In an economy driven by ideas, nothing is more important than thinking. But why do we think the way we do? James Bailey thinks he knows. “Show me how someone does math,” he says, “and I’ll tell you how they think.”
Bailey’s new book, “After Thought: The Computer Challenge to Human Intelligence” (Basic Books), offers a profound analysis of the history of thought. He identifies three revolutions that have shaped how our minds work, and explains why businesspeople need to embrace the third revolution — to rethink how they think — in order to thrive in the Information Age.
“We’ve got to generate a new sense of reality,” Bailey says, “to embrace a set of different operating instructions. The problem is, we learn slowly, and we forget very poorly. People don’t have a delete key.”
The first revolution that left its mark on our minds was geometry. It was driven, Bailey says, by the search for a sense of place: “People in the ancient world wanted to know where they were in relation to the universe. The math they developed to identify place was geometry.”
The second revolution was driven by technology — the clock and the printing press. Clocks inspired people to think about pace, not place. Printing presses made it easier to work with text and numbers. As a result, physics displaced geometry as the defining way to think about the world. “That’s been the driving force of science ever since,” says Bailey. “To characterize reality with numbers and equations.”
The third revolution is rooted in biology and self-organizing systems — the search for a sense of pattern. Bailey got his first glimpse of this new way of thinking more than a decade ago, when he heard a presentation by Danny Hillis, the founder of Thinking Machines Corporation. Hillis was describing his 64,000-microprocessor Connection Machine, one of the world’s first massively parallel computers. Bailey left a comfortable job at Digital Equipment Corporation to become the young company’s marketing director.
He immediately confronted two mind-bending realities. The first involved Hillis’s machine, which fundamentally changed the logic of computing. It not only accelerated computation, it also processed data in a new way, looking for patterns and learning. In short, it made itself smarter. The second involved experiments with “cellular automata” — bits of information that operate according to a few simple rules. Inside one of Hillis’s computers, the cellular automata began to organize themselves and patterns began to emerge. In short, they acted as if they were alive.
“The response from our work at Thinking Machines was the same response Galileo got,” remembers Bailey. “People refused to look through his telescope. They didn’t believe that truth could come from a glass tube. What Thinking Machines was doing was inventing a new intellectual telescope. And people were refusing to look through it.”
Bailey wrote “After Thought” to help people look through that intellectual telescope. He visited Fast Company to discuss his new book and what it means for businesspeople.
Is your message getting through to business?
My goal is to help CEOs understand why they’re so resistant to the new reality. When people resist an obvious new truth, it’s not because the new truth is untrue. It’s because they’ve been taught to see the world differently.
Gradually, though, executives at the top of companies are beginning to see that their people are smarter than they are. Now when we tell them that their data are smarter than their people — that’s a hard thing.
What is this new reality?
We’re learning that you can’t explain what is alive by analyzing what is dead. Physics is not the best way to understand business and the market. The focus is shifting from physics, the science of the 20th century, to biology, which is the science of the 21st century.
What’s the difference between physics and biology?
In physics, you tell the data which rows and columns to go in. Which means the data tell you only what you already know. That’s not the power of data. The power of data comes when you let them find their own patterns. What you learn is that there’s a pattern to life. Computers can help you see that in ways you can’t see by yourself.
Now, the easy story here is “there’s a pattern to life.” The story people don’t want to hear is, “there’s a life to pattern.” Once you let the data start talking to each other in computers, they’re going to start evolving on their own. These things are not only about life; they are going to be life.
Once you turn computers loose to think, and trust their ability to see patterns, do they end up displacing people?
Some people say computers are going to take over. I don’t see that. I am energized by the idea that computers can see things we can’t. We ought to be able to find a way to take advantage of that.
For example, you’re left with the feeling that it wouldn’t have taken computers 2,000 years to discover the theory of evolution, to notice natural selection. The pattern is sitting in the data. The computer could have found that one pretty quick.
I’m jealous that my sons will grow up in a world where their partnership with the computer will be fruitful. I’m bullish on humans.