It all started somewhere around 100,000 years ago. For more than a million years, our early human ancestors had used tools like spears and hand axes. They had begun to communicate through basic language or signs, build shelters, cook food and kill large animals. But these early hominids didn’t really ‘progress’. Despite having brains the same size as modern humans, their tools hadn’t evolved in thousands of years, there was no cultural advancement and no technological breakthrough. And then it happened.
Human beings started to do something to and with each other than began to build ‘collective intelligence’. Matt Ridley takes up the story in his wonderfully positive book The Rational Optimist: “They had started, for the very first time, to exchange things between unrelated, unmarried individuals – to share, swap, barter and trade. The effect of this was to cause specialisation, which in turn caused technological innovation, which in turn encouraged more specialisation, which led to more exchange … and progress was born.” Having seen no tool innovation for hundreds of thousands of years, suddenly new technologies gathered pace, thanks to specialisation. Our ancestors realised that they didn’t have to do everything themselves. I could specialise in making cutting edge bone heads for spears, while you in the neighbouring community make needles. I could catch antelope and you could catch fish. Then we’ll swap. Ridley again: “Collaboration between unrelated strangers seems to be a uniquely human achievement. In no other species can two individuals who have never met exchange goods and services to the benefit of each other.” When researchers tried to get monkeys to barter over the years, the experiments always ended in violence.
So humans developed through increased specialisation, leading to faster innovation. It was, as philosopher Adam Smith described in the 18th century, the division of labour in all its glory. But what made our ancestors take those steps in the first place? To deal with a stranger you need to be polite, to co-operate and show trust. How did that come about? Did the answer lie in our unique ability to smile – a small but powerful gesture of trust? Who knows. Whatever it was, it worked. And we have those African hominids to thank for a world in which we can trade all over the world (from kidney beans to kidneys) and share our movements, our thoughts, our photos, our knowledge, our donations, our recommendations and our ancestry with fellow human beings across the planet. And this willingness – and ability – to share and collaborate is getting stronger with every generation, leading to who-knows-what innovation is lying round the corner.
At the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, when experts were asked to state which invention was most likely to have the biggest impact on the 20th century, nobody mentioned the motor car or the telephone. Even our generation cannot comprehend what innovation lies ahead and what technologies will be commonplace in the next century. Increasing specialisation will see to it that work – and the workplace – will continue to evolve and adapt and innovate, but one thing we can be sure of is that the future will be collaborative and organic. And that’s where we communicators need to pay heed, in my opinion. We can’t keep trying to manage top-down. History shows that when organisations get too big, innovation and engagement suffers, in the same way that economic progress suffers when governments try to control too much. We have to allow the next generation workforce to co-create the communication and innovation – to apply their own specialism. It means pulling back, empowering, encouraging and empathising. It means smiling more. We should concentrate on the meat and let someone else do the fish. As Matt Ridley says: “The world is turning bottom-up. The top-down years are at an end.”