You can assess trends by the status of the participants

I conjecture that, everything else being equal, the level of your education is inversely correlated with innovation.

  • At first, a new idea appears interesting, but it carries no prestige. And there are few financial incentives. Think homebrew computers before Apple. Or blogging in 2003. The people who first join are sociopaths (as per the Gervais principle) who often lack formal education. They recognize what this new idea might do. Yet they are unconcerned by their place in society. They may not even have a resume.
  • Once an idea picks up steam, incentives become more apparent. The community then expands to include people who are slightly more conformist. You will start to see more college degrees. Companies are built. Jobs are created. Think blogging in 2005, or Apple releasing its first personal computer.
  • After some time, it has become obvious that the idea is solid. Think Apple a few months after the Apple II was launched. Or blogging in 2010. People who value greatly prestige finally join up. You start to see prestigious degrees. There are now established practices and some level of expected conformity.

If my conjecture is at least partly true, then you can assess trends by the status of the participants. When you see new trends, such as homebrew 3D printers or open source electronics, how many MIT degrees do you see? Conversely, by the time the prestigious degrees are flocking in, maybe the real innovation is elsewhere?

Fun fact: In 2007, Morgan Stanley, Lehman Brothers, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs were among the top 10 employers of MIT graduates. (Source)

Acknowledgement: I was inspired to write this post by P. Bannister.

8 thoughts on “You can assess trends by the status of the participants”

  1. Perhaps it is more that the first 70% of a new idea is low hanging fruit and relatively simple techniques work, but refining it and squeezing out that last 30% often requires much more work and much more sophisticated techniques?

  2. Thing is, we are largely only concious of the sociopaths that succeed because they make waves and the news reports on them.

    Early adopters may always be sociopaths, but the other 90% of the sociopaths are involved in get rich quick schemes that never work out.

    Thus, while sociopaths are critical for radical innovation, we should definitely not all be sociopaths. Reminds of the dual decision problem of learning, but at a group conciousness level.

    Not to be harsh, but I’m going to posit that the major failure of a lot of your arguments about education are derived from your priveleged position in a society where Foucauldian ideas about social control aren’t regularly interrupted by people with guns.

  3. @Nate

    Not to be harsh, but I’m going to posit that the major failure of a lot of your arguments about education are derived from your priveleged position in a society where Foucauldian ideas about social control aren’t regularly interrupted by people with guns.

    Thanks for the reference to Foucault.

    Do we need to face guns to have worthwhile ideas?

  4. Lovely post, I really enjoyed this one. My friend was telling me about a hacker startup here in San Diego building autonomous flight vehicles, made up mostly of Mexican kids from both sides of the border. Not a prestigious degree among them, but apparently doing some of the most innovative work in the field.

  5. As an idea matures, more people of all types participate, leading to a regress towards the mean. This can lead to either a higher or lower concentration of “prestigious degrees.” For instance, the internet first took off in academia, and the web was invented in a research lab filled with “prestigious degrees.” I would wager that the fraction of web users with PhDs has gone down significantly since.

    Moreover, since prestigious degrees are somewhat rare, it should be no surprise that they are also somewhat rare among early adopters of anything. I’d like to see the evidence that their representation is below average.

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