Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Drake Equation for Information, Why the Future of the Internet Will Be Fun

So there is this equation, named after Frank Drake, that allows one to guess the potential number of extraterrestrial civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy. You make a guess for a bunch of probabilities and multiply them all up and the numbers are rather amazing. When I think of ideas, I think there is kind of an equivalent equation for all the ideas out there that are meaningful to you, from those that are just neat to the oh-shit-my-view-of the-world-just-did-a-180-and-I-have-to-sit-down ideas. So here goes:

Ilike = P x Iday x fweb x fpublish x fread x flike

Ilike - The number of ideas you like, encountered over the course of a single day.

P - The total population of the world, 6,692,030,277 as of 2008.

Iday - The average number of ideas each person has every day that they might share. I will use 10.

fweb- The fraction of people who can read and write and use the internet. I will use 1/10. According to this source 25% of the world has internet access.

fpublish - The fraction that publish their thoughts in a place that you could find. Could be face-to-face, email, blogs, twitter, facebook, whatever. I will use 1/100.

fread - The fraction of everything published or spoken that you find and actually read. I will use 1/1,000,000.

flike - The fraction of ideas that you read and like. I will use 1/10.

So 6,692,030,277 x 10 x 1/10 x 1/100 x 1/1,000,000 x 1/10 = 6.6 ideas per day that you like

The first thing I think when I see this is that we don't get squat. We sit on the shore of vast amounts of information and sip a few little drops everyday. Now those drops are many many times more interesting than the average of whats out there, but still very small and no where near whats possible.

So imagine if some cultural shift could multiply each fraction by 10. People could read more and think 10x more thoughts, have some spare time and publish 10x more, and find the internet interesting and read 10x more. The result would be 6,692 interesting ideas per day or 1 idea every 12 seconds. Constant neat stuff that never gets old. Now imagine that 1 out of 10000 ideas you like are really big. You would get one of those every other day.

Now obviously this is too much for any one person so people rank and filter stuff and only the really good stuff gets to you when you have time. Or maybe this overload increases your threshold for what is interesting. And what happens when people get exposed to the world of ideas, come to similar conclusions about what is great, and all start thinking about what everyone else likes. Multiply another 10x to flike. Information nirvana all the time.

Read-Write Culture, The Next Big Idea That Will Change Everything

Lawrence Lessig on Charlie Rose

This is long but I promise its worth it. For a long time I've looked at all the problems and all the great things and saw that how they became great or how they will be solved were the same process. Great things are usually the creation of many people, though its usually the last guy who adds the last critical piece that gets the credit. Big problems are so complex that its beyond any one person to understand it all and come up with a solution. So people working together is very important ... duh :). The trick is how do you get people together in a deliberate organized way. Not just kind of random or with huge efforts like knocking on doors or buying expensive commercials. So this last week has gotten me really excited in that I see one way it could work and its simple and powerful. So here it is.

How do ideas happen ? Think of all the things that you think are great. Did you make them yourself from scratch ? Probably not. You heard them somewhere and mixed in your own ideas. And you think that the way you see them is better and more meaningful, at least to you. If you look at everyone doing this everywhere. Some one hears something, thinks about it, and shares it, there is a kind of idea evolution. Richard Dawkins calls it meme evolution. Its kind of a free-speech market-place-of-ideas kind of thought and its the basis of people getting together to socialize since the beginning of time.

Now for some science that will blow your mind. So there is the theory of evolution. Basically it states that there is variation in a population and some in that population are better suited to their environment and they have more offspring and increase in number in the next generation. This simple little process over a long long long time made all life everywhere. But there is an odd thing about that life. It was unaware of what it was doing. It acquired competence in dealing with the environment without cognition of what, why, how, or anything. Ants for example don't think. They just follow some simple rules that implement a near optimal search algorithm based on scent trails. So evolution produces competence without cognition.

So I promised some mind bending stuff so here it comes. Ideas that go between people evolve like life. They have variation. Some are better suited for their environment, i.e. people like them more, and they pass on to the next generation of ideas i.e. people talk about what they like. But, and here is where it gets good, this process has always been limited to the people around you, the dozen or so people you see in everyday conversations. But now there is the Internet. You could talk to the whole world if you could filter out all the crap and get what you like, the whole world. Let me say that again, the whole world, all 6,692,030,277 people as of 2008. Somewhere out there, there is one guy that is going to have an idea and he is going to share it and it will spread and change and adapt and change the world forever, for the better hopefully. And the people that work on that idea won't even realize how big it is, just like the ants who have competence but not cognition until its there, done, and someone steps back and sees the forest for the first time when all they have been looking at are trees.

So where is this happening ? Take a look at Twitter and Facebook. Not the "my-dog-just-farted I'm-going-to-sleep-now" conversations, but the moments when someone finds something really neat. Something special and they share it and someone else sees it and goes wow I see the world a little differently now. And the number of people sharing and learning and working on what they have discovered grows and grows and grows till people start talking about a fundamental shift in culture. A shift from mass produced ideas to grassroots ideas, from read culture to read-write culture.

This type of culture is different. New things don't come from a big R&D Lab and then sold to the masses each one exactly the same. They come from semi-professional amateurs laboring away at what they love, getting together, and sharing ideas, each unique, just for fun. Trying really audacious things that have a high risk of failure but huge returns. And they don't care if it fails. Its fun. Something a R&D Lab in a big company with established products would rarely try.

So get ready. Its is going to be a wild ride.

Here are all the sources that got me thinking:

Lawrence Lessig on the next big idea

Competance without Cognition
DARWIN AND THE EVOLUTION OF REASONS By Daniel C. Dennett on (no direct link)

The Origin of the Mountain Bike
TED talk "Charles Leadbeater on innovation"

Cloud Super Intelligence (Slides are hard to follow but possible to get the gist)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Planet Rubber Roller of the Washtub Galaxy

I took this pic on the front porch of Cracker Barrel while waiting for a table. Its a rubber roller on the edge of an old washtub.