Cultural Neoteny

June 24, 2008

Neoteny is the biological retention of juvenile traits into the adult stage. Neoteny occurs in all sorts of animals. For example, some salamanders retain their juvenile gills into maturity. I think neoteny occurs in human culture as well. We have been unconsciously favoring immature behavior in adulthood.

Childhood is a recent invention. Before a certain point in history, children were depicted as miniature adults. Over the course of time, we’ve started to think of childhood as its own set of time, with its own set of needs. Childhood is manifold with activities that have become a larger percentage of the human lifespan.

The period of sexual reproduction is now in the latest period of a woman’s reproductive cycle. Accordingly, marriage has been pushed farther and farther. And it is now quite acceptable for people to forgo marriage. A person can go thirty or more years before having babies.

School has started to occupy more of a person’s life. Institutionalized education now takes sixteen years at least. And a few places of work require even more education.

The adult approval of gameplaying has extended even more with the advent of video games. Starting now, a whole generation will grow up that still expects to be playing games similar to the ones they played as children.

The period where work is expected of the young is also diminishing to foster the extension of school. It is such in Western Society, that children need special permission to work. This is something that only a century ago was totally unheard of.

Neoteny may also be an explanation for why we prevent children from swearing. The taboo on swearing operates as a differentiator between children and adults, and has little effective use beyond that.

So why keep ourselves child-like longer? There maybe something to the stories of geniuses who were brilliant in a field, but inept in their own daily personal maintenance. The absent minded professor is somewhat a child. The longer we keep people at child’s play, the greater the retention of childlike curiosity, fascination, desire to analyze and synthesize. We try to stay children to stay creative.

This allocation of resources to childishness makes sense, since adulthood is expensive. In adulthood we are dedicating the majority of time to raising children. Adults also deal with other things like finance and contracts, which children are prohibited.

So what are the consequences of an ever expanding neoteny? Neoteny will not be absolute because it prevents homeostatis. If neoteny became even more extreme than it is now, no babies would be born, and the management aspects of life would have to be handed over to machines or a managing class. That sort of system is unsustainable because even mild unchecked authority leads to tyranny that would destroy the benefit of the system. Even though that might sound sciencefictionally dystopian, I still worry that neoteny is a force in our complicity over the current resurgence of tyranny. A compromise might be to enter into fluctuating adulthood. Two years working (adulting), then four years playing (childing), and so on.

Neoteny is a difficult force to deal with. We seem to be embarking on this path quite unconsciously. I feel that it’s persistent presence in the mind is necessary to the proper crafting of human institution. Vigilance is paramount in walking the line between neoteny’s threat and benefit.


I never had heroes when I was a kid. I was proud of it. It frustrated the teachers tremendously when I refused to name heroes. After much pressuring, I would give in and say my default, that my parents were my heroes. Now I have many heroes, but developing them was a long and difficult path.

Part of my resistance to heroes was my view of history as partially flawed. The details and errors of man are often washed away by sychophantic historians. I’ve had a few history teachers who you could see the sex oozing in their description of long dead historical figures. (Never the less, I think that History is one of the most important subjects to learn, and it is one of my personal favorites.)

The other part of my hero-resistance was from reading the novel Dune when I was in third grade. Dune is in part a parable against saviors. This book always cautioned me against subduing my own talents and judgments in service to a leader.

These two viewpoints caused me to live for the longest time without heroes. Eventually, I realized my apprehension was unfounded. And I can benefit from admiring heroes by using them as models for ideal behavior. Seeing this, I have developed a pantheon of historical figures who I have chosen as important to me, and representative of my personality. I now have a collection of portraits above my desk of these heroes.

The first is Nikola Tesla, one of the fathers of the modern electrical world. Genius is the fortune of aligning knowledge and passion. Tesla was a perfect alignment. I have the pleasure of owning a book of his patents, and whenever I wish to be humbled, I go and look at the quantity and quality of his body of work. He was not without flaw however, and he had a terrible business sense that left him in destitution at the end of his life. I want my passion and knowledge to be so synchronous.

The second is Charles Lindbergh. He was the Neil Armstrong of his time. So famous that they named dances after him. I want to be famous like Lindy.

The third is Alexander Graham Bell. My admiration for him is not actually for his invention of the telephone, but for his work on the problem of flight. He was a contemporary of the Wright brothers, and he took a different development path to making airplanes. He ended up building huge tetrahedral kites to experiment with the dynamics of lift and control. You can see some pictures of these gigantic kites here. I love his affinity for experimentation.

The fourth is Amelia Earhart. Like Lindbergh, she was a daring pioneer of the most cutting edge transportation of the time. She pushed the envelope and was famous the world over. That, and she defied the sexism of the time. I would like that bravery.

The fifth is Peter Drucker. Drucker invented modern management theory. Many people still try and run companies like they’re factories or farms, with autocratic styles and rigid structures. Drucker pointed out we are now in the age of the Knowledge Worker. Making our transition from knowledge, not resources being wealth, is so mind-blowingly huge, we haven’t figured it out yet. I would like to be able to describe our world as eloquently as he does.

The sixth is Buckminster Fuller. Bucky taught me how to think again. There was a time when I was severely depressed, and one effect of that depression was a curtailing of my mental capacity. I could only recall events from a week ago, and any challenging thinking eluded me. At some point, after my recovery, I began reading Synergetics, which was a geometric system that he developed over the course of his career. It is extremely thick, but I finally understood it. As a result, I can visualize complex geometry in my head, and it effects all of my thinking. Fuller, was the first of my recovered heroes. He was so optimistic for the world, he could see our potential and did what he could do to foster it. I would like to do the same.

The Ultimate Corporation

April 29, 2008

The Ultimate Corporation is one that reinforces my excitement and happiness. I want to wake up in the morning turned on. No snooze button or other foot-dragging. What are the characteristics of a corporation that is not simply good, but great to work at?

Characteristic 1 (Foster community, avoid faction and alienation):

This is achieved through limited population. Many companies confuse growth with development. This results in bloat that eventually murders a company. I’ve thought over different optimal maximums for limiting growth which I’ve written about here and here. I think the number is somewhere below 150. And my current attitude is to let employees decide where that number lies under that maximum. Growth beyond this number necessitates a new business division to be physically isolated and separately run from the original seed company.

Characteristic 2 (Structure for creativity):

Have 20/80 splits of time on the hourly, weekly, and yearly scales. This means 20% of a person’s time every day is allotted to their own initiative. One day of their work week is exclusively for their own projects. Two months out of the year, they leave and are payed double their salary. Half of that goes to them, and the other is invested in a company idea of their choice. Those two months aren’t enough time to start a company, but they are enough to get the ball rolling, and to see if the project fails or succeeds. If it fails, they return. If it succeeds, we either spin them off into a new company or if it makes sense, absorb the project into the main body.

Characteristic 3 (Create trust through transparency):

Everyone’s wages are transparent to everyone else in the company. If someone isn’t pulling their weight and getting payed a lot, then it becomes obvious they should decrease their pay, or be fired. If the CEO is getting payed one thousand times what the janitor earns, then it is obvious that something is wrong (Or maybe the CEO is generating a billion dollars in revenue single-handedly, and is justified, however unlikely, in such pay).

Characteristic 4 (Acknowledge dynamic rhythms)

Let people get to work when they want and leave when they want, as constrained by the necessity of synchronous times for socialization and laboring. Employees decide this for themselves. Moderated by an appreciation for safety, this incentivizes speedy work, thus reducing costs.

Characteristic 5 (Profit is health, so make sure everyone knows it)

Employees get 33% of the profit the company makes. It’s harder to hire someone useless if you can see them eating your bonus.

Characteristic 6 (People work best under leaders they choose)

Employees elect their own bosses. Either from peers, or from outside the company. If the boss isn’t doing a good job, the employees oust him.

This article was inspired by many companies, including Gore Associates, Semco, Google, and HP.

On a tangential note, I recently read the HP Way, and though the book’s forward has the occasional vacuous corporate speak, the rest of the book is quite good. I did not know that HP essentially started off boot-strapping, rather they started off with a general idea of how they wanted the corporation to be. What their values were. Of course they knew they would be heading in the electronics direction since they had both been students of radio technology, but it’s not like they had a specific product in mind. That approach, more than anything, is what inspired this post. After all, as a self-interested party, it is about what a company does for me, and a product is only part of that.

I go to an event called Super Happy Dev House. It’s an event for hackers to share their technical interests in a free-form semi-party environment. So you basically get a lot of people interchanging between conversation and typing on laptops.

A friend recently pondered about how to form a system to gather all of the secondary/summary data about attendees to facilitate intellectual pollination. As it is, the current SHDH is haphazard (though extremely fun). There is a wiki page where some attendees put their project interests. Sometimes there aren’t name tags.

My ideal hacker party system is one where acquiring information about people and preparation for introduction is implemented by a communication and location support system. When an attendee arrives, they get a name tag, positioning system, and walkie-talkie. Let’s say they are interested in hacking robots and they currently program in Python. They write this down in the system through a webpage. Or they temporarily bind a notification service such as Twitter or Facebook Alerts to their locater. No matter what publishing channel they use, they now have a way of entering asynchronous information into the system.

The other guests can go to a webpage that shows where everyone in the house is. When they click on a person’s icon, they see everything the user has published while at the party. There will also be a feed of notices created in the last fifteen minutes, so you could for instance see all the things people have been talking about or want to talk about.

Here is my ideal use case. I come to SHDH wanting to talk about robots. I input this into the system. Someone sees this and quickly gravitates to me to show me their robot. They talk to me about what programming languages I know. I put on my position feed that I know Ruby and C# fairly well. A friend contacts me on my walkie-talkie to ask me if they would join a Ruby conversation they are having. This behavior goes on throughout the night.

The potential for such a system and the new types of behavior it could foster would be amazing. It’s like being part of a group mind. Not to mention there would be a group memory, as the logs of the party would be saved. They could later be scraped for data to characterize each event. And all this knowledge would shape the next event. It would be glorious. A party that became an organism.

At this Ad Hoc City site, I enter in: who I want to live by and how far from work I want to be. My friends and coworkers enter this in too.  The website spits out a place where we can all live by each other and where we can position our offices. It’s an ad hoc, made-for-community city.

Initially I wrote a huge defense of this idea of ad hoc community organization. I imagined how one would work it into the current world. But I don’t want to work it into the real world. It’s just too damn hard.

I just want this image: I type in my info, everyone else types theirs, we all move to the same place together and we experience no problems in finding work or leaving houses and what-not behind.

As I meet new people and some relationships fade, my geographic position moves. It gets cold where we are, we winter in some other location. Great geographic fluidity earned not by transportation speed, but by social flexibility.

Centralization is Valuable

January 2, 2008

The web is a decentralized mechanism for creating and accessing consumable information. However, centralization is very valuable to people and that’s how we’ve gotten a lot of institutional brands.

Here are some examples of companies and the resources they have successfully centralized.

  • Google: Advertising Space
  • Wikipedia: Summary Knowledge
  • Slashdot: Software Nerd Culture News
  • Digg: General Newness
  • Delicious: Bookmarks
  • Blogs: Journals/Columns
  • Youtube: Videos
  • Flickr: Photos

Like steel, oil, rail, radio, television, electricity, mining, and any other resource, there are efficiencies and profit to be had from consolidation of a resource. This is received with relish and disdain by different parties. Industry consolidation often means the death of out of the box thinking. People fail to recognize that such changes set the backdrop for new revolutions. What should be hoped for is a healthy cycling between centralization and decentralization.

What are other examples of centralized business/resource pairs on the web?

For each age of development there is a corresponding question and answer. The synergy between asking the question and desiring the answer, drives the development on both sides of the pair.

  1. What do computers mean to numbers? Math calculators.
  2. What do computers mean to businesses? Financial calculators.
  3. What do computers mean to individuals? Desktop publishing.
  4. What do computers mean to other computers? Internet.
  5. What do computers mean to society? Social networks.

What is the question that will precede the age of social networks? In these steps we see the originally large computer scale down, as the quantity of computers increase. As the scale of computers approaches the nano-level we will see the ubiquity of computers accelerate. Imagine being networked to computers in your liver. Would it be harder to drink a lot? Would you just close the liver control panel? If you could see your heart rate graphed next to your respiration rate, would you get tense in the same way?

And what if people leave their bodies’ networks open for others to view? You could see a member of the opposite sex blush in a totally new way.

And what about the rest of our environment? You could see that your plants are drying up and your car will tell you the amount of pollution as you drive. We may become environmentalists by going beyond the networking ability of our born-with sensory mechanisms. Maybe the next question is, “What do computers mean to everything?”