What’s Wrong With What’s New

I don’t get excited by the release of the latest iphone model and I certainly don’t queue outside a store for long hours to be the first to possess one. Sometimes this worries me, because across a wide range of topics I feel that my personal preferences and lifestyle choices are not what the world deems relevant.

In his article titled The Never-Ending Now, David Perell powerfully described how the technology we are dependent on allows us to be just a click away from the greatest authors of all time, from Plato to Tolstoy, yet we default to novelty instead of timelessness. Think of a group of people on the subway, staring idly at their screens, the chances are that the majority are consuming content created within the last 24 hours. How can it be that society prioritizes the impulses of the past 24 hours over the accumulated wisdom of humanity?

The current meaning of “NEW”

Erik Thornberg, in “The Current Thing” essay on a similar point examines how Current Things are the social equivalents of pump and dumps: They are pump and dumps for clicks for the journalists, votes for the politicians, and dollars for the activists. After all, the business model of the press & social media might as well be to cause the reader as much outrage as possible, every day, to cause fear and panic and drive them to come back tomorrow. In other words, the first thing we see isn’t whether something is true or not, and then decide whether it’s good for us. We do the opposite: We first filter for what’s good for us, and then filter for truth — this explains why we feel emotions first, and then rationalize them after. Most people aren’t interested in or skilled enough to gain significant status from truth-discovery, so they’re less likely to prioritize the truth over fitting in.

An availability cascade is a self-reinforcing cycle that explains the development of certain kinds of collective beliefs. A novel idea or insight, usually one that seems to explain a complex process in a simple or straightforward manner, gains rapid currency in the popular discourse by its very simplicity and by its apparent insightfulness. Its rising popularity triggers a chain reaction within the social network: individuals adopt the new insight because other people within the network have adopted it, and on its face it seems plausible. The reason for this increased use and popularity of the new idea involves the need of individuals using the term or idea to appear to be current with the stated beliefs and ideas of others, regardless of whether they in fact fully believe in the idea that they are expressing. Their need for social acceptance, and the apparent sophistication of the new insight, overwhelm their critical thinking.

“Reality entrepreneurs” are community builders who make sense of the world and provide a vision of the future. The content is secondary, and the consequences are besides the point. What counts is the thing that gets retweeted, makes you friends, or is otherwise evolutionary fit. That’s the purpose of ideas — to make better friends, to increase status. To accomplish or contribute towards something that increases others’ estimation of your value. Reality can be influenced by the emotional power of examples and by their perceived frequency; availability can be skewed by the media and reality entrepreneurs are especially skilled at this form of communication.

Current Things involve everyone converging on to the same beliefs and that there are profit motives for increasingly surfacing New Current Things — but they undersell the truthfulness of The Current Thing. That said, there is also often something “off” about The Current Thing as well. If it were so obviously, incontrovertibly accurate, it wouldn’t go viral, since everyone would be convinced already. There’s no need for evangelism when everyone is already converted. And so the things that tend to go viral are caricatures, with the messy complexity stripped out. This is because by their nature, CurrentThings over-simplify our messy reality, which makes them appear false. Rationality can’t beat irrationality head on. It just doesn’t sell. This is why Current Things may be true, but they are not optimized for truth. They are optimized for fitness, or for going viral.

Current Things bind people together over common beliefs, and they blind people to independent thought outside of the collective, since independent thought can at times be an impediment to group identity. A charitable view is that it’s the wisdom of crowds surfacing the most important problems as well as the best ways of solving those problems. The Current Thing is not about people trying to find truth, it’s about people expressing loyalty to their group. Indeed, it’s more predictive to think of “belief”not as something someone thinks of as true, but as something someone thinks will improve their reputation within a tribe.

Novelty should not be confused with style. Style itself is the visual language of a culture: in fashion, in consumer goods, in art, in literature, in all media. Style is ephemeral; it is timely. To be “in style” is to embody the influences and values of your time. Style in work is subtle; it requires deciphering, engagement, or worst of all, Time. While it may slip past imitators, it also risks being overlooked by the rewards system presented by novelty.

The shrewd use of advertising into the realm of consumption, by promoting a culture of wasteful excess in which the lifespan of material goods became increasingly shorter, diminishing ultimately to one of disposability, a strategy which creates an assembly line of “new”. By the early 1920s, the advertising industry had begun to publicly define itself as both the destroyer and creator in the process of the ever-evolving new.

Stylistic change itself acts as a signifier for progress and evolution. Advertising has tricked us into thinking the most recent has become synonymous with the best. It creates a legacy of planned obsolescence which now moves with unprecedented speed. Invigorating new voices are necessary, but the rate at which styles and stylists are being gobbled up and spit out reflects no longer a reflection of true culture, its pace is in sync with consumerist culture.

Necessity of new

When I first started out in tech entrepreneurship, I used to open my presentations with a chart similar to the hereunder,basically explaining that if the world economy grew at a rate of 6–8% on average across the last 40 years, the future inventions and innovations we must come up with need to be as influential as motor cars, aviation and the internet. Our economy needs NEW. Novelty and innovation in all fields, not just technology, are a requirement not just a means of personal fulfillment or economic enrichment.

New is also good, and especially in the technology sector, what enables the individual to express themselves further or communicate better tends to emerge as a winner and creates a market around that medium. In the internet age, the age of information and communication, technology that is empowering individuality to create collective intelligence is especially successful. As we shall see, as we discuss notions such as “The Global Village”, what makes recent times particularly interesting is the balance (or apparent lack thereof) between the individual and the collective. To many, yesteryear feels like it was better, a golden age of the past, when we had a common set of values, narratives and idols as fundamentals to build our society upon. Our novel technology, although it may have been built to reinforce such fundamentals, seems to have led people astray. Anxiety, depression, narcissism, radicalism and tribalism are the order of the day, and many blame the collective obsession and addiction to screens and social media as the root cause. So something has gone wrong with what’s NEW.

Finding truth through collective intelligence

Pierre Lévy defined Collective intelligence as a form of intelligence that emerges from the collaboration and competition of many individuals. The heart of collective intelligence is harmonizing connections. To perform well, one then needs the ideas and knowledge of all, to innovate and quite simply to work! One cannot order another to have an idea. It is necessary to obtain their voluntary co-operation in order to have it.

Its central wealth is the human being, the valuing of diversity means that efforts at collective intelligence tend to have a bias towards inclusivity and all voices being heard. If we hold too much in common (e.g. unexamined assumptions), or if we value commonality to the exclusion of diversity (i.e., conformity), collective stupidity (groupthink) will likely result. Shared purpose, vision and inquiry are among the most powerful tools alongside free flow of information. High intelligence requires a high ability to discern differences, similarities and relevance, and to weigh potential outcomes in light of values and goals. Ideas gravitate to the realm between order and chaos because what matters is the interactions between the parts, which is seldom harmonious. Diversity of data and information invites us to confront a more complex picture of reality. Seeing this as a resource, instead of resisting it through comfortable oversimplifications, can lead to collective intelligence.

When juxtaposed against what modern society labels as “NEW”, and analyzed against the lens of collective intelligence, it is these characteristics of diversity of thought, free flow of information and ideas, embracing complexity of perspective and ability to voice disapproval of the central idea that can help us discern between a tribal belief system and emergent ideas that reflect cultural truths, values and style.

Reality is up for grabs

Reality is up for grabs and though it’s been harder to align on shared truths, we’ve seen reality entrepreneurs take advantage of this shift in bootstrapping their own realities. In this kaleidoscope theory, culture fragments into thousands of shards, and each culture plays out its own fantasies alongside all the other cultures.The result is skyrocketing cultural novelty (wokeism, gender fluidity, cancel culture), at the cost of shared alignment on anything. Yet we have seen that an organism that sees reality in its truthful form is never more fit than an organism of equal complexity that sees none of reality and is just attuned to fitness payoffs through tribal approval. Are we living in an age where “Optimizing for truth can make you extinct.”?

This doesn’t mean objective reality doesn’t exist. It means we often don’t perceive reality accurately because it’s not aligned with our interests. We think people are rational, but if anything, recent scientific discoveries tell us most of human rationality is not used to make decisions, but rather to come up with arguments to rationalize decisions the subconscious brain has already made.

“Truth” (how things work) is not only complicated, but totally irrelevant to our ability to survive. Our ancestral past has given us an interface to interact with reality without understanding (or caring) about that reality unless it directly affects us. Brains aren’t built to accurately represent facts; they’re built to help navigate social situations. Heuristics are simple, efficient rules which people often use to form judgments and make decisions. They are mental shortcuts that replace a complex problem with a simpler one. These rules work well under most circumstances, but they can lead to systematic deviations from logic,probability or rational choice theory. When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions.These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in Bitcoin is the Detector of Imbeciles argues thatinvestors get pushed into Ponzi-like strategies and rationalize arguments that lead them to invest in the assets of companies whose price was rising. Trading and crypto is a search for logic and truth, yet is narrative driven and can be tremendously exciting, its currency is “what’s NEW” which does not have to be the truth, and its economy is the Greater Fool Theory. Thus, we see the emergence of technology companies that do not produce cash flow but are financed through “funding” which inflates their assets on paper. He argues that “the total failure of bitcoin to become a currency has been masked by the inflation of its value, generating profits (on paper) for a sufficiently large number of people”. But where does the truth lie? In the foresight of those early Bitcoin backers to ride the “digital gold” narrative through historic growth or with the dissenters who say that technology comes and goes. While gold stays, at least physically, once neglected for a brief period, Bitcoin would necessarily collapse. Bitcoin shows us that NEW ideas can be momentous, they have the possibility of causing massive and transformative effects solely due to belief in them not necessarily for their truthfulness.

According to Paul Graham, founder of YC Combinator, in the most independent-minded people, the desire not to be told what to think is a positive force. It’s not mere skepticism, but an active delight in ideas that subvert the conventional wisdom, the more counterintuitive the better. Independent minded people do something that sounds to most other people like a bad idea,but they know it is not. This line of thinking is not suggesting that you impose on everyone who talks to you the burden of proving what they say, but rather that you take upon yourself the burden of evaluating what is said.Not just because you want sovereignty over your own thoughts, but because unfashionable ideas are disproportionately likely to lead somewhere interesting.The best place to find undiscovered ideas is where no one else is looking.

Right and Alone: “be rigorous in your search for truth in order to be RIGHT,
be courageous in developing your thesis in order to be ALONE”

Ugly and imaginative solutions have something in common: they both break the rules. And there is a gradual continuum between rule breaking that’s merely ugly (using duct tape to attach something to your bike) and rule breaking that is brilliantly imaginative. It is by poking about inside current technology that hackers get ideas for the next generation. Anything you discover from working on such an idea will tend to contradict the mistaken assumption that was concealing it. Every cherished mistaken assumption has a dead zone of unexplored ideas around it. A society in which people can do and say what they want will also tend to be one in which the most efficient solutions win, those that are stylish and reflect culture rather than those sponsored by the most influential people.

Further to this, the formation of moral values in society doesn’t come from the evolution of the consensus. Had science operated by majority consensus we would be still stuck in the Middle Ages and Einstein would have ended as he started, a patent clerk with fruitless side hobbies

The entire growth of society, whether economic or moral, comes from a small number of people. Only a few people suffice to disproportionately move the needle. All one needs is an asymmetric rule somewhere.

“Patience is a form of arbitrage.” The ability to play your game, to seek inefficient markets while everybody else is regressing the mean by chasing what’s hot, that is the arbitration. The arbitration is to be patient and to play that game when everybody else is playing the popular game.”

Global Village: where the Medium is the Message

So is the relevance of the current thing a more influential force than truth? Ultimately, society’s fragmentation and more voices emphasized by the accessibility of today’s technologies should allow for better truth discovery mechanisms. As a society we just have not yet adapted to this new reality after hundreds of years of industry-driven and media-led centralisation.

Marshall McLuhan, who was a Canadian thinker, coined the term ‘global village’ in the 1960s. He described today’s digital society with incredible accuracy in a time before the internet existed. He argues that “the global village” absolutely ensures maximal disagreement on all points. The global village is far more diverse, it is a changeover from consumer to producer, from acquisition to involvement, from jobholding to role-playing.

During McLuhan’s time it was a pretty big deal for someone to be on TV, and there weren’t that many voices contending for your attention. A one to many dynamic that aligned us on shared information has shifted to a more fragmented digital media landscape filled with creators pandering to ever-shrinking niche audiences. Pre-internet, journalists had a more reliable source of revenue,enabling them to do more investigative work, and the business model shift to online advertising meant they’d now have to produce popular pieces more frequently. It was social media that blew the whole thing open. The most important news nowadays will always spread faster on Twitter, but the opposite is also true — the most toxic behavior on Twitter can (and probably will) be mimicked elsewhere. What really sets the internet apart from print is the speed at which digital information changes.

Contributing to the human body of knowledge online is also dramatically easier to do than it was in an age of dominant print, and with a cost to contribute at something very close to zero. Contributions are made far more often, and far less carefully. The Internet enabled people to research the details of any conspiracy, and share their findings with other people also obsessed with the same experience. In the digital age, you are more often than not rewarded for pursuing your weird curiosities and passions.

Technology liberated us from the failures of a single, national narrative, but in so doing immersed us in a chaotic, kaleidoscopic dream world of new stories, new identities, and new faiths, with an ever-accelerating trend toward total social fragmentation. It’s difficult to even decide which malleable piece of information we should be looking at, let alone reach anything resembling broad consensus, collective intelligence (and truth). This is more than a period of confusion. Our civilization has transitioned to a new state of being.

Marshall McLuhan famously said “the medium is the message.” He argued the tools a civilization use shape the civilization:

“writing tends to be a kind of separate or specialist action in which there is little opportunity or call for reaction. Print created the portable book and now man can read isolated from others, in privacy. With print, the private fixed point of view became possible and literacy conferred the power of detachment, of non-involvement.

[The internet] demands participation and involvement in depth of the whole being. It will not work as

a background. It engages you. Perhaps this is why so many people feel that their identity has been threatened.

Ours is a brand-new world of all at onceness [sic]. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village….a simultaneous happening.

Men are suddenly nomadic gatherers of knowledge, nomadic as never before, informed as never before, free from fragmentary specialism as never before — but also involved in the total social process as never before; since with electricity we extend our central nervous system globally, instantly interrelating every human experience.

_McLuhan 1967:63

McLuhan observed the motion picture industry has provided a window on the world, and the colonized nations have looked through that window and have seen things of which they have been deprived. “It is perhaps not generally realized that a refrigerator can be a revolutionary symbol to a people who have no refrigerators”. Similarly in our internet age, the Arab Spring manifested thanks to the powerful platform which social media provides.

“The effect of the digital age is not to create a world-wide city of ever expanding dimensions but rather a global village of ever-contracting size. Information will move in the village at such speed that every human action or event

will involve everybody in the village in the consequences of every event. Brotherhood is one of the major characteristics in the ‘global village’. This brotherhood, which is being forced on people by the electric technology, alters the position of the outcast, [suppressed], the teen-ager, the woman, the cripple and other groups. They can no longer be contained, in the political sense of limited association. They are now involved in our lives, as we in theirs, thanks to the electric media”

_McLuhan 1994:5

Until very recently people lacked such a place because of the centralization of the top-down media like broadcasting channels and newspapers. Therefore the Internet with its bulletin boards fulfills a very important role in allowing the expression of difficult and dangerous thoughts and providing for people a space to communicate directly with each other without intervention by any authority. The Internet is very liberated in some ways but is very threatening because it is also used for very racist ideas, very misogynist ideas; very unpleasant dark sides of people’s personalities will be brought up by a more open communication structure.

The true value of the Internet is less about information and more about community. This begins to explain why in David Perell’s example I cited earlier, the people he observed only consumed recently created content. Negroponte, author of “Being Digital ‘’ claims: “The Information Superhighway is more than a shortcut to every book in the Library of Congress. It is creating a totally new, global social fabric”. One can be everywhere and at the same time nowhere, can be oneself or can be somebody or something else, or even can be many ‘selves’ at the same time. In one sense this frees us from the restrictions imposed by our physical identity. We are more equal on the net as the stand-in body reveals only as much of ourselves as we mentally wish to reveal.

Yet, when transitioning from books to online spaces, we have collectively experienced a loss of privacy, the social media age has turned human connectivity into a product (we are no longer just consumers). The Cambridge Analytica scandal shone a light on a stark reality that our increased public life online can be used to manipulate our individualism and subconsciously hands us a tribal identity. This identity in turn can be used by the highest financial bidder to achieve an end, like winning an election, all whilst people continue to uphold that they acted on their own free will which they cultivated via online communities and using the tools of the digital age.

The next New

Ask anybody in the tech industry, and they will unequivocally tell you that the next innovation cycle will be defined by the emergence of Artificial Intelligence in our daily lives. Just as the internet age empowered the marginalized to have a renewed voice, identity and an audience online, A.I. bestows technology skills on the non-specialised, reducing the marginal cost of creativity (whether artistic or technical) to a fraction of its former cost.

Print enabled literacy to spread to the general public, reducing the need for travel, something that was previously necessary for anyone who wanted to have access to any kind of information or knowledge. Ben Thompson argues that: “no matter how profound the changes wrought by digitization, the human component remains. AI removes the human constraint: media and interactive experiences can be created continuously; the costs may be substantial, particularly compared to general compute, but are practically zero relative to the cost of humans. The most compelling use case to date, though, is communication: there is always someone to talk to. Simply talking to ChatGPT, removes that barrier: Smart glasses are going to be able to understand what you’re looking at when you ask them questions. So if you want to know what the building is that you’re standing in front of, or if you want to translate a sign that’s in front of you to know what it’s saying, or if you need help fixing this sad leaky faucet, you can just talk to the AI and look at it and it will walk you through it step-by-step how to do it. True virtual reality shifts time like media, place like communications, and, crucially, does so with perfect availability and infinite capacity. In this view, virtual reality is AI, and AI is virtual reality.”

If the medium is the message, then what message will our future selves equipped with AI co-pilots send to our society? Will we limit our fact finding and search for truth to whatever the AI tells us, unbeknownst of the inherent biases. Is Yuval Noah Harari correct that we are giving up sovereignty and influence to the machines? A topic for another time perhaps. Once again it seems though it seems that AI’s capacity to infiltrate our lives will depend on our innate need to communicate, belong and play status games.

Filtering for Truth

The information age throws at us never-ending NEW ideas that favor chaotic discourse, status games, speculation over truth. Reality entrepreneurs are struggling to keep our attention whether or not truth is their currency, so as to extract profit until the NEW thing goes out-of-style by design.

But pursuing the things that are not necessarily popular, understanding them better than anyone so that you can believe in them, and then becoming involved with them is a magical and rare place. The characteristics of independent-mindedness, curiosity, resistance to being told what to think, and fastidiousness about truth are key to achieving this.

There is a fine line between being obsessed with the CURRENT thing, and the NEXT thing. There is a spectrum between being lost in the discourse of the current thing and impacting the future. The NEXT thing is about finding the early inflection points that usually emerge from cultural observations, tinkering with technology, and identifying independent thinkers. It is about being ready with a prepared mind to invest in the things that can most effectively ride those inflections regardless of the hype-factor society places on them. The NEXT thing presents itself once we have filtered away the incentives injected by reality entrepreneurs and patiently extract the collective intelligence that remains.

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Author profile: Adrian Galea is a professional in venture capital and portfolio management for early stage startup investors. He also manages a facebook group called Malta Startup Space that inspires startup culture in Malta.
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