The Swarming essay drew the interest and comments of many readers. Most of the retorts evoked deeply held fears of one’s individualism being threatened. Society has taught us that survival owes to our salary at our job, and that our job owes to our individual performance. Society has reinforced those notions with accolades of individual accomplishment: patents, promotions, and promises of favor. Culture needs and has always needed such rituals, and we shouldn’t minimize their contribution. It is, however, important to know that they work differently in different cultures, and that there is a much, much bigger picture.
If one looks beyond the cultural trappings of recognition, it has long been known that it is society, and not individuals, who invent. The anthropologist Kroeber, in his book Anthropology (1923, Harcourt, Brace and World), tells us that “as long as the matter [of the nature of genius] is viewed simply as one of persons, it remains rather meaningless.” Many people invent, but “[o]nly a fraction are ever found out, or allowed the rank by history.” He lists inventions discovered by multiple inventors thousands of miles apart within months of each other: the telephone, telescope, steamboat, phonograph, natural selection, and dozens more. How can an individual in good conscience claim ownership of a novel idea?
You can argue that even if this is true, that society demands recognition of accomplishment on the Pavlovian basis that people do what they are rewarded for. Rewards are important as cultural artefacts; but we know from Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do, from Daniel Pink’s book Drive: The Truth about What Motivates Us, and dozens of other sources, it’s all about the intrinsic sense of accomplishment than any extrinsic motivator.
Social and technological progress are less about individuals than about groups and swarms. In his recent book Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation (Riverhead, 2011), Steven Johnson tells us that “Analyzing innovation on the scale of individuals and organizations—as the standard textbooks do—distorts our view. It creates a picture of innovation that overstates the role of proprietary research and ‘survival of the fittest’ competition.” Johnson’s conclusion is that “openness and connectivity may, in the end, be more valuable to innovation than purely competitive mechanisms.” He offers case study after case study of how cross-fertilization of people and ideas led to good ideas.
In his book Finite and Infinite Games (Free Press, 1976) the theologian Carse describes the finite games that distinguish winners from losers: academic grades, promotion and, arguably, invention. He contrasts finite games with infinite games, whose goal is to continue playing the game. Intellectual process is obviously an infinite game. Over-attention to individual genius, and its rewards, reduces it to a finite game. Carse relates that playing an infinite game as though it were a finite game is the very definition of evil.
These are just five citations. They’re probably foreign to much of an engineering readership—a readership bent more on credit for inventing than acknowledging its place on the shoulders of the giants of history.
Of course, individuals matter, at least in so much as collective populations comprise individuals. At some level wars are fought and won by individuals. Yet one of the most highly celebrated soldiers in any war is the Unknown Soldier, whose tomb stands for the individual anonymity of the collective. From the long view of history, the inscriptions on the military cemetery crosses fade and blur into the big picture. The one universally remembered by name is the one with no name.