Let’s put up a sign
First, some XKCD:
It’s a common science-fiction trope for the good guys to encounter some kind of wired-up culture where people have traded individuality for connectivity; Star Trek’s “Borg” being the most famous example. There’s always a big fight where the collective tries to “assimilate” the culture of heroic individuals but in the end individuality always wins out. At least, in stories written by individuals.
I’m not sure that’s how it would play out in the real universe. I’m thinking there wouldn’t be a big battle; the wired-up culture would ply some economic advantage to perfect coordination and win by delivering better goods and services.
I suppose the outcome you expect depends on your theory of economic advantage. If efficiency is everything then yes, The Borg will win every time. If innovation matters most, then you can expect the culture that allows minds to escape to privacy of thought to come up with that big, disruptive surprise that wins the day.
I think about this fairly often because I have to communicate asynchronously with crowds. For instance we’d like people to avoid using the handicap doors during the Winter months (unless of course they actually need them) because the automatic doors stay open long enough to turn our main hallway into a giant icebox. And lacking the budget to hire ten more cleaning professionals, we like to keep coffee drinks out of classrooms and labs. To these ends we put up signs, varying the design to try and get the message across. Our (lack of) success makes me glad we aren’t handling a nuclear reactor. (“Caution! Please stop leaving fuel rods in the break-room refrigerator”)
Information design guru Don Norman capsulizes this experience in three words: “Signs don’t work.” In the XKCD comic above you could put up a sign indicating the hazard and it might actually increase the number of accidents by diverting attention away from the sidewalk. Reading and interpreting signs seems to take place in a different part of the brain than navigating 3-dimensional space. This is why it’s important to design well, do a/b testing and measure results. Slapping any old thing up there only satisfies the need to have a sign to point at, when someone falls in the gap in the sidewalk.
The problem of communication is multiplied when the hazard is something complex and dynamic, like climate change. Or abstract, like the economic consequences of anti-science education. This explains a lot of political speech, which takes the shortcut of presenting some out-group as the object of hatred and fear. Perhaps gays or Muslims put the gap in the sidewalk, and attention is gained by putting a rainbow or a turban on the sign. At this level even the hazard itself can be made-up. There’s no need to be data-driven when your only goal is to get elected.
- (You do read XKCD, don’t you? If not, please consider this recommendation my one good deed for the day.)
- A lot of innovation comes from speculative thinking and stories, but I wonder how fiction would work in the Borg culture. How would anyone get away from the collective long enough to write interesting stories? Or would the whole collective try to do it? If everyone is connected, surprise is impossible. And if they did manage to write fiction, what would it be like?