Thursday, November 11, 2010
Rebecca D. Costa’s been busy.
In the six years since she sold her celebrated advertising firm Dazai and moved from Silicon Valley to Monterey County, she’s built a soaring five-bedroom Carmel Highlands palace overlooking the Pacific, hosted a range of nonprofit fundraisers and seeded and cultivated a butterfly sanctuary.
And, oh, she’s also figured out how to save the human race.
She’s about to get busier, as her calculations – which required five years of research and writing, a keen eye for human behavior and decades of experience tracking the effects of complex technology while working for clients like Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Oracle – have everyone from CNN to the U.K.’s The Guardian calling her just-released Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction a must read. The buzz has her crisscrossing to country to speak about what she’s laid out.
The short of it: There are clear warning signs that we are courting the same fate that felled the mighty Mayan, Roman, Byzantine and Ming societies. Chief among them: gridlock.
“Instead of bickering,” she says, “I’d like politicians to take the Hippocratic Oath. When doctors argue, the patient dies on the table. Don’t tell me gridlock is good in a time of danger like this.”
But we also have the solutions.
“We have so many helpful instruments. We have all the technology,” she says. “That isn’t the problem.”
The Weekly visited Costa’s Highlands home to find out what is.There’s a lot of hope in this book, but it can get bleak at times too – you argue problems like global warming, financial crises and terrorism are more complex than our brains can handle. What gets you out of bed in the morning?
I’m an optimist, and I believe that there is always time. But I think that the planes are stacking up in the air and all of them want to land on the same runway. It doesn’t matter which one gets here first: It can be a pandemic or a massive worldwide recession. In the end, did the Mayans care whether it was a drought or disease that did them in?
So when you ask me what gets me up in the morning, I feel a moral imperative to sound the alarm and say to others who are similar to me and feel overwhelmed by complexity of our problems – and overwhelmed by the fact that for generations the same problems have been with us, and we have been unable to get away from it – that if there is any part of you that thinks you are leaving a world that is not as good as the one you came into, you have to get up from the couch, now. You have to do something.
The thing that you choose to do is not as important as the fact that you do it. Not everything you choose to do will have the results you want.
Failure is inevitable, but that’s OK. Take the example of venture capitalists. They are experts of failure, not of success. For every 100 companies they invest in, 80 of them are going to produce no results. They get up every morning accepting an 80 percent wastage. I get up every morning and say out of the 100 things I do, at least some will succeed. Some days I might get 50 percent, others 1 percent, but at least I’m out there batting at the ball.Recognition – and rejection – of what you call “supermemes” is central to your book. Please define what memes and supermemes are.
A meme is like a gene. It’s a behavior or a thought that moves organically from one person to another.Like saying “please” and “thank you” because it’s polite.
And it helps you work better in groups, which we have to do to survive. “Don’t run with scissors” could be a meme. There are lots of memes.
A supermeme is a behavior or a thought that begins to quash any other behaviors or thoughts from coming forward. It becomes so pervasive that we can’t think about [other approaches] because it drowns them out.What better time to talk about the first supermeme, oppositional thinking, than now, when the elections are at the front of everybody’s minds.
In order to win, candidates stood up and said, “I’m against taxes, I’m against illegal immigration, I’m against government debt, I’m against anything my opponent has proposed.”
These candidates, when they debated and went on talk shows, they previewed for the American public what they were going to be like when they got to Washington D.C. or the state capitol.
We will continue to gridlock. If you’re opposed to every position that is on the table, isn’t that like gridlock?It’s like preemptive gridlock.
Yes. Let’s say you want to break the gridlock but I just say no to everything. It doesn’t work.
I was looking for one candidate that was going to say, “Well, here’s an idea no one is talking about.”Like what?
Like this: The real fact is that America has lost the solar panel market and wind generation market to China. We can’t beat them now. We already lost that market. But where have we always had a leadership position? Space exploration. If we had an assessment on where we are unbeatable, NASA is that asset. But instead we cut its budget and won’t give them another mission. They were working on space-based solar, which is far, far better and more efficient than wind – or land-based solar energy.OK. Supermeme number two: Personalization of blame.
Personal accountability has gone amok.
Take obesity. There’s a view in our country that fat people are fat because they won’t stop eating or exercise. But if it was a matter of willpower, then wouldn’t the woman with the most resources and willpower, Oprah, be thin?
Why isn’t Oprah thin? She can hire cooks, trainers, psychologists, and a staff – a battery – to tie her hands to not let her eat more than she should.
So this is not a problem of weak character or will. This is a problem in the genetic programming Oprah inherited from her ancestors, who were likely successful in staying alive because they were high-calorie-seeking organisms.
If there is any part of you that thinks you are leaving a world that is not as good as the one you came into, you have to get up from the couch, now. You have to do something.
We blame individuals for everything from obesity and foreclosures to being uninsured or feeling depressed. That’s because when we point to weak character as the cause of these problems, society is off the hook. If we blame individuals, there’s not a systematic problem to solve. But when tens of millions of people suffer from the exact same problem, what other evidence do we need to know this isn’t simply a matter of personal responsibility?So what do we do?
We have a higher part of the genetic nature, which is our ability to think rationally to make better choices. To rise above the vestiges of our primitive instincts. To think.
A bonobo monkey would take anything you offer them. We share 98 percent or our DNA with that species. We only have a 2 percent advantage, and we need to step and act like the noble creatures that we are. We consistently appeal to the lowest part of our genetic nature. Why do we do that? We should step up to the better part of our genetic inheritance. We don’t have to succumb to inheritance or supermeme. It’s not necessary. We can always become more bonobo-monkey-like. Nobody is stopping us. But we shouldn’t.What’s the most accessible example that illustrates the supermeme you call “counterfeit correlation”?
I’ll use this one because it’s funny. I was remodeling a house in Carmel. And it didn’t have a bathroom downstairs, so I went to file a permit. If I had a handicapped person – and I have friends of mine who use walkers – so and so would have to climb stairs because I don’t have an elevator. They said no.
I said, “Well, why not, exactly?” They said, because you’ll use more water. I said, “Just because I have two restrooms it doesn’t make me go more.” I could have 20 toilets; it doesn’t make me go 20 times more. I said “I think the correlation you’re talking about is the connection between the number of residents and water use, but you made the connection between the toilets and water use.”
If I put in another toilet, there are not going to be more residents in my house. This is just a small example of public policy gone awry.As part of the section on counterfeit correlation, you discuss how when we become overwhelmed by complex, modern problems, we revert to beliefs. How can we manage that complexity in our lives – and slow it down?
You cannot slow complexity down.
As far as large cataclysmic problems, we can use high failure rate models like the venture capital model to buy us time.
We’re also learning every day how the human brain works, and there are things we can do to make our brains work better so we can deal with complexity better. You find that people who meditate, who take breaks from technology – who step away – handle the complexity better.
When I travel, taking my computer with me is optional. Fifty percent of the time when I travel, I make a deliberate point to leave my laptop at home. It drives everyone who works for me nuts. The first thing they say is, “How am I gonna get in touch with you?” and I smile and I say, “You’re not going to, and I know you’re going to do a fine job.” It’s good for them and it’s good for me.
As I discuss in the book, neuroscientists have experienced great success with brain fitness exercises using what they now understand about the brain’s natural abilities – simple little warm-up video-game exercises which have shown bulletproof evidence that they can help the brain load and retain content and solve complex problems. Kids improve their cognition and performance dramatically, at a much lower cost than raising teacher salaries or instituting standardized tests, after just a few minutes a day. That fitness program should be mandatory for every child in every school, every senior in every home, every patient in every hospital, every leader in the country.Unpack the idea of using high-failure-rate models.
When you’re mitigating a complex problem, you become a bad picker. It’s too complicated, so you can’t separate the ideas that are going to work and the ones that won’t.
The Gulf Oil Spill, there’s a classic case. We had a state of emergency and we couldn’t pick what was going to stop the flow. So we went in there, we got all the smart people together, and we rolled the dice and said a concrete box set on top of that hole was going to cover the oil. And then 30 days later we found out it wasn’t working.
So then we decided that we were gonna drill through the side and siphon off some of the pressure and some of the oil; then 30 days later we discovered that wasn’t going to work. So the third attempt, it so happens, we got lucky. The third solution we went in with, which is static kill, wound up working – or at least it’s held until this point.
But if we were gonna use the venture-capital method – if we were willing to admit we weren’t competent pickers and even all the wise men gathering in the Oval Office were not going to be able to pick the winner from the loser – we would have gone in there with 30 ways of plugging up that hole at one time and realized that maybe 29 were gonna fail and one was going to stop the ecological disaster. But that’s not what we did.
We tried to save money and tried to act as though we had the knowledge to cut through a lot of variables in a highly chaotic situation and call it right. But we were wrong.
We’re not allowed to say, “It’s too complicated, folks. We don’t know what’s gonna work.” How ’bout a leader that comes forward and says, “We’ve hit a cognitive threshold, this is too complicated; it’s multi dynamic; if one variable changes by a decimal point all the other calculations we made are wrong.” That’s how chaotic problems are.Have you ever considered politics, maybe a run for mayor of Carmel? They could have a vacancy soon.
I would be terrible at mayor. They want opposition. So instead I would sit there with my opponent and he would say, “I have an idea to do this” and I would say ‘That’s great. I have this idea. Let’s do them both.’”That sounds expensive.
We lost a lot more money gambling than we had the right solution – for how many days? Fortunately static kill was our next solution. But what if static kill had been solution number 89? We’d still be watching film on the news of oil gushing out tonight.Mayans help demonstrate the danger of getting overwhelmed by complexity.
The Mayans are the best example of an early civilization falling into counterfeit correlation. Eventually they couldn’t understand climate changes. So they gave up building reservoirs and systems. Public work projects completely came to a stop. And where they originally started sacrificing captured slaves, they eventually started sacrificing their own people. They moved on to young women, they moved on to children, and then eventually on the very last days of the Mayan empire, they were throwing unspoiled newborn infants off the top of the pyramids, hoping rain would come. They gave up on all rational solutions. They trusted only their beliefs: Sacrifices would make the world better.But we’re not exactly chucking babies off temples.
But we are running airplanes into buildings – sacrificing hundreds of innocent men, women and children because of a belief it will make the world a better place. We’re not that different from the Mayans. We have a lot of technology right now, we have a lot of solutions at our disposal; we just don’t seem to be able to utilize them to progress. So you have to wonder: What gets in the way?
Our beliefs get in the way. If we were rational and factual, we would select solutions, we would accept the fact that complexity is outgunning our brains, we would start mitigating using high-failure-rate models, and we would do everything we could to arm our brains to be able to deal with complexity.
When we come across a really complex problem, we have to hit it with the best solution and stop bickering about which idea is better. All we’re doing right now is fighting over who has the best idea and who has the cheapest.
We need to recognize the pattern. The first thing is awareness.The fourth supermeme, silo thinking, seems like it would be the easiest to remedy with a little communication to prevent isolated thought. But I have a feeling it isn’t going to be so easy.
Overcoming these supermemes depends on us appealing to our higher genetic nature. According to Richard Dawkins, for example, who wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976, we’re each out for ourselves. To sum up what Dawkins says, each individual is trying to perpetuate their own gene pool. It’s as simple as that, and if we get a chance to run over the other guy, we’re going to do it.
I have a friend who says each society is six meals away from anarchy. Just let them miss six meals. And he might be right, and Dawkins would probably support that position. But having said that, there’s a lot of evidence that we don’t have to be like that. The problem with that philosophy is that it makes no allowance for altruism.
A couple of years ago there was a man standing at the platform in the subways in New York. He saw a guy have an epileptic fit and he fell on the tracks and he leapt on top of him, a total stranger, and he held him down while the train passed over the two of them. And they got up. It was miraculous.
We are an organism that is designed to work as a group.
I think silo thinking boils down to protectionism. We do best as a civilization when we go the other direction, when we depend on each other and work as a group. We were designed to work as a group, and to the extreme that we can appeal to that greater characteristic that we have, we work better as a society and we produce better results. We now have evidence, for example, that groups of three to seven people produce better-quality decisions and innovations than individuals working by themselves.Your final supermeme, what you call extreme economics – relating everything to money and the bottom line – seems like one we can’t avoid.
You have the story of the chimpanzees at the University of Chicago, where they introduced economics – the simple concept of tokens they could turn in to get snacks – and before they knew it they had a full-blown a heist, a bona fide black market, females were offering sex for tokens, all kinds of things started. Aberrant behavior started to appear once they introduced money. And it became so horrendous that the animal rights people forced them to shut the experiment down.
It’s not a matter of what you use; money has overtaken all our considerations. Nowadays I hear people saying, “I want to send my kids to this college because I want to invest in their future.” You know, my parents never thought of college as an investment, hoping it would pay off like a stock. My dad said, “You’re going to college because you need an education.”
Economics has been a driver of virtually all aspects of our life right now. You know one example – a sad example – prenuptial agreements.
Anybody who has any assets now must discuss a prenuptial agreement. We just expect it to come up. But you know what’s really interesting? They never ask for any kind of custody agreement up front. Now you know you’re going to have children with these people, so do you feel like how you split up the assets is more important than how you’re going to deal with the children? So why isn’t there a pre-custody agreement?
Because we don’t value children as much we value our assets. You want to face the truth, that’s it.
We’re annihilating species from the planet. Is that a result of our economics? We don’t know what the effects of that will be. To me that’s not an economic issue but it will be turned into one. Everything is judged on the bottom line.
We need to keep talking about the triple bottom line: deciding what’s good for the planet, what’s good for people, and not just profit. We should want business plans that are addressing the triple bottom line.At the end of your book, you talk about “reconstituting the world.” What do you see as some changes we can make in Monterey County? If the greatest problems are systemic, can they be addressed locally?
Don’t elect oppositional leaders. Demand solutions, and that we work as a group. Refuse to see the financial bottom line as the only bottom line. Conduct brain fitness exercises.
And we need to take control of our water situation.In Africa, 80 percent of the fatal diseases stem directly from water problems. Mayans tried to deal with drought for 3,000 years. We’re sitting on our hands with this major desal plant. We’re already behind. We need to act. We know what’s coming. Are we different than the Mayans? Our failure to act is not different. If we don’t act, we’re the same, despite our technology.
Steve Chu, head of the U.S. Department of Energy, says our biggest worry isn’t clean energy, but when drought hits one-third of the West. You think illegal immigration is bad now? Wait until a massive drought. We know how this turns out. We’ve seen the movies. I can hear the rattle.
We have an opportunity to lead by example on drought, education and energy. Make these changes with the resources and educated people we have right here, to get ahead of our problems, run our county better, on a level where real change can happen. In [Washington] D.C. it won’t happen.