consider facts that support a different decision. Groupthink tends to lead to irrational and ill-conceived decisions and produces outcomes with a low probability of success.

So the next time you are using social media to collaborate or crowdsource, remember to be yourself and participate as an individual, but with a sense of shared purpose with other group members. If you do, you may just be doing your part to bring the human race to its next evolutionary level.

Jennifer Dublino began writing in 1995. She writes two blogs: one on social media marketing (Buzzoomba at http://procreativemarketing.wordpress.com) and one on parenting (I’ll Take Five at http://www.illtakefive.blogspot.com). She also runs a marketing firm, Pro Creative Marketing Group (http://www.procreative.com) that provides ghost blogging services to corporate and professional clients.

Interview: Salim Ismail and Singularity University

Sunset from the International Space Station

Salim Ismail has been Executive Director at Singularity University for the last two years. A renowned Angel investor and entrepreneur with a rich and varied CV. He helped bring Bupa, a private healthcare service, to Ireland and spent almost a year living near Cork. In the United States in addition to being an executive at Yahoo he started and ran a number of businesses. One them is Confabb, a resource for conferences and tradeshows worldwide. He recently sold another one his companies Angstro to Google.

The idea of Singularity is described in Ray Kurzweil‘s book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. Technology is accelerating at such an increasingly ever-rapid rate that at some point in the near future we will be living in a world of pure information. We will be technologically enabled to transcend our own bodily limitations, illness etc., and also have the capability to solve the planet-wide challenges that currently face us.

Singularity University is based in Silicon Valley and the learning regime is based on methodologies developed at the International Space University. These information imparting systems are vital to Singularity University as in two session totalling ten weeks students encounter ten separate study fields.

Not only do applicants need to have either a Masters degree or be working towards one they also need to be able to demonstrate a track record of leadership in the public or private sector. They also need to be able to show a marked interest in confronting and resolving the large scale challenges that we all face. Climate change, pandemics etc. Last year, there were 1600 applicants for 80 slots.

Salim says that the major issues that the world faces today have one root cause.

“The biggest problems in the world today, whether its financial crises, pandemics or climate change are all rooted in accelerating factors and our leadership around the world does not understand this phenomena.

“The fundamental paradigm of accelerating phenomena is something that human beings don’t understand. All of our thinking is linear. Yet the world operates in certain ways with exponential phenomena and power laws.

“What’s unique about where we are today is that the world is being impacted by many external accelerating phenomena powered by informational properties and we don’t understand it. Our leaders don’t understand it, the general public doesn’t understand it, most scientists don’t understand it.”

So how do you find what the problems are?

‘In the summer program we have two courses. We have the Summer program that’s ten weeks long for the top graduate students in the world, for the new next generation of leaders. We have a seven day course for existing government leaders, business execs, investors etc., that we do on roughly a quarterly basis.

“In the Summer program, its a ten week program. In week one we bring in the World Bank and some of the top foundations in the world and we have them talk about, fairly extensively for the whole week, [the issues we face.] What are the characteristics of clean water, home energy, pandemics, public health? So that the students have a good deep insight on what’s been tried, what’s failed, where the problem is most acute etc.

“They spend half the summer getting a state of the art view across all of these technologies. What’s in the labs today that’s getting commercialized tomorrow? What technologies like nano-technology show the most promise? Where are these technologies converging to increase other breakthroughs? Who are the top thinkers in the field? Who are the labs and companies doing the most interesting work?

“In the second half of the summer they form teams and they do what we call a ‘ten to the ninth’ project. Their challenge is to come up with a project or service that will impact a billion people within ten years… So the idea is that if you are going to do that you really have to think about something that will scale over time. You’re not going to impact a billion people in three weeks so how would you do that over time. So what technologies, what acceleration within these technologies would you have to ride?

That requires forecasting. Isn’t that a tricky business?

“There’s a whole discipline called Future Studies that has good solid techniques for forecasting. If you look at the rise of 3D printing. You can graph it on a very nice 2×2 matrix as an acceleration of a particular technology with the social adoption of that technology. So 3D printing of houses is a very nice accelerating area.

“Nano materials and nano medicine is an accelerating area. Stem cells is an accelerating area, [but has] much less social adoption. You can plot on a graph which ones will have the most social adoption and which ones won’t and how do you deal with it.

“Another example you can think of is what’s a likely future versus a preferred future versus a most unwelcome future. And how do you mitigate those. So we teach the students techniques in future studies so they have some practice in thinking about this. For example if you think about your Blackberry or iphone, we know exactly how much power those devices will have in ten years. What we don’t have is the imagination as to what we would do with them.

“We’re expanding the experience of what it is to be human very, very rapidly without realising it.”

So what should we be looking at in the near future?

“So we have to look at what domains are information enabled and see what has promise. 3D printing is one, solar energy is another. The rise of Arduinos and robotics is certainly another huge area. The key is how can you create systems of innovation in the hands of everyman? When you can put that into the hands of a farmer in China then magical things are going to happen.”