Some readers of my blog on the Disease Model of Knowledge Transfer might have justifiably wondered if I had been typing after a few beers. Admittedly it was a joy to write, but the back-story is actually quite solid and very interesting. (to me at least).
The issue is one of how we can take models built for one purpose, and apply them productively for a completely unintended purpose – in fact a large proportion of technological and scientific breakthroughs occur in exactly this way. Taking a way of seeing things from one domain to an unrelated domain means that you might impose a degree of artificiality, but still derive benefit from the change in perspective and the new questions that might be productively raised.
Philosophy of Science (PoS as it is hilariously abbreviated) calls this an “Instrumental Theory” approach, and people like Ernst Mach (he of speed-of-sound fame) proposed that many if not all scientific facts and theories were actually just instruments of explanation and not real in any strict sense. Electrons, he held for example, were just a useful concept to further investigation, and not real little ball-like things.
In this way one can plot the “infection characteristics” of obesity even though nobody is saying it is “really” infectious, and Richard Dawkins could propose that one could look at ideas themselves as infectious replicators.
What Prof.Dawkins was trying to do was instill a better understanding in his students as to how evolution works at the gene level, and he emphasized that while genes are teleologically blind and not intentional in any way, variation and selection could nevertheless shape populations of people carrying the genes. To understand evolution one needs to look at the world from the perspective of genes under selective pressure in which there are not enough resources for all of them to be replicated. Successful replicants tend to slowly increase in proportion to those that aren’t simply because it is the victors whose code gets replicated.
To explain this Dawkins proposed a thought experiment in which ideas themselves are seen as a replicator.
Picture a world filled with ideas that aren’t entirely stable and can mutate or join together, and which can replicate from one host mind to the next – sometimes suffering copying errors on the way. There are more potential ideas than minds to run them, and those that don’t get run by a mind die out.
Like the DeLorian or Cuban Heels.
The idea of “memes” (as he named them) itself went viral, and soon it became evident that it was a highly productive way of looking at ideas. Whether or not memes or even temes* are “real” is not terribly important – but what is, is the ability it gives us to do useful things and ask productive questions. *See Prof. Susan Blackmore’s Meme/Teme TED talk online
It allows us to ask why some ideas transfer more readily between people, why some are more stable, why some last longer. It allows us to look at Intellectual Property, Job Aids, and Knowledgebase articles in a new way, and to try new ways of getting ideas to behave in ways that we would prefer.
For example, it asks why gossip and the “corporate grapevine” are so compelling and so fast, and begs us to consider how we could put this to use or gather information from it. In Nonaka’s “Ba” a coffee area or watercooler is a place where people will gather to exchange information – the question is how to increase the work content of that without tunring it sour and putting people off.
A second area that I find an interesting parallel, is in the work of a psychologist of human behavior by the name of Eric Berne. In his Transactional Analysis approach, he proposed that there were somewhat stable “games” that seem to be enacted by people – especially in interpersonal settings. By “games” he didn’t mean fun and party-novelty kind of behavior – he meant that the on inspection one could make out somewhat persistent “rules”, “players”, and “roles”. Important to note however that the dehumanizing form of Game Theory described by the earlier Nash is not what I have in mind at all – that path leads to a dreadfully dehumanizing approach to people and drives highly destructive behavior.
Putting the two together (part of my own research activities) one comes to a perspective in which games and ideas “fight” for space in people’s minds and to get expressed as behavior. Just like genes, some memes work well together and some are mutually exclusive. We even know why (to an extent) some ideas push others out.
For example, if you are thinking of money and especially personal reward, some very specific parts of your brain fire up and they suppress activity in some other parts – you can’t easily run the two sets of circuits at the same time. This is why economic norms suppress social norms and why somebody who was perfectly happy to donate time and effort to do something for a “good cause” might be put off if you pay them to do it. It is also why rewarding people with money is a risky approach and tends to lead to conflict and gaming of the system of rewards.
If you doubt this, try the suggestion of researcher Dan Ariely, and at your next Christmas meal offer your Mother In Law $50 for her trouble. Let me know how that works out for you.
Putting another layer on this, some ideas, like pathogens or genes, have evolved specialized penetration or adhesion mechanisms that are usually very specific to the host they will use – and this is where we can start asking how to make some information easier to use, or stick better, or be easier to locate.
For example, although digital watches and instruments were very hip, they were actually less usable – it takes more processing power to turn a digital readout into what your brain uses than analogue.
You can literally measure the time difference between how long it takes to say if a specific time is still a long way off or near when viewing either an analogue clock-face or a digital readout. For this reason many time-critical instruments in a cockpit are analogue.
This is also why it is important to decide if information is something we want somebody to remember, or if we will just present it to them at the appropriate time. Getting people to memorize product codes or server paths is not as effective as simply presenting them with the information when the time is ripe.
It is also important in GUI design and in how IT needs to be appropriate.
At a higher level, when everybody knows that the “real rules of working here” mean that you aren’t actually allowed to use the eLearning materials or the open-door policy, then they behave according to the game rules of the “real ground rules” not the ones in the employee handbook.
In a future blog I hope to go into some of the practical implications and uses, but for now, this is my story, and I am sticking to it.