Like most companies during this pandemic, we're all working remotely. I am in the Houston area, one of my colleagues is in Cleveland, and the rest of our team is in the San Francisco Bay Area. As a result, we conduct a lot of Zoom meetings. This is great for audio/video conversation, but what about collaboration? We're all used to getting in a room with a whiteboard and Post-it notes. Post-it notes are great for collaboration because they allow rapid brainstorming by scribbling down an idea and sticking it to a wall without regard to categorization. Once all of the Post-it notes are on the wall, they can be easily moved around and organized using a LUMA technique called Affinity Clustering. In this COVID-19 age, how do we do that?
Fortunately, in addition to Zoom, we also have Mural. Mural is a workspace for digital collaboration. Mural gives us the ability to work together through real-time sharing. We create workspaces with text, shapes/connectors, icons, search with drag/drop images, and most importantly, virtual Post-it notes called sticky notes. The sticky notes get added to the workspace and can easily be moved around and grouped.
Our team at Autodesk is called Strategic Foresight. We help identify and articulate long-term forces of change and their implications shaping the future for Autodesk and our customers that can deliver value for our customers and our business. We explore a broad range of areas (e.g., society, technology, economy, environment, politics) with a long-term focal length (~10 years). The 10-year period is necessary because some technologies (like generative design) have a long development runway before they are commercially available.
With an eye toward possible futures, our team is reading Transcendence: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty, and Time by Gaia Vince. We read on nights and weekends and then hold a one-hour book club meeting. Transcendence chronicles human evolution by sharing stores reinforced by the latest scientific research. It is part fact sharing and imagination — just the stuff that strategic foresight practitioners consider. I enjoyed this book as much as any book I have ever read. From a form standpoint, there are short chapters that provide immediate gratification as I completed them quickly. Vince presents complex ideas in very simple, straightforward terms. And what subject matter could be more compelling — how and why we are the way we are.
As I completed each chapter, I put the book down and created a section of a Mural based on what I read. I wanted to capture key concepts visually — often with sticky notes (pink = biology, blue = culture, green = environment). Here is what I was going for with each section of my Mural. You will see recurring themes:
Our evolution is the result of advancements in our biology, our culture, and our environment. The four forces that have shaped our evolution are fire, word, beauty, and time. How humans have interacted with these forces accounts for why we have evolved over millions of years, yet chimpanzees have not. We are the accumulation of our past.
Intelligent life on earth is basically an unlikely roll of the dice. The Big Bang scattered matter that cooled unevenly. During its formation, a large body struck the earth, tilting the earth on its axis to create weather and form the moon (tides). The long-term result of weather was a large body of water (with tides) that hosted plants and animals. As life evolved, a large asteroid struck the earth, killing the dinosaurs and dividing life into old and new lineages. Humans evolved from the new lineage.
The harsh effects of climate change were like a funnel that reduced the number of living humans from millions to 18,500 — the more intelligent ones. Climate change created the Sahara desert (where few could survive and whose isolated gene pools created the races) and ice conditions (that wiped out the Neanderthals).
Fire is the result of combing oxygen with a fuel source to produce heat and light.
Human's mastery of fire has allowed us to make our environment more habitable, expand our food sources, and promote new plant growth (by burning aging forests that get replaced with edible grasses). As hunter-gatherers, fire allowed us to follow migrating herds and camp where we wanted. Becoming meat-eaters promoted brain growth, and smoke from fires helped us locate each other so we could group ourselves and cooperate to learn from each other. So fire helped us improve our biology, social culture, and environment.
Having a big brain offers several advantages but comes at several costs.
Our group behaviors, technologies, and cultural practices have been cultural levers that have shaped our individual behaviors, personality, cognition, intelligence, perception, and physical attributes.
The act of combining mud with fire to make pottery unlocked several benefits that helped us develop our bodies, ways of interacting with each other, and our surroundings. We are the product of our collaborations. [Primitive man simply lacked the Post-it notes.]
We evolved because of our advances in our biology, environment, and culture. We were able to shape our biology by passing on our DNA. We enriched our culture through words by telling stories. We modified our environment by building structures.
In a study, 34 students were shown a movie where two triangles and a circle moved across a screen with a stationary rectangle. When asked "what they saw," 33 of the students created a narrative such as "the circle was worried," "the little triangle was an innocent young thing," or "the big triangle was blinded by rage and frustration." Only one student said, "I saw two triangles and a circle move with a rectangle." We impose our own stories even when there are none. [Page 87]
Conversational language is characterized by pitch, timing, loudness, and taking turns talking. Language is shaped by the environment (e.g., terrain/climate/altitude that affect vowel and consonant usage), cultural practices (e.g., gaze reciprocity where seeing someone while listening imparts meaning), and biology (e.g., jaw bone and brain development).
When we impart information, the recipient makes a judgment on the information and the person delivering it. Humans choose to share information based on self-interest, an expectation of reciprocity, out of an obligation associated with a duty or service, or a desire to improve their reputations. Sharing information from one person to a group boosts chances for survival, accelerates evolution, and is the glue that holds society together.
Dunbar's number shows that there is a correlation between community size and the size of the neocortical section of the brain. The neocortical handles higher-order functioning, such as sensory perception. [Telling is the basis for collaboration.]
Making something beautiful doesn't make it more useful. Instead, it makes it have meaning. Things can be beautiful by appealing to our senses (e.g., paintings, flowers, music, spices, silk). Actions can be beautiful by adhering to our norms and culture (e.g., manners).
Having a common definition of beauty tends to make people alike, and thus, more identifiable as being part of a group. Being part of a group requires conformance, but members get protection in return. When a member of a group encounters other members, he uses the part of his brain that regards them as people. When he encounters non-members, he uses the part of his brain that processes objects.
Trinkets and Treasures
For a barter system to work, there has to be a coincidence among the supply, skills, preferences, and time of both parties associated with the barter. Based on their beauty, shells became highly bartered items, often in the form of necklaces. Over the millennia, these were replaced by gold and silver. To address the problem of breaking off and weighing pieces of gold or silver, coins were invented. Replacing coins with paper money required: humans to create currency that was not easily forged, belief that the paper represented an equivalent amount of coins, and faith that others would accept it as payment.
A common standard of beauty formed the basis for trade. Trade increased our cultural complexity (new ideas and gatherings of people) and improved our chances for survival (cooperation to share resources, pass on our genes, and improve technologies).
Mankind began as individual nomads scavenging for food. We eventually formed tribes that learned to trade. Eventually, we settled in place as farmers. This benefitted our evolution greatly as we can get five times more calories by putting our energy into farming as compared to putting our energy into hunting-gathering. Setting down in one location offered benefits to our biology, culture, and environment but also included accompanying drawbacks.
Mankind invented the notion of time because of the rising and setting of the sun. Otherwise, our physical bodies would regulate time where they are naturally suited to different activities at different times of the day and night. Before clocks were invented, humans could determine the time of day using the lengths of shadows on the ground. For fixed amounts of time that were independent of weather conditions, water clocks or hourglasses (sand) were employed. For calendars, constellations like the Pleiades rose at fixed locations throughout the year. The observance of time helped humanity evolve because we could anticipate and survive harsh seasons, predict food shortages and take precautions in advance, and organize societies (since it took the guesswork out of when events would happen).
"Our brains have evolved to construct a version of reality based on our models of perception, but this interpretation depends on a mixture of biology, cultural experiences, and environmental references." [page 26] Time plays a factor as the model changes over time. We use the model to determine our beliefs and behaviors.
Throughout the epochs, we have been defined by our biology, culture, and environment.
- Our bodies were built for survival.
- Families were our primary grouping mechanism.
- We were at the mercy of our environment.
- We nurtured our bodies with the advent of medicine.
- Our groups expanded in size, from families to tribes.
- We mitigated the environment through shelter and farming.
As we enter a new age, we are defining our biology, culture, and environment.
- We are augmenting our biology with robotics and AI.
- We are all globally connected via the internet.
- We control the planet, even inadvertently adversely determining its temperature.
We are becoming Homo omnis (Homni for short). As we have evolved to where we are now, where do we go next? It's up to us.
Autodesk has always been an automation company. Today, more than ever, that means helping our customers automate their design and make processes. We help them embrace the future of making, where they can do more (e.g., quantity, functionality, performance, quality), with less (e.g., energy, raw materials, timeframes, waste of human potential), and realize the opportunity for better (e.g., innovation, user experience, efficiency, sustainability, return on investment). Anticipating potential futures by understanding our past is part of providing the opportunity for better.
Evolution is alive in the lab.