Latest insights into evolution explain why RSS helps humanize the Web

We do seem to be working out a mean between the scale of the networked world and the clan.
Written by Dana Gardner, Contributor
Fascinating and important reading this week from The Economist's "The Proper Study of Mankind: A Survey of Human Evolution." Of the many gems of deeper understanding of our species that new science and theories are uncovering as outlined in the survey: Trust is a foundation of collaboration and economics but especially in groups of 150 or less.

According to the series of articles, many of the feedback loops between genetic evolution and environmental reinforcement that have made us what we are -- individually and collectively -- have to do with (no surprise) mating and sexual attraction, but also with whom we recognize as a trusted friend or relative, or suspect is an untested outsider bent perhaps on injustice. In trying to explain why our levels of intelligence and language development scored as they have over the past 75,000 years, the ability to make judgments over who to trust or not -- and to detect even the whiff of unfairness -- seems to play an essential role.

Consider that the drive to accurately access trust and authenticity becomes self-reinforcing toward greater intelligence as each participant in the web of relationships gains a craftier ability to project their virtue (or intrigue) with ever-advancing language and collaborative skills. The communicator either hoodwinks the dupes, or ascends a political hierarchy based on trust and respect -- or both. This explains a lot of why we behave as we do economically, and why we are endowed with certain canny abilities. The world, it seems, is truly a stage. We are hard-wired for politics, but also for seeking a balance between the powerfully crafty and the wise collective.

But we may not be well-designed for the mass communications era for projecting our well-honed wiles or virtues. Until the advent of agriculture and development of towns and cities some 10,000 years ago, humans were typically thought to have conducted their hunter-gatherer lifestyles in clans of about 150 members, often isolated. Our brains are capable of recognizing and cataloging the members of such a group and the highly complex web of relationships therein. Clan people can be known, and they can be authentic, and they can be valued or shunned. Above the scale of the clan, however, the knowledge of the other members diminishes, and with it the ability to distinguish.

And so what happens when we inject mass media into a clan-oriented brain, when we lose the ability to distinguish? So-called reality TV, where we vicariously pretend we are part of a group seeking a balance between competition and cooperation instead of doing such activities. Or celebrity worship, where we seek trust and authenticity from famous actors, athletes, and politicians, and are shocked, shocked when they let us down by not being what they seem. Or alienation and betrayal that comes from anonymous interactions via instant messaging or email with who knows who you stumble upon in an open chat room.

So what of our ability to exercise our long-evolved people skills when it comes to the World Wide Web, and the powerful but humanistically lean interactions we conduct via the Internet? Certainly the ability to establish trust and authenticity is a work in early progress when it comes to who it is we are dealing with and how should we rate them online. Our species was, after all, mainly isolated in terms of how many others we interacted with until only the last 120 years or so. I imagine that a very large segment of humanity is still working on the natural scale of clan.

So why not bring the scale of clan to the interactions capable through the global Internet? And isn't that, after all, what we've been bumbling around toward for the last 10 years? Blogging, RSS, and so-called social network sites strike me as working toward a proper balance of the scale we are best suited to (for perhaps another few thousand years), and the ease of accessing a mass audience. Google's new "Local" function has great potential for more than ordering pizza: It can potentially re-ignite the warmth of the clan scale for business, commerce, and fellowship.

Doesn't eBay offer a way to establish trust with strangers? Don't social networks automatically assimilate groups based on affinity regardless of geography yet on a clan scale? Doesn't RSS bring specialization and a vote for authenticity to an otherwise chaotic and off-scale mass of information? And how can a mass audience portal manage what must be conducted via much smaller break-out sessions, with each member voting by their attention and affinity to defining what is a humanistic and economically worth-while investment of their time and energy?

In just the last few years, as notions such as the long tail, RSS, blog-based communities of interest and managed online trust gain credence, we do seem to be working out a mean between the scale of the networked world and the clan. The landscape has changed from a few square miles to an unearthly cloud, but the rules by which people operate are much the same, and will remain so based on our human brain form factor. Perhaps Metcalfe's Law is only good to a point.

I guess some of us will have to content ourselves with pioneering new definitions of trusted clans while remainging online, and to try and find an economic viability therein. We can redefine local, but also keep it at the proper scale. The role of podcasting, for example, adds a new layer of humanity -- offering the richness of people's voices as an important gauge of trust and authenticity. You can distinguish me, and I can distinguish you. Who knows, soon the software vendors and service providers may better appreciate the needed human elements of age-old interactions instead of trying to force people into a mass-market, corporation-driven, anonymous typing machines.

Perhaps the last 100 years of mass media and mass communications and massive corporations have been the exceptions, and that technology is about to begin to allow us to return to our true roots, of clans, cottage industries, and independence balanced with a tight bond to the "local" collective regardless of where it is. We now have the tools, we just need to manage trust and authenticity virtually on a truly human scale.
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