How memes, stories, people, systems, goods and services mix and interact to create an expanding economic web that is ceaselessly creative and radically unpredictable.
In this episode you’ll learn:
- What is the adjacent possible.
- What is a meme.
- Why we need both stories and memes to survive.
- How inferior ideas and technology can trump superior technology and ideas.
- How complementary and substitute goods and services lead to new economic niches.
- Two way to invest in a radically unpredictable world.
- Why all investors are active even if they own mostly index funds and ETFs.
Last weekend at a wedding reception I visited with my wife LaPriel’s uncle. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned his last name, which is also LaPriel’s maiden name.
I pronounced the name “Christi-AN-sen” with the accent on the letters “AN.” I’ve been saying it that way for over twenty-five years since that is how LaPriel’s father, mother and siblings pronounce it.
“It’s CHRIST-en-sen,” the uncle said, accenting the first syllable. “I’ve pronounced my name CHRIST-en-sen my entire life. That’s how my father pronounced it.”
I was dumbfounded. All those years of mispronouncing the family name. This uncle didn’t know why some members started saying his name differently, but he suspected it might have been to help others spell it correctly.
What I find amazing about this is many of LaPriel’s nieces and nephews have adopted this revised pronunciation and within a generation no one will have known it was ever spoken differently.
In 1976, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published a book titled “The Selfish Gene” in which he introduced the term “meme.” A meme, according to his definition, is a noun that describes a “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”
Essentially, a meme is an idea or behavior that passes from person to person and from generation to generation by non-genetic means.
Memes, like genes, can experience mutations, or permanent changes. The pronunciation of Christiansen is a mutation of a meme.
Our culture gets passed to the next generation via memes, much of it non-verbally through example. This is tacit knowledge. The most critical memes are those that ensure our survival.
Yet, so much is lost from one generation to the next, particularly within families.
My great-grandfather Peter emigrated to the United States and settled in Cincinnati in 1883. He arrived with his father and mother from the Netherlands.
When I asked my grandfather why his father and grandparents had left their native land, he said he didn’t know. His father never told him. My grandfather had no stories or memories to share from his father, other than he heard that they had brought a pair of wooden shoes with them. He didn’t know where the shoes were.
Apparently, knowing why someone would pick up and leave their home to undertake a dangerous ocean voyage to a new land was not necessary information to pass along to ensure survival.
Total Solar Eclipse
Annie Dillard writes in her essay, “Total Eclipse” that, “We teach our children one thing only, as we were taught: to wake up. We teach our children to look alive there, to join by words and activities the life of human culture on the planet’s crust.”
Dillard’s essay is a remarkable account of the total solar eclipse she witnessed in 1979 on a hillside in central Washington.
She describes when the moon began to cover the sun, “the sky to the west deepened to indigo, a color never seen.” How the color of “the grasses were wrong; they were now platinum…the hues were metallic.” Her hands were silver.
And then how the people screamed when, “the second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us. We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder. It roared up the valley. It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon.”
“Language can give no sense of this sort of speed…It rolled at you across the land at 1,800 miles an hour, hauling darkness behind it like a plague. Seeing it and knowing it was coming straight for you, was like feeling a slug of anesthetic shoot up your arm. If you think very fast, you may have time to think, ‘Soon it will hit my brain.’ You can feel the appalling, inhuman speed of your own blood. We saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed as it hit.”
I sat in my classroom at a Catholic elementary school in Ohio when this total solar eclipse occurred. We watched it on television and then looked outside where there was only a partial solar eclipse. It was a non-event to me. It was only when I read Annie Dillard’s words this past week did the magnitude and profundity of the total solar eclipse hit home.
On August 21, 2017, the first total solar eclipse in North America since 1979 will cover our little piece of Idaho. I will be there; awake and ready to scream.
Dillard’s terrifying account of the eclipse will live on because she wrote it down. My family’s origin story of why they left their native land is dead and gone. Lost in one generation.
Through memes and writing, cultures can endure for millennia, but at times they collapse and only remnants remain.
The Mycenaeans were the first advanced civilization in Greece whose culture flourished from 1,600 to 1,200 BC. They formed city states, each ruled by a king, with citadels and palaces located on formidable hills near the coast, surrounded by farmland.
The Mycenaeans had no soap. In order to clean themselves, they would rub perfumed olive oil on their bodies and scrape it off before taking a bath.
While these ancient Greeks grew olives, the perfume used in their baths came from North Africa. The Mycenaeans conducted trade throughout the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia regions, primarily by ship.
The Mycenaean writing that survives, the earliest form of Greek, was written on clay tablets. It contains no stories or myths, but economic transactions and inventory lists, transcribed in minute detail including debts owed.
For unknown reasons, the Mycenaean culture collapsed around 1,100 BC, ushering in a dark age. The cities were abandoned. Trade with far off regions, such as Egypt and Mesopotamia stopped. The Mycenaean population fell as settlements were no longer powerful city-states but small, poor, weak villages. There was no writing that originated in Greece for the next 350 years.
Most of the Mycenaean memes died, but some memories of those better times survived in the form of folk wisdom and legends. Epic oral poems, such as the “Illiad” and the “Odyssey,” originated from the remnants of Mycenaean world, preserving some of the cultural traditions. These poems were eventually written down in the forms we have today.
While memes with their tacit knowledge can show us what to do, it is the stories we preserve and share that explain why. We need both.