Learn and latch

On the plane ride to my parent’s place, I read the book Flock and Flow: Predicting and Managing Change in a Dynamic Marketplace, by Grant McCracken. I’ve been reading McCracken’s blog, titled This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology and Economics for a while and really enjoy his commentary on the process of ethnology and on the different layers present in the media around us. Sadly, the book itself wasn’t that great – the flows are basically the flows of ideas around us, and his flocks are basically the same idea as Geoffrey Moore’s adoption curve, where the enthusiasts and the early adopters try new technologies, creating a comfort level that paves the way for the majority of customers.

What’s interesting to me is that this same adoption mechanism has cropped up in a variety of different settings and used for different purposes. Here are a few from my own reading:

  • Robert Pirsig makes the distinction between Static and Dynamic quality in his book Lila, where Dynamic Quality is what is always pushing ahead into the new, and Static Quality takes what works and latches it into a permanent form.
  • In class, we talked about the S-curve of technology, which is related to Moore’s adoption curve. The same idea applies, where technology moves from being a novelty to being a market differentiator to being a commodity that everybody has.
  • Howard Bloom uses similar concepts to explain the global brain, and how biological entities learn.
  • On Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins, posits a similar theory for how the brain learns. It’s a pattern recognition machine that doesn’t record new patterns until they have been used several times, indicating that they are successful patterns.
  • Evolution works because there is continuous genetic drift, as the genome tries new things, and useful mutations get reinforced by natural selection, and latched into the genome.

I’ve been futzing around with this idea for a couple days now and I can’t quite get the unified theory here, but you can see the general idea. For continued successful adaptation of an entity, whether it’s a person, a genome, a corporation or a society, you need elements that are going and trying new things all the time, but you also need elements that are preserving the successful changes so that they don’t need to re-tried by the next generation. Learn and latch.

What’s apparent from my own experience is that you need a balance between the two phases for things to work. A person that never tries anything new, that follows the same routine every day, is probably very comfortable, because they have found a routine that works for them and they have latched it so that nothing else can interfere with that routine. But they may also be trapped on a local maximum, and not even realize that their life could be much better if they made a few changes. And they are susceptible to disaster if their environment changes unexpectedly. On the other hand, a person that is always trying new things, and is never satisfied with what they have, is probably going to live an exhausting life as they keep on getting into the same scrapes over and over again in different forms.

Obviously, those are extreme cases for the sake of example, but the organizational equivalents are evident, and I’ve seen both. I’ve worked at a company which had a process and procedure for everything, where you always had to fill out forms to do anything, and where it was more important to follow the process than it was to be successful. In a world of continuing innovation, that company is struggling. I’ve also worked at startups where we made the same mistakes over and over again, where we refused to learn from the experience of others, and that was just as frustrating.

The ideal organization (or person or entity of any sort) has parts of their existence which are devoted to trying new experiences and new ways of doing things without worrying about how those new experiences will integrate with what they have. Then if some of the new experiences seem useful, they adopt those experiences and build them into their processes. Now that I think about it, this describes Bruno Latour’s idea of the Collective, where new elements ask for admittance to the Collective via spokespersons, and then the Collective has to decide whether to accept the new elements and reconfigure itself so as to integrate those new elements. Man, it really is all the same idea.

As I illustrated above, this adoption mechanism is everywhere once I started thinking about it (my professor, Art Langer, calls the same concept Responsive Organizational Dynamism) (if you want to go old school philosophy, what little I know of Hegel suggests that Thesis/Antithesis/Synthesis covers the same ground too). And by applying the ideas from one manifestation to others, there are some general principles that we can extract. One is that the situation is always changing, so you can’t stay static – an unchanging process, no matter how great it is, can not continue to remain successful in a dynamic world. Another is that there must be a way for you to adopt new things; for instance, McCracken discusses the various ways that the fashion, movie, music and restaurant industries handle adopting new ideas. And the last is that there must be a way to know what has been tried before and whether it worked or not; encoding or latching previous experiments keeps us from having to repeat them.

It makes me wonder if humans grew to dominate the planet because our communication skills allowed us to reduce the learn and latch cycle time from generations down to days (I think I read that idea someplace, but I can’t remember where now). I also think learn-and-latch provides a good general pattern to start working from. In my personal life, I need to think about how I try new opportunities and whether I can figure out how to integrate what I learn into my ongoing habits. In a company, it may be useful to review how the company incorporates new ideas into its culture, and what mechanisms it has in place to reinforce that process. Obviously, the details have to be tailored to each individual situation, but the general pattern is a strong one.

P.S. That last bit gets me thinking about the process of identifying general patterns and learning how to tailor them to one’s individual situation. Way too many people seem to follow specifics without understanding the gestalt that lies behind them. I tend to spend way too much time thinking about the underlying gestalt and not enough time figuring out how to extract practical applications. Hrm. Maybe this could be the project I suggested I needed in my last post.

9 thoughts on “Learn and latch

  1. Following on your comment about Hawkins’ theory in On Intelligence, it seems like what I think you call “adoptions” based on patterns would have different results depending on how the pattern–and associated patterns–are established. I had a recent blog wondering about the “shape” of these memories and how they might affect thinking. It’s copied below to avoid anyone clicking away from your site. Also, comments on books are a theme for me also. If you liked On Intelligence and are interested in a few other suggestions, click over to Doxspot.blogspot.com

    Tuesday, January 09, 2007
    On Intelligence II: Does Hierarchy Shape Matter?

    In my first entry on Jeff Hawkins’ On Intelligence, I said it became a filter for an unbelievable number of the things I notice and wonder about…and yet I haven’t added new entries about it. Truth is, it’s mostly because I fear it may seem so bizarre to use a single set of ideas as a filter for so many things, that you’ll find my selection of blog topics even more oddly random than you already do. But it’s time. To kick it off, I’ll briefly mention step 1: The Hawkins Memory-Prediction model of the brain focuses on hierarchy. Ignoring the details, parts of your brain get information (typically from the senses) and if it matches what they expect, they do nothing. If it doesn’t, they pass the information up the hierarchy. It’s sort of like an entry-level worker escalating a new problem to his or her boss. And like the CEO (which, in a sense, you are), you don’t have time or mental cycles to stay on top of what’s happening at the low levels in the hierarchy, so you generally keep track of what’s being passed up the chain. You could say, “Your brain–and therefore, you–only notice something if it differs from expectation.” Simple, elegant, and able to explain many of our perceptions.

    OK, step 2. The more accurate the predictions are at the lower levels of the hierarchy, the less they have to pass upward. How do the predictions get more accurate? By experiencing information more often, predicting something, and checking results. Practice makes perfect. They get “smarter.” Suffice to say this works identically for observing something–as in knowing immediately whether a dirty, brown rock is a clump of dirt, a piece of quartz, or a diamond OR for doing something–like playing a sonata on a violin or designing a brilliant ad for a new soft drink (is there such a thing?).

    Step 3. If a talented person spends 18 hours a day playing the violin, the violin-connected parts of their brain will be very smart. The lower levels of the hierarchy won’t need to escalate messages often. When this happens, the theory claims, the upper levels of the hierarchy don’t just take a vacation. Instead, they think higher thoughts. They look for connections between the things the lower levels are doing. It’s like a lucky manager leading such a great team that she gets to spend time focusing on long-term strategy, integration between functions, or new ways to think about everyday tasks. The hierarchy of the dedicated violinist becomes very “deep.” It has many levels because what is complicated and “escalated” one day becomes rote and simple the next. Of course, our master violinist will probably be a lousy diamond finder.

    Now things get interesting (at least for me ;-). Imagine another person who is a dilettante. He dabbles in a thousand things, paying attention in the moment, but gaining no expertise. The theory would say his brain is constantly passing messages upward. Little is rote. The lower levels have mastered little, so escalation is the norm. You could say this person’s brain hierarchy is extremely flat. Poor guy, right? But along the way, he is certainly creating connections and, if the theory is right, his dabbling brain is still making constant predictions. And he’s really fun at parties. And since the brain doesn’t “know” when it’s playing the violin and when it’s looking at dirty rocks, it seems clear that experiences in one field will start to inform predictions in others. I’m not speculating that if you look at enough rocks you’ll be able to play the violin. But if your brain only has random data, it’s going to use it the best way it can.

    So here’s my quandary: Of these two people, who would you trust to build your kid a treehouse? Or set up your Tivo? Or make you dinner? Or join your bowling team?

    If you had them both on your team doing something neither had done before, would you assign them to different types of tasks?

    Too ridiculous a question? Ok, then how about just this: What would you encourage for your child? What do you wish was encouraged for you when you were young? (Assuming this sort of thing can be encouraged at all.)

    Will a flat hierarchy drive more diverse connections and relationships? Will a deep hierarchy–more practiced in “thinking about thinking”–provide more abstract, in-depth considerations in other fields?

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