Sander van der Leeuw — The Archaeology of Innovation

Sander van der Leeuw at the Long Now on using archeology to trace the history of innovation.

I took more pages of notes on this talk than any previous. Even Stewart Brand was a bit in awe.

vdLeeuw likes to invert things. Examples: he does his digs from the bottom up. When asked why ancience kept records for so long, he asks why we throw records out so soon. He sees writing not as a way to increase communication, but rather as a way to communicate which allows one to not say what one does not want to say (by filtering out all the non-verbal cues).

Question: What is the change of change? What explains the hockey stick graph of human innovation?

Look at the limits of short term working memory. For chimps, it is 2 +/- 1 (evidence: only 75% can learn how to crack nuts using a rock and anvil). They reach this limit at age 2.

Modern humans are limited to 7 +/- 2. At age 5, the limit is 3, and it is maxed at age 14.

It took 1.5 million years to go from chimp-level to 7pm2, and has not moved from there in the 150K yrs since. Partly because biology is no longer a constraint, and the combinatorial explosion of possibilities when one can work w 7 objects.

Every society is an information society. Innovation is no longer biological but social.

One can observe the evolution in complexity in the archeological record. We start with stone tools, where we chip off flakes to form the tool. Next step: the chips are the tool, and the core is discarded. Then comes shaping objects: baskets, pottery. We develop agriculture, writing, then laws and administration, then empire.

This progression is summarized more eloquently here

… STWM increasing in step with mastery over 2D and 3D concepts (e.g., blade lines and spear heads) and eventually composition and staged manufactoring, i.e., the 4th dimension of time. … we arrived at our current biological evolutionary state around 10,000 years ago…

Innovation cycles can [now] be understood in the context of villages forming cities, and clusters of cities forming empires. … Cities require energy and in turn support innovation; Innovation allows growth, which increases energy demand…. Yet innovation leads to a cascade of new challenges …

The major innovations thus far have been our mastery over spatial and temporal dimensions (tools, writing, agriculture, etc) and our mastery of energy (Industrial Revolution). We are now in the beginning of an Information Revolution, which must provide new solutions to the problems generated by past innovations

— Alexander Pico @xanderpico

vdLeeuw now switches tack and talks about how civilizations fall. In hunter-gatherer society humans exerted no control over their environment. Risk was ever present, BUT known, understood, and non-cumulative. Some choose teutonically active regions as this actually preserved stability– the frequent disruptions prevented long-term changes as the system was frequently reset.

From the neolithic revolution (farming, 10K BC), we exert more control over the environment. This reduces the immediate risks but creates new long-term risks which are not known or even knowable until it is too late.

quotable: reducing frequent risks increases the probability of infrequent risk (by making non-cumulative events cumulative in effect ?)

To quore SB’s summary:

Around 1800, in Europe, energy constraints were finally conquered by the harvesting of fossil fuels. Humans only need 100 watts to survive, but every human now commands 10,000 watts. With that leverage we built a global civilization. The innovative power of urbanity has multiplied yet further with the coming of the Internet.

But we have become “disturbance dependent.” As our cities and density of communications grow, they create ever more difficult problems, for which we have to innovate ever more sophisticated solutions. Technology is “the biggest Ponzi scheme of all.”

As we become ever more adept at solving short-term problems, we shift the risk to long-term problems—such as climate change—which do not match the skills we have developed and know how to reward. We are headed into a trap of our own devising. To get out of it, if we can, will require a “battle with ourselves” to wholly redefine our social structures and institutions to master the long term

Thoughts inspired by the talk. He wonders what drove us from mobile bands to fixed settlement. My thought– WOMEN. They want to stay put.

More important, an analogy to my recent thoughts on the causes of speciation.
I want to model things in terms of cycles, but perhaps it isn’t a cycle, but exponential distributions with low variance?? The same process that drives speciation should also drive evolution of human culture. Can we create cultural phylogenies (allowing, of course, for HGT).


Posted on June 1, 2012, in evolution, Social Organisms and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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