Thursday, 10 January 2013

The 2% Rule - And What You Can Do With It.

In my last Blog I suggested in one of the footnotes that when it comes to progression it is not the masses that drive us forward, it is the top 1-2% of every generation that brings about this progression, and that were it not for them, humanity probably would have remained in the Middle Ages. I think that probably requires a Blog post all of its own, so here goes.

There are two sides to that coin; one side is to laud those in the top 1-2% and to be thankful that they were ones that projected us forward.  But the other side of the coin says that we live in a world in which the vast majority of people make no real contribution to the furtherance of the human race. 

That does not mean that people don’t bring many other qualities and benefits to the world (I’ve already mentioned plenty in the ‘overpopulation’ Blog) – I mean simply that around 98% of the people in every generation are not innovators, scientists, economists and great thinkers to whom society owes a great debt in helping humanity leap forward. 

If you have trouble believing this, here’s what you should do. Make a list of everyone you know, and divide them into two groups; those who are innovators, scientists, economists and great thinkers that have made contributions that history will record as being hugely significant to mankind’s progression, and those that haven’t. I’ll bet that those who fall into the ‘haven’t’ group make up a majority that either matches or exceeds 98% of the ratio. 

As a simple test to illustrate the few people that make any mark on history, consider that everybody reading this had 16 great-great-grandparents. I’ll bet that almost no one knows the names of any of them, much less something about their contribution to history that they have left for future generations. 

This, however, is no reason to be downbeat – it is just one of those patterns in the social world (like Pareto’s famous 80/20 rule - 80% of x is the result of 20% of the people) that is a result of nature not being very democratic in her distributions.  People should be rewarded according to their abilities – but let’s not pretend that that is not any fairer than the alternative, because people don’t choose their abilities either.

Many are appalled at the huge wealth divide and the income gap in Britain* – well that is nothing compared with the gap in intelligence between the top few % and the rest. With the wealth gap, at least governments can suppress or compress the factors causing the huge polarity – with intelligence this is not something that can be subjected to external manipulation.

Moreover, there is huge asymmetry in statistics; for example, if you picked two random people off the street and found that their combined earnings were £500,000, the chances are they don’t earn £250,000 each – more likely one earns £480,000 and the other earns £20,000. Similarly, take two random music artists who’ve sold a million records combined and it’s much more likely that one has sold close to a million and the other next to nothing than it is finding two who’ve sold 500,000 each. 

The upshot is, as much as people would like wealth, success, earning, talent, appreciation, intelligence etc to be equitably distributed, it plainly isn’t - and instead of realising and accepting this, they make injudicious comments about how wrong it is that the gap between rich and poor keeps increasing. 

This isn’t the Blog post to list all the reasons why this is misjudged – but suffice to say that free market economics is the primary thing that lifts people out of poverty into prosperity, and in a lot of cases, for that to happen, you are going to see the rich getting richer. 

The whole point about the rich getting richer (which is so often overlooked) is that the poor are getting richer too. In a great many cases the poor are only getting richer because the rich are getting richer – so only complain about the richness of the rich if you have a complaint about the poor prospering too.

The main reason prosperity is increasing is because with the 2% rule we find that with each increase in population the 1-2% of innovators increases numerically too. When there were only 300,000 people in the world, the top slice 2% innovators were only 6000 per generation. In a population of 7 billion, the top slice 2% innovators can be as many as 140 million. Once an idea is conceived, it can be shared by millions. Once cat's eyes are invented, the whole world benefits. Once a computer chip is prototyped by the first innovator, the whole world reaps the rewards, and so on. 

With more competition the talented people strive harder to accomplish things ahead of their competitors, and they learn from each other too. But to borrow an analogy from Horace Mann, most people will change with the course of the popular wind, but there are a few exceptions who, like mountains, actually change the course of the wind.

With the 2% rule I’ve said that the vast majority of people that have ever lived end up living and dying unnoticed by most in the vast prism of history. The question is, given our increased population, will that 2% figure increase in modern times? I think it might. Rousseau identified the foundations for our dependency of leadership – and what logically followed was that because most people make little impact on recorded history, the primary influence used to be left to the minority of charismatic figures that can. 

Rousseau referred to the leadership mandate as being ("the Legislator") whereby figures arise to change the values, ethics, politics and customs of the people. Back then, the fact that only 2% of the people made any major contributions to world history was partly due to the fact that leadership and innovation went hand in hand. Higher figures got to be innovators and innovators got to be higher figures.

But nowadays the shared mental matrix (seen most notably on the Internet) gives people a new power. Instead of their being a 2% minority that do all the innovating, I suspect it will be spread out a little more. Maybe not by much, but enough to see changes in the way things are done – and hopefully with enough intellectual diversity and idea-sharing to help increase the minority to a larger percent.

Lastly, remember something important if you remember nothing else – even those in the top 2% were there only because of hard work and diligent persistence. The scientific and technological innovations of the world can easily give the illusion of brilliance in what instead is really gradual, incremental progression, involving lots of trial and error and cumulative improvements costing us a lot of sweat and mental resources. Our knowledge and our technology is the cumulative effect of lots of time and effort. 

Many of the illusions of individual brilliance comes from caricatures like the ‘light-bulb’ effect, where the image is shown to be hovering over the head to illustrate a ‘eureka’ idea. This was first conceived to represent the inventing of the light bulb by Edison – which is unfortunate because (like all inventions) they do not come to mind as a fait accompli achievement, they involve many proto efforts beforehand. The truth is, the light bulb illustration was never a very good example to begin with, because Edison didn't really invent the light-bulb; it was prototyped a couple of dozen times, the first time nearly a century before. 

What Edison did was refine the filament – but it wasn’t just him – it involved the input of his colleagues too. Even their cumulative effort wasn’t plucked from the air - it owed much of its success to Hermann Sprengel from whom Edison's team learned how to use dripping mercury to create a better vacuum inside their bulb. It was only through trial and error that they could have realised that without that simple chemical vacuum technology the carbon filament burns up.

That is just one example; anyone with a tincture of knowledge of the history of science knows that there aren’t really any eureka moments in isolation from the efforts that preceded them. If you fancy being in the top few percent of your generation, it’s not too late – you just need to be prepared to work as hard and as diligently as the greats that preceded you. You might need a little luck too – and I hope you have it!
* Although heaven knows from whence this natural assumption that everyone has similar levels of income came – it is an absurd supposition.