When was the last time you encountered a person changing their opinion about something important, in front of you? Not an opinion on something mundane but on a long-withstanding worldview.
Rarely do we experience such events in our everyday life for the sole reason that changes in worldviews don’t happen so fast, and as easily. On a micro level, we seem to have chosen a fixed set of beliefs or made-up, on-the-spot opinions, and all we do is defend them. On a macro level we seem static and unchanged by nature, hostages of our upbringing. Of course, this is something that only happens to other people since we are the one-of-a-kind exception to the rule.
This rigidity though comes in contrast with all the change we see in the world. A change that we can’t pinpoint exactly but feel as a trend in the ether and can only realize in hindsight if things have turned out good or bad. Like you can’t tell how many drops of water are needed to make something soaking wet, but you can tell for sure when it has happened.
With minds being static and unchanged, how come new ideas get adopted after all? How ideas are actually embraced and why does it happen in stealth mode only for the momentum to kick in later?
I think there are two reasons for this. The first is Metcalfe’s law in action and the second is the zero marginal cost of reproduction, both applied in the context of idea adoption(Ok, what the hell are you talking about here?).
In order to have a change in the culture, we need critical mass. And in order to reach that critical mass, we need the adoption of certain ideas, which might take the form of a movement or spread out to the public as common knowledge.
(The idea of private property lead to capitalism — a movement — whereas the notion that time is our most valuable asset is something everyone universally agrees on — common knowledge)
Ideas are usually born out of criticism toward other ideas that have manifested themselves in the real world meaning they are born from confrontation and realized against something else, more prevailing at the time. For example, socialism was born as a critique of liberalism and how it influenced the workings of society. Fossil fuel advocates got vocal due to the insufficiency of so-called green policies and the energy crisis we see in the world today.
Safety lies in narratives
As stated beautifully in Gurwinder Bhogal’s essay, The Opinion Pageant, with the rise of the digital world, the primary way we value others is based on their opinions and not based on their deeds or character because that is all we see online. This forces us to think that we are obliged to have an opinion about everything. The problem is that we don’t have the time or inclination to do the thinking and research ourselves. And because of this pressing reality, we find safety in narratives propelled by influencers that offer us easy-to-digest worldviews.
Following a narrative is inevitable. Either you hop on the one that is emerging, or stick with the one that is dominating. Following none is difficult since the opinion market will have the tendency to flush you out by making you seem opinionless or passive. Nobody wants to be called that.
We often think that opinions are formed with facts in the same way we put together a puzzle game. Where by collecting each piece, one by one, we form a more accurate map of understanding leading to a well-rounded and informed opinion. But opinions are rather fluid. They resemble more with a liquid that will take the form of its container. The container with its infinitely complex shape and high malleability will dictate how the water — opinions — will look like.
That is why you can’t tell for sure when or how, at which exact point in time, and in what particular way, your view about something important changed(saying ‘you know what, I changed my mind on this one’). Many confuse this with the moment of realization but no, they are not one and the same. When something clicked in your head as obvious, fitting nicely to your framework of thinking, extending your current understanding, your underline container was altered long before, little by little. You just so happen to observe it now. The alteration is happening slowly(too slow to notice) by the narratives we condition ourselves with. Like a ceramist that creates an elegant pot, slowly giving it form out of raw clay all with the stability of their hands. A consistently repeating narrative will convince you of anything just like a steady hand will produce something in the end even if it is unusable or ugly.
The way this happens can almost be modeled. If we view an idea and the people that adopt it, as similar to a network with nodes(network being the idea and nodes the users), we see Metcalfe’s law fitting quite nicely into the equation.
Although Robert Metcalfe, one of the co-inventors of Ethernet, was talking about computer networking technologies, we can see some commonalities with the mechanism that makes people propelled to adopt certain ideas.
Metcalfe’s law states that:
The value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users. As the physical cost of the network grows linearly, its value grows exponentially.
(Or simply put, if you have a network of two nodes and each node is valued at 10$, the value of the whole network is 10$ x 10$ = 100$ because they can only communicate back and forth. If a third node is introduced the value is going to be 10$ x 10$ x 10$ = 1000$ since the number of possible communication streams has increased)
Initially, an idea network consists of only a handful(or just one) of idea creators, be it a scientist or a philosopher, or an inventor. They might work in obscurity, possibly ignored for years, but stubborn enough to persist on their idea. But the issue is that they can’t do much on their own, no matter how brilliant their idea is. Their network is not valued much to elevate it.
An idea with many members makes it more valuable from the outside thus more people are drawn to it. Once people see others around them becoming users of that idea, they are more likely to adopt it too.
We see the value in the connections because we have the intuitive sense that many minds imply many filters(at least we would hope so).
The image above gives us a nice visualization of Metcalfe’s law. In the first version of the network, we see as many connections as there are nodes(users). The idea creators are talking with each other without much action. And as the network grows the connections explode(imagine this with 100, 1.000, or 1.000.000! nodes).
An example of a strong network effect is the English language. By now the English language is spoken the most while a large part of books and Internet content is written in English as well. If you want to pick up a new language to learn and it’s not your native one, you are incentivized to learn English. You are just gonna lose so much from the culture if you don’t. Imagine speaking Urdu or Japanese. Both have a sizable enough speaking population, but a smaller subset still compared to English, so the latter wins.
Idea adoption follows a similar dynamic where you are incentivized to believe what the masses believe, making you feel that you will lose something by not participating. Also, your opinions will feel safer and well-tested since you assume other people had thought through their own positions before adopting them full-heartedly. The perfect game of passing the hot potato to others or worse, thinking the hot potato will never come your way.
Zero marginal cost of reproduction
Then comes the marginal cost of reproduction. This is a known concept in microeconomics where it calculates the added cost for each new unit of a product that is produced. Marginal cost can increase, meaning it costs more to produce something compared to the previous unit, whereas a diminishing marginal cost means it’s getting cheaper. The first iPhone for example was a lot more expensive to build, only for it to become cheaper to produce in mass after efficient processes were established, resulting in a diminishing marginal cost.
(Hypothetical example of a diminishing marginal cost. With the increase in quantity, each unit costs less to produce resulting in lower additional total cost)
The real magic happens when you get zero marginal cost which means duplication is free. This is what enables scale economies to emerge where once this state is reached things are pretty much unstoppable. Like a truck going downhill. If you make a YouTube video or write a blog post, the initial cost was your effort to produce the content and the gear you used, like a laptop or a microphone. Your creation now lives on the Internet and it costs you nothing to share and for people to see it and share it themselves. And although scale economies and zero cost of duplication happen predominantly in software and media, what else can ideas be other than the ultimate software and our brain, with all of its quirks, the hardware of use?
When an idea is in its infancy only a few people adopt it. The cost to get involved is too high because your reputation is on the line. Being one of the first adopters of an idea will make you a clear target of attack if it’s a controversial one, or it will simply make you look weird in front of your friends if it is of lesser importance.
This high cost is mitigated with each additional person joining the group. It is a win-win situation since new entries are being recruited at a faster pace and the network gains value and further refines its recruiting methods. It is now easier to come up to date because resources to draw knowledge are abundant. It will cost you less to join.
In the movie Dead Poet Society, towards the end when Robin Williams was about to leave the classroom for good, there was a student that stood on top of his desk quoting “oh captain my captain”. He stood there alone while the angry teacher yelled at him to come down and act obediently. Then another student did the same and many follow after that with nearly all the class now standing on top of their desks. I hate to be so blunt and kill the sentiment here, but when I saw this I was like ‘yup, diminishing marginal cost of reproduction, right there’. Because for each student deciding to stand on their desk, the easier it was for the next student to do it, costing less and less in terms of punishment, diminishing the consequences.
Another example is energy. For decades now there is a demonization of nuclear energy in order to push wind and solar as viable alternatives. These alternatives though are not the magic pill many advocates preach(see here and here) so some scientists, environmentalists, and energy experts started revolting against this narrative. People like Michael Shellenberger, Bjorn Lomborg, Alex Epstein talked against such narratives for years making them a clear target to attack. They are often accused of being climate change deniers or simply ignorant about the facts. If you actually read them you realize nothing of that is true. Because they act like thought leaders in the space where they rise awareness, opponents want to minimize their influence. They do so with the usual recipe. Trying to destroy their reputation by accusing them of doing junk science, not looking at the facts, and by being paid by big-pocket corporations. Of course, you don’t have to agree with what they are saying but portraying them as evil and spreading lies doesn’t help either.
These contra-narrative figures have created a critical mass large enough that it is easier for someone to be skeptical of what they hear in the evening news.
Ideas as viruses
Till now we sort of understood how ideas spread but are there any other ways to think of this?
Richard Dawkins’s memeplex is a quite convincing model of how ideas spread. It acts more like a mental model rather than robust science though. At some point, there was an effort to turn it into a legit field of study known as Memetics but it soon lost traction only for it to be replaced with other theories.
A meme(memeplex being a collection of memes) is an idea that replicates itself, and in each replication, it improves upon itself. And by improving I mean it tries to become more contagious and not necessarily more true. Besides being created in a person’s head, it can also use the person to transmit itself and “infect” other people, just like a virus would. While they are being formed in a person’s head, they are not transmissible by default. They go through a phase of selection, just like in evolution.
It goes through roughly four stages. First, it is created in a person’s mind. Secondly, if we decide an idea is good enough to act on it, we do so, but there is no one to notice the behavior or the manifestation of that idea. Thirdly, we do act on it and someone is there to notice, but nobody likes it. So you reconsider and conclude that it is a bad idea. And fourthly it is being noticed and liked so it gradually gets adopted by people. After a meme has been transmitted to enough people it can alter the culture given enough time.
(For more on this read chapter 15 “The Evolution of Culture” in the book The Beginning of Infinity)
An example, trivial for the culture but possibly psychologically life-saving if you are having a bad day, is leaving your phone number on your car’s windshield if you have double parked. Someone somewhere did it for the first time. Someone was there to observe it or hear about it and thought it was a good idea, so the whole thing took off.
You don’t need to make a revolution and change society in a heartbeat but just having people carry an idea is enough. They don’t have to form movements that disrupt society, they just need to hold them and spread them.
We see this in steroids with memes on the Internet. They go viral pretty much instantaneously since they are easy to reproduce. But ideas in the real world need more time since the mechanism of transmission is slower. On the Internet, you visit Twitter and memes are everywhere right there with the retweet action but in the real world, everything moves slower.
Ideas spread because they are contagious, and not necessarily because they are true. — Gurwinder Bhogal
Lowering the barrier to entry
Ideas go mainstream when they are easy to reproduce and are highly contagious. This lowers the bare minimum threshold required which indicates a bare minimum proof of effort. A filter that assures individuals worked out the idea in their heads before embracing it.
Whenever you have a low barrier to entry the quality gets compromised. If it’s easy for people to get on board, it will attract anyone. It’s like a dance of limbo but in reverse.
Initially, the first few thought leaders make the actual work, developing the idea and refining it enough to the level it becomes “sticky”. Then once a set of ideas are packaged up as a theory, people start pouring in since there is always a demand for new ideas. A worldview that explains the culture around you is provided so it is now easy to have an opinion and post it online. Most of the time though this creates people with wooden tongues that are being ventriloquized, uttering pre-made arguments when it comes to defending their beliefs.
This results in authenticity inflation where each person’s opinion and thought is valued less and less(but the network as a whole is gaining value) since it becomes less original. Usually, every new person that is introduced to the network tends to repeat the words of the movement’s leading figures, holding them as holy text so updates to the movement’s worldview rarely take place, if at all. But this is the nature of mass adoption. You need many minds holding ideas and spreading them around but only need a few to construct them. Like you need lots of soldiers but only a few generals on a battlefield.
But what else can you do other than lower the barrier to entry so people can get in? Seems like an infinite loop. If you don’t do this the idea you are so vested in won’t survive so you prefer for an idea to have reach even to the expense of its dilution. You sacrifice purity to get that reach.
I was watching this documentary called How to Change your Mind which talked about the history of psychedelics and their many use cases. At some point, it showed how mushrooms went mainstream in the West. In only a short period of time and with a few hit pieces (LIFE magazine from R. Gordon Wasson), it went from indigenous people from Mexico making modest ceremonies and passing a more than a thousand-year tradition to the next generation, all the way to a massive influx of “hippy tourists” that as reported by locals, “didn’t respect the plant”. Even the grandmother of psychedelics María Sabina who introduced the plant to Wasson, regretted doing so after having a hard time coping with the backlash from locals and feeling responsible for the whole situation. Before all this, finding the people doing these ceremonies was hard. After the coverage, the barrier to entry was pretty much nonexistent, to the cost of a plane ticket.
The web of ideas seems like a vicious cycle that never ends, like the snake that eats its tail in perpetuity while growing at the same time. We need minds to adopt ideas and a critical mass to carry them and alter the culture. But we also get the dilution of ideas and probably their demise, when the barrier to entry is lowered too much. It is an infinite loop only for the circle to spin one more time. An almost impossible thing to juggle, a balance that can’t be reached. Of course, only a handful of ideas do end up altering the culture after all, but that is for another day.
Thanks to Thanos Dimitriou for reading drafts of this.