Adam Gurri works in digital advertising and writes for pleasure on his spare time. His present research focuses on the ethics of business and work, from the perspective of virtue and human flourishing.
They had returned to the Saunders’ home in Sarah’s car. Mrs. Saunders had been riding shotgun, and the poor woman kept glancing back at her son, as though he might vanish if she were to take her eyes off of him. It was understandable given what they had been through, but to Sarah it seemed entirely unnecessary. Mark’s presence was, if anything, abnormally imposing. Even though she had dutifully kept her eyes on the road as she drove, and even though he hadn’t said a word, she could feel that he was there.
This would probably surprise many of the friends who know me as the guy who tweets a thousand times a day, but I began my adult life feeling very wary of social media.
When I was in high school, LiveJournal was the ruling social media of the day (though we spent much more time on AIM and forums, which fall outside of what is currently called social media).
There were plenty of fun aspects of LiveJournal, but as a bunch of teenagers it was mostly used as a tool to create drama, or amplify the drama that was already going on when we were on the physical premises of the school. Some people were pretty blatant—calling certain people out, being insulting or catty. But I was that particularly charming and admirable flavor of teenage boy that is a coward and also thinks he is incredibly clever.
So outright insults or saying what I was thinking wasn’t really my thing; instead, I insinuating with the approximate subtlety of a hydrogen bomb. But I thought my messages were very veiled and coded! The most blatant instance involved having feelings for a friend’s girlfriend. Instead of saying so, or talking to her or him or both of them, I waxed poetic on my LiveJournal any time she and I spent time together. Some part of me thought that I had some kind of weird plausible deniability when the guy clearly saw what was going on, but another part got a contrarian’s (and coward’s) enjoyment from rankling him in this manner.
They have words for the equivalent on Twitter and Facebook these days, but, in short, it was typical teenage nonsense.
By the time Facebook came to George Mason University, I had grown well beyond this, or liked to think that I had. Rather than frequenting forums, I read blogs and had a blog of my own. I believed that part of the value of blogging was that it was imminently ignorable—I wasn’t getting in anyone’s face, I wasn’t imposing my point of view on anyone who didn’t make a conscious choice to seek out my writing.
Facebook, which stitched us all back together in a common space again, I feared would bring out that untactful coward from my teenage years. I joined because my other friends did, but I didn’t quite get it while I was still in undergrad. I deleted and recreated my Facebook account no less than four or five times before finally buying into the thing for good.
What caused me to finally “get” Facebook was when my first good friend got married in the summer of 2008, and my friends who had been there, as well as the other members of the wedding party, began posting pictures a few days later. I friended the people I had met at the wedding to see more pictures, and shared the pictures that I had taken. I had had a great time at the wedding, and cared a lot about the people involved, so I really enjoyed being able to relive it with the pictures.
I decided it was time for me to grow up and start using this Facebook thing like a normal person my age. A few weeks after the wedding, I sent a relationship request to the girl I had been dating for a little while, just before my family and I would be going to Miami for a couple of weeks. Relationship statuses are a thing people do, right? That’s normal. I should do that.
It was shot down in flames, for the very prudent reason that this girl (to whom I am now married) did not believe in broadcasting her relationship status on Facebook. Being 23 years old and by no stretch of the imagination a teenager, I took this as maturely as you would expect—by becoming extremely despondent and assuming that I had ruined what little chance I may have had with her. When we got to Miami, we were staying somewhere without an Internet connection, and I wallowed in my despair for days.
When I finally managed to check my email and various accounts on a cousins’ computer, I discovered that Catherine (the girl I was dating) had left me a very friendly message to the tune of have fun on vacation, look forward to seeing you when you return. This immediately lifted me from my dour state, and imbued with with a fresh love for life and all of God’s creatures.
2008 was also the year I got into Twitter, and it quickly became the most rewarding social network I’ve ever joined. I have made so many friends, and solidified connections with friends made elsewhere, on Twitter. I have had so many interesting conversations, with so many interesting people.
At the end of 2008, Catherine started a blog on her neighborhood in DC called U Street Girl. Though I did not participate in the DC blogosphere myself, she introduced me to it, and the wonderful community that had grown around it. Twitter was and is the main hub of online activity for this community. Twitter also had the benefit of including individuals like myself who did not contribute blog posts but participated in the community in other ways. Now that we live in New York, it—along with Facebook and Tumblr and other places—has remained and excellent way to stay connected to those people we care about from that community.
At our wedding last year, we had five guests that we had originally met over the Internet. One of them we didn’t meet in person until that day!
At this point, social media has simply blended into my daily life. Twitter and Facebook were exciting new things when they sprang up, but now they’re as commonplace in my experience of the world as chat, email, blogs, and the hardware through which I access them all. Like the venues for web conversation and content that predate them, modern social media have matured to a point where they are taken for granted.
I’d like to think I’ve matured as well, in my relationship with them. But we’re not the best people to judge ourselves, I suppose.
He did not think that he would get to use his new found power so soon. Certainly, living in the largest city in the country, it must mean he must also be living in the highest concentration of misogynists. But before the incident that had precipitated all of this, he had never personally encountered it in all the years he had been there.
So he was surprised when, less than a week later, he found himself on a packed subway car in plain view of a guy’s hand as it touched the woman in front of him. Like a real New Yorker, she took none of it. “Keep your hand off my ass you prick!” She shouted immediately, turning to face her molester and giving him a good shove. He was a great deal larger than her, however, and he and his friend just started snickering about it. The whole car was focused on them; people here would not put up with this kind of crap.
Anthony felt their hostility, felt it wash over him. He slowly made his way through the crowd. People mistook it for simply heading for the door, and moved to let him through. People had put themselves between the woman and the pair of harassers, who continued in their stupid sniggering. He hated the sound of it. He hated them for daring to continue drawing breath after their brazen, disgusting action.
Slowly, deliberately, he reached over and gripped the man by the arm he had used. The man stopped snickering and looked down at his forearm just in time to see Anthony’s hand snap in cleanly in the middle. Anthony never would have thought that such a large man was capable of producing a scream so shrill. It was a single scream, followed by a lot of moaning, interspersed with mostly incoherent rambling. He was completely incapable of believing what had happened was real; and from the look of it his friend was not much more capable.
Anthony stared down his nose at them as if he towered over them. Beads of sweat formed on the injured man’s forehead as he looked up, uncomprehending into his assailant’s eyes. At the next stop, he—and nearly all of the people on the train—got off, leaving the two creeps nearly alone. When Anthony’s eyes met the the woman’s, he was not sure what he saw there. But he did not wait to find out, not wanting to get involved with the police.
Over the next few months, he encountered many misongynists, and did far, far worse to some of them than breaking an arm. But he remembered that first time the most distinctively; his heart beating like a drum in his chest as he reached for the stranger’s arm. The way it felt when it broke in his hand, the sounds the injured man made.
This had all started not long before the arm-breaking incident. Emily, his long time friend and long time wishing-was-more-than-a-friend, had gone with him to see a movie in a little independent
theater in SoHo. He had never, ever had a problem in this part of town or any other, really, when he had been with Emily or any other female friend. So he was taken completely off guard when a couple of teenage boys starting cat calling her. It was bad enough that they were doing it, but they were being really, disgustingly graphic.
“Hey,” he said to them, “shut up already.” They found this hilarious. Both stood a good head and shoulders taller than Anthony, who had never had much in the way of stature. Being ten years older than some kids didn’t really do much for you when they were big and you were a scrawny geek. They got on either side of him, one of them getting in his face and daring him to take a swing. He didn’t, but not because he didn’t want to. He turned and walked away quickly because he was terrified of them.
They walked for several blocks with the assholes following closely behind them, taunting them and making lewd comments at Emily. It was miserable and it was humiliating, and it only ended when an older man intervened. “Fuck off you little pricks,” he shouted, walking up like he meant to deck them. He wasn’t much bigger than Anthony, but he carried himself with a confidence the younger man completely lacked. The kids didn’t actually want a fight, and so they turned around and left with a few parting remarks.
“Are you kids OK?” the man asked, and Emily assured him that they were, and thanked him. Anthony just stared at the ground. It wasn’t just the humiliation. He had never felt so angry in his life. He had never even known that he could feel this way; a cold, unyielding hatred that swallowed up every other feeling.
That night, he woke up and knew immediately that he was not alone. He turned on the light and standing before his bed was a man he had never seen before. The man wore an expensive looking pinstriped three piece suit. In spite of this, though Anthony couldn’t tell you exactly why, everything about him screamed cheap.
“What the fuck are you doing in my apartment?” Anthony demanded, hoping he sounded angry rather than scared.
“I’ve come to give you some help, Anthony,” the stranger said in a smooth, deep voice.
“Who are you? How do you know me?”
“I’m a friend,” the man said with a smile that was anything but friendly, “I saw what happened. With the boys.”
“Are you with them?” Anthony asked, grasping for some explanation for the bizarre situation he found himself in.
“Hardly,” the man said dismissively, “I just watched and thought the whole thing was kind of pathetic. Not only were you completely unable to do anything, but you didn’t even try.”
“Fuck you,” Anthony spat, and infuriatingly he had to fight back tears.
“Still feeling pretty raw, aren’t we?” a menacing grin, “I’m going to give you a little gift. Starting tomorrow, until you teach those boys a lesson yourself, you’re going to be strong. Unbelievably strong. No mortal will be able to best you.”
“What are you talking about? Are you…a trainer or something?” It sounded stupid before he had even said it. This elicited laughter from the stranger, a discomforting noise that filled the whole room and ran on far too long.
“Test yourself tomorrow if you don’t believe me,” the man said when he finally stopped.
Then the room was pitch black again, and Anthony was still under the covers. A dream? Of course it was.
But it hadn’t been. He couldn’t resist testing himself the next day. He went to the gym whose membership he had signed up for eight months earlier but barely taken advantage of. He found that the weights were a lot lighter than he could remember. In fact, he was unable to find any weights that he couldn’t lift immediately and easily. As he went from station to station, he drew more and more attention to himself. The sight of such a little man lifting so much weight must have been very strange.
The incident with the broken arm came not long after that. Then he knocked a few teeth out of the mouth of a cat-caller. Then he caught a couple of guys pinning a girl against a wall in an alley on his way home from work, and he really gave them a thrashing. They were disgusting. They were vermin. They deserved worse than he was capable of, even then.
After years of never encountering this type they seemed to show themselves every other day. Was it that he had been ignoring them all along, and only now had his eyes open? Or was part of the bargain that these people were drawn to him now?
When he spent time with Emily, she could tell something had changed. He didn’t look any different, and she hadn’t seen him get into any fights, but it was just the way he carried himself. He radiated confidence in a way he never had in all the years they’d known each other. She liked it, and she gave him signs that she had finally started to like him—in the way he had always wanted her to.
But that went out the window when they encountered those teenagers ago.
From Anthony’s point of view, it was destiny, giving him another chance. A chance to make up for his previous humiliation. They even remembered him, and walked over with the intention of repeating history.
He had never thrashed any misogynists as thoroughly as he did these two. He hit the first one in the ribs, having learned that going for a blow to the head first tended to drop his opponents too quickly. The boy rewarded him by coughing up blood. Before his friend could blink, Anthony brought the heel of his foot down savagely against his ankle. The result was rather similar to the man on the subway, only with more crying. It did not go better for them from there.
Anthony lost himself in the adrenaline rush. When he stopped, the big youths who had humiliated him and harassed Emily were broken, bleeding, whimpering piles at his feet. He was so strong. He was a hero.
Emily. He suddenly remembered her. He looked up at her for the first time since the engagement began. And he saw…
He saw what he had seen only a glimmer of from that woman on the subway, something he had now seen from dozens of men over the course of the past few weeks.
She was afraid. Afraid of him.
He had thought himself so righteous, but with each fight he had fallen deeper into the euphoria of violence. Feeling justified, feeling better than the powerless scum he had crushed only made the whole thing feel more…enjoyable.
Emily would never speak to him again. And now, having caught up with the kids who had been there at the beginning, his strength would leave him for good.
He felt more pathetic and alone than he ever had. And the streets of Manhattan seemed to echo with the horrible laughter of the well dressed man who had given him the gift of violence.
It is difficult to pinpoint the precise moment that the privacy norm died, but historians tend to emphasize a few key developments. The global adoption of the Internet, World Wide Web, and smartphones were obviously the beginning. The rise of services that gathered user data to monetize through various strategies on the one hand, and systemic state surveillance such as was practiced early on in China on the other. A few open source projects which made it trivially easy for even the technologically unsavvy to get around all but the strictest security practices.
Whatever moment in these and other progressions it happened, the notion of “secret” gradually expired while no one was looking. The result was a radically transparent society unprecedented in human history.
The initial discontinuity clearly occurred a few short decades after the birth of the Web, and the result was a great deal of disruption and upheaval at first. It took less than a generation, however, for people to simply become used to it.
Philosophers and scholars before the great transformation believed that people would behave fundamentally differently when they were being observed, but it turned out that people can get used to just about anything. And when they do, they tend to just keep on falling into the same old patterns. So while a sociologist of the late 20th century might have thought that porn consumption—especially of the really weird stuff—would plummet if anyone anywhere could find out about it, it remained basically unchanged. For the most part, people didn’t want to know what porn other people were watching, and taboos developed against bringing it up even when they did find out and were disgusted by what they learned.
There was a lot of fear about what what happen under a mass surveillance state. But the private lives of the state officials who would pursue prosecution were also an open book, and any unsavory personal or organizational agendas were in plain view. As a result, in those countries where success in the public sector was highly sensitive to public perceptions, the transition was basically a wash. In police states such as China, tyrannical laws were already selectively enforced to begin with. The new transparency made it clear how large a swath of the population was dissatisfied, and how corrupt the ruling regime was. It also made it harder to stop insurgents from finding and doing harm to top officials, though it made it easier to find them after the fact.
In short, the result of an initial upsurge in violence and persecution was largely a shift in norms that kept social and political life in the status quo.
A few generations in, when history teachers explained to their students that their ancestors had clung fiercely to concepts of privacy and secrecy, they were baffled. How did any solve any crimes? What did the older generations think they had to hide? Of course, as with the young of any era, it was inconceivable to them that society could ever have functioned at all outside of the particular framework they grew up in. Even though they continued to be taught that crime rates and wars and censorship around the world had basically remained the same before and after the transition, few could bring themselves to believe it.
The preferred the story of progress, the story of how technology transformed the world for the better.
Stories about how the world keeps on turning, mostly indifferent to the things individuals find fascinating, are boring, and soon forgotten.
Everything that is now mainstream was once obscure. We are now largely aware of this fact, especially those of us who follow technology trends. The “early adopter” is a familiar friend, rather than merely the subject of obscure communications papers.
The study of how the obscure becomes widely adopted began in the mid-20th century in rural sociology. The origin of this field is usually credited to the research of Neal Gross and Bryce Ryan on American farmers’ adoption of hybrid corn in the 1940s. Gross and Ryan relied mostly on structured surveys to gather information on why farmers had resisted the innovation, or chosen to adopt with the particular timing that they had.
A great deal of research continued to be done along these lines, until in 1962 Everett Rogers decided to summarize the findings in the first edition of Diffusion of Innovations. The book was more than a simple account of the literature; it provided a basic theoretical framework, as well as suggestions for the direction of future research. An avid participant in the field throughout his life, Rogers continued to put out new editions of the book to bring it up to date and gently guide future research based on how it had progressed between editions. The fifth and final edition came out in 2003 and included some preliminary research on diffusion patters on the Internet. Rogers died not long after, so there will be no sixth editions summarizing studies on diffusion patterns on Twitter, Facebook, or app stores.
Diffusion of Innovations provides nothing so elegant as a theoretical framework; instead, there is a set of stylized observations, summarized from a large body of research which has developed over more than sixty years. This is not to say that it is without theory—just not the kind of theory you might find in The Wealth of Nations or Civilization and its Discontents. Nothing grand—just a basic framework with a number of theoretical concepts baked in, taken mostly from preexisting works.
One useful concept Rogers and his colleagues honed down is what exactly an “innovation”, the unit of diffusion, is: “an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or other unit of adoption”. With this definition, we don’t need to quibble about what is “really” an innovation or “really” new; so long as it is “perceived as new” by whatever “unit of adoption” we are considering. This is the only manner that the term “innovation” will be used for the rest of this piece.
The diffusion of innovations literature suffered from a short-sightedness due to its focus on specific innovations that were believed by the researchers to be objective improvements over pre-existing alternatives, or in any case an alternative world in which they do not diffuse. Rogers was aware of this, and took his colleagues and his own work to task for what he called a “pro-innovation bias”. Even still, they managed to develop a very informative framework from which to view diffusion.
The hallmark of this literature is the standard s-shaped diffusion curve. When an innovation appears among an observed population, at first it diffuses very slowly among a very small subset of the population. Rogers doesn’t quite spell it out, but this is where a vast supermajority of innovations die. An enormous amount of energy and money has been spent trying to figure out what it is that allows some tiny fraction of innovations to survive beyond this crucial stage, but our knowledge is still very partial. At best, we can tell what increases or decreases the relative probabilities of survival, though what the actual probabilities are we cannot say.
Nevertheless, some innovations do survive. Once they have moved beyond the people categorized as “the innovators” and “the early adopters”, we hit “the early majority”, and the diffusion process takes off like a rocket. As Rogers put it:
The part of the diffusion curve from about 10 percent adoption to 20 percent adoption is the heart of the diffusion process. After that point, it is often impossible to stop the further diffusion of a new idea, even if one wished to do so.
One of the things that increases the probability that one person will adopt an innovation is if it has already been adopted by other people who are a lot like them that they know. The underlying assumption, supported by a variety of research, is that something like 60 percent of every population is homogenous, and innovations spread rapidly once they reach this group. There is a prior group of about 10-20 percent of the population that are quicker to adopt and are usually wealthier or higher status on some margin than the majority. Finally, the remaining population, called (pejoratively—there’s that pro-innovation bias again) “laggards”, only adopt after the majority, and only do so slowly. They tend to be poorer, or older, or lower status on some margin from the majority. The relative percentages of the population made up by each category may vary but there is a stable observed phenomena where there’s the first slow group, the second, biggest fast group which constitutes a majority, and the last slow group.
I believe that this model can be extended far beyond where the researchers have taken it. But to do so, several important questions will have to be answered. While there exists an enormous body of studies on successful and failed diffusions, there are not many studies on what happens after a successful diffusion—the average lifespan of successfully diffused innovations, so to speak. There is some research on how prior diffused innovations lay the foundation for future ones, but I would prefer to see a lot more on this.
I think that the diffusion model describes the dynamics of how norms, traditions, and every human social system emerges. It begins with a set of discrete innovations that build on top of each other until you get path dependence, feedback loops, and ultimately, the large, complex arrangements of the modern world.
But more on the big picture a little further down.
First, let’s look at the small picture.
Networks are the Fabric
Paul Adams’ Grouped provides an excellent summary of the literature on the structure of human networks. And here we mean not “networks” in the technological sense in which the word has come to be used, but networks in the older sense of connections among people. Networks in this sense have existed for as long as human beings have been social animals; which is to say, for as long as they have been human beings.
In the “strong ties, weak ties” literature, we are described as having up to 15 strong ties, and as many as 500 weak ties that we can actually remember something about. Of those, Robin Dunbar has famously found that we are only capable of maintaining stable relationships with 150 people total, including our strong ties. Our weak ties are made up of people who come in and out of that 150 over time, and some never get beyond that threshold.
Of our strong ties, 80 percent of our communications happen with our closest set of up to five connections. Our strong ties exert enormous influence on us, and these five connections are by far the most influential in our lives. A lot of what we like to think of as discrete, individual tastes are really things that people only like because the people they know like them. A great deal—perhaps the majority—of preferences owe their origin to this groupish tendency rather than to some innate internal ranking what someone wants.
All of our friends, even our very closest ones, have their own circles of connections that overlap to greater or lesser extent with ours. The further out into their weaker ties you go, the more unique connections they have that you do not have. The extended connections of your closest connections alone make up many, many thousands of people. These semi-overlapping circles comprise a network that encompasses basically all of mankind, with a few outliers. This is what is meant when it says that everyone can be connected to anyone else within six degrees of separation; and that number has decreased with the Internet and social networks like Facebook.
However, even three degrees is actually a vast social distance. Our personal influence on the group three degrees removed from us is very minimal, compared to the influence we have on our closest five friends, and the influence that they have on us. However, information and influence does come from outside of this inner circle. After all, the people in your inner circle have people in their inner circle that aren’t in yours, who have people in their inner circle that aren’t in your friends’, and so on. Through this network of close connections, information, preferences, norms, slang, and just about every sort of innovation diffuse.
These small networks are the fabric that every social system is stitched from. If one of your five closest connections adopts a certain norm, the odds a very high that you will too—higher, in any case, than if it was just one of your 15 closest connections, or one of your 50 closest, and so on. If one of your weak ties adopts an innovation (especially the 135 or so that you’re able to keep a persistent connection with), it does increase the odds that you will adopt it as well—just not by very much.
People we think of as highly influential have an enormous number of weak ties, but no more strong ties than anyone else. If one of these people adopts an innovation, there’s a small probability that their weak ties will. But that small probability still constitutes an increase from before they had adopted it—and every so often something will take off among their weak ties.
Nevertheless, Paul Adams is firm on the point that the overwhelming majority of influence occurs within the loci of these small networks; regular people influencing other regular people who constitute their closest connections; and those people influencing yet other people who constitute some of their closest connections. We influence, and are influenced in subtle, almost invisible ways, by our closest connections. Agenda setting, and other top-down models of influence, are bogus.
Diffusions Accumulate into Traditions
We can think of these small networks as going through an endless trial and error process, in which the vast supermajority of innovations are rejected as errors. Of those innovations that do diffuse more widely, the overwhelming majority do not survive longer than a year (we call these “fashions”). This is clear from the logic of the Lindy Effect; first formulated by Benoit Mandelbrot and lately popularized by Nassim Taleb. The Lindy Effect states that every technology (understood in the broadest possible sense) is on average halfway into its lifespan; meaning that new innovations are almost always a flash in the pan.
The Lindy Effect also makes it clear that any innovation that has lasted a long time, will last a long time yet. So some tiny fraction of initial innovations diffuse, and a small fraction of those innovations survive their first year post-diffusion. Over time, these survivors accumulate to form the basis of our norms and traditions.
Michael Oakeshott described specific traditions as voices in the conversation of mankind, but I think this provides too great a sense of uniformity within each tradition. To me, each tradition is more like a conversation in itself, that has been going on for a very long time, and whose participants fluctuate within a given time span and across generations.
These conversations are the product of an inconceivably large number of previous diffusions. Over time, traditions develop their own vocabularies, styles of discourse, and patterns of behavior. These emerge as the result of specific innovations—specific terms, specific discourses that exhibit particular characteristics, specifics behaviors—diffusing, each diffusion increasing the probability that future successful innovations will be related to those that have already been adopted.
The conversation metaphor should not imply that traditions are primarily composed of words and articulated concepts. Though each tradition does have a set of articulated stories, these are a small fraction of the whole of a tradition, which is primarily made up of unarticulated, tacit, practical knowledge. We know when we have made a faux paus within the context of a particular tradition even if no one explicitly tells us so, because our fellow participants have a wide variety of ways of signaling this to us. More to the point, we are wired to keep an eye out for signs that we have breached the etiquette of the circumstances, especially when we are very young.
Where one conversation begins and another ends is not quite clear; there is the Christian tradition but then there is also the Protestant tradition, and the Calvinist tradition, and the American Presbyterian tradition. In some ways these traditions represent subsets of a larger whole, but in other ways they are divergent branches from a common origin.
Each conversation is maintained through an apprenticeship-like passing on of the practical knowledge required to continue it to members of the latest generation. Each new initiate takes from the store of practical knowledge and stories that grew from the conversation that had occurred before their birth, and each puts something back into it—though most of these contributions end up being forgotten by time entirely. Moreover, what each individual believes to be worthy of putting back into the conversation they may think they arrived at of their own volition, but in reality they were guided there by the way in which their perceptions were framed by the tradition itself. The most important part of making any decision is what information we choose to filter out or focus on as significant, and this is precisely the role played by the context that any tradition provides us. This is the reason why parallel innovations frequently occur not only in the math and sciences, but in engineering and even in art. Human talent is funneled down the relatively narrow corridors provided by the traditions they are embedded within.
Stories, practices, norms, fashions, lifestyles, and all forms of human behavior diffuse within and across these conversations. Each innovation has a non-zero probability of spreading within a given conversation. Different factors increase or decrease this probability. Within current mainstream economics, a new paper is more likely to draw attention if it makes what economists consider to be a novel point, and does it within the context of the neo-classical, Samuelsonian, rational expectations model of the world. It may be a criticism of said model, but coherence to those who practice scholarship in the context of being trained in that model will increase the probability of diffusion.
In short, coherence within the framework of a particular conversation increases the probability of diffusion within that conversation, while relative difficulty to comprehend an innovation within the context provided by a conversation decreases its odds of diffusion within that conversation. For this reason, the very things that make low-probability innovations unlikely to diffuse make them the most disruptive when they do; for it is precisely because they are so far from comfortable points of reference within a tradition that they are unlikely to be adopted.
Oakeshott argued that the various conversations of human social life are entirely independent and have distinct characteristics. It is difficult to think of a version of reality where this is actually the case. The diffusion of innovations literature demonstrates that the more like one other people are, the more likely diffusions are to spread among them. The fact that I have been exposed to the conversation of economics, among others, does not change the fact that I grew up in northern Virginia, in America, in an English-speaking middle class family, and went through the Virginia public school system from kindergarten through grad school. There are a lot of people who are similar to me on some or all of these dimensions but don’t know anything about economics or many of the other conversations that I participate in. Yet there is an enormous body of traditions that we share in common.
As a part of our small networks, we all form links across the respective conversations that we participate in. For this reason, while innovations are more likely to diffuse within a conversation than across them, the larger super-conversations are large enough to bridge the conversations quite frequently. So while it has become highly apparent to me that the Paleo Diet has spread like wildfire among the libertarian community, it did not originate there, and it is a popular diet beyond the confines of this particular subset of the population.
Nassim Taleb has expressed concern that what autonomy these conversations do have is being jeopardized by globalization and by the Internet. Drawing on the logic of island biogeography, he fears that reducing this autonomy will reduce the overall diversity of conversation ecosystem. This is no trivial concern, as maintaining the diversity of these traditions requires maintaining a diverse set of practical knowledge that it is not at all clear we can ever get back if they are lost. Taleb approaches this from a risk-management perspective: we do not know what practical knowledge we will need in the future for events and changes in circumstance that we are unable to predict today. As such, more diversity is better, as it hedges our bets more effectively.
It certainly seems clear that increased interconnection has led to more highly skewed power law distributions. However, this seems to be offset, in the sense Taleb is concerned with, by an ever-lengthening long tail of conversations. So while there are more rock stars that everyone is aware of, more and more niche conversations are taking place, developing their own terminology, practices, stories, and frames of reference. In academic life, while cross-discipline work is trendier than ever, the fact remains that the long term trend has been towards ever greater specialization, branching out from older, larger traditions and forming their own niche conversations. Taleb’s concerns need to be taken seriously, but there is some reason to hope.
Within the Network and Across Traditions
We all live within the small network point of view; we see the world through our direct experience, which includes the people that are a regular part of our lives. Up to five such people dominate the majority of our social interactions, and the Internet has only empowered this further since we can now communicate with people via chat, social networks, and email during work hours.
From this perspective, the stream of innovations seems like a constant barrage. We can mostly tune out the stuff diffusing through our weak ties but the ones that make it to our strong ties, and especially our five closest connections, are very difficult for us to resist. Most of these are a flash in the pan and are gone after a brief visit to our lives. Many of them remain relatively obscure, and some of them go viral to such an extent that there seems to be no one in our lives who has not at least heard of them.
Another part of the human experience are the various Oakeshottian conversations we participate in—that is, the traditions within which we are embedded, and the communities we are a member of that operate within those traditions. Though traditions are frequently seen as static, stagnant burdens on individuals living within the modern tide of change, they are not only dynamic, but highly volatile. The volatility comes from the large number of innovations that diffuse within them every year.
Of the small fraction of innovations that are introduced to a tradition which manage to diffuse, most are quickly weeded out by feedback mechanisms built into the tradition. This feedback is the cumulative result a huge number of prior diffusions which built upon one another to develop criteria for what sorts of innovations would be considered for adoption, and what sorts of consequences would result in rejecting innovations that had previously been adopted.
More important than feedback is time, the impact of which is similar to but broader than any one feedback mechanism. Over time, circumstances change; most innovations do not survive beyond the initial circumstances that were favorable to their adoption. Over time, current participants are swapped out for new ones, and the transmission of a tradition to the next generation may not include all of the innovations that had been adopted into it by the current or previous generations.
Our networks guide our actions in subtle, nearly invisible ways, and these networks are embedded within a set of traditions. The traditions are always fluctuating with innovations diffusing within and across them, and our networks form the connective tissue across which these innovations diffuse.
This constant process of diffusion, rejection, and persistent adoption constitutes an ongoing process of trial and error through which all human social systems evolve. I am tempted to say “progress” but it is difficult to define positive advancement for a system that involves changing norms and moral rules. Even from a material standpoint there will be more dead ends than successes, and many dead ends won’t even become apparent until generations after the fact. For all we know, the changes that birthed the great discontinuity in standards of living at the onset of the Industrial Revolution will turn out to be fatal to us in the long run.
We are not guides, arbiters, or engineers of this process. Our individual contributions are small and fleeting in the face of the enormous and persistent edifice of the traditions we are a part of, and the scale of the population living and dead that participate and have participated in them. We are, in short, mostly along for the ride.