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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Genius in the Group-Think Era?

One other old post that relates to an issue we are discussing in class, as we think about complex systems, emergence and fractal geometry. Benoit Mandelbrot is another example of someone who was able to create a paradigm shift in the field of mathematics. But he was a loner in many ways, someone who was outside the mainstream of mathematics, and who was willing to think outside of what the traditional textbooks taught. He was a self-admitted 'oddball' who did not fit into the usual academia environment. Many others who changed their fields were also more isolated and were willing to question the textbooks of their day - Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, etc. These individuals were also willing and able to take the brunt of criticism from the "establishment" who were disturbed by the very thought that new knowledge in the field could exist. I do worry that we may have more limitations on such thinkers and shakers, and paradigm-shift makers, in the future because of too much connectivity that promotes 'group-think.' Like anything, problems tend to arise when focus goes too much in one direction. We need a mix of group think, but also individual time to question and be skeptical of the group. This has become a business model for companies like Google, where staff must take a rather substantial percentage of time to work on individual projects outside the company driven projects...they realize it is important to have a mix of thoughts and keep creativity and innovation at the forefront of what they do. xHere is a post from December of 2008:

Found an interesting article off Yahoo. It asked the question if Albert Einstein is the last great genius. This is a legitimate question in an age where 'group-think' is becoming the rage. There are obvious benefits to mass collaboration, largely making use of Web 2.0 tools and applications, and the best set of examples I have found are in the book Wikinomics.

One would like to think that individuals can still make a difference. I suspect this will still be the case, but less frequently than in the past. Ideas can blossom so quickly once numerous people share concepts and possible solutions to problems, but I would argue that there lies a chance that group-think may, in some cases, have one idea catch on that leads the pack on a path that ultimately runs into a dead-end. The notion of 'trends' and 'fads' hold true, and the 'latest craze' idea can attract most minds of the group. It may turn out that it will take an individual or small subset of the larger group to break from the group mindset, think outside the box, and develop an original idea that becomes the next focus of the group. Perhaps a good structure to a mass collaboration is to have numerous subsets working on different aspects of the problem from different points of view, so as to resist the temptation to fall into a 'fad' mentality. This falls in line with 'Mediciexity.' One example of the 'fad' mentality may be string theory. The concept of the 'string' is attractive to solving the ultimate questions of the universe, and over the past couple decades many of the most promising and powerful theoretical and mathematical minds have become part of that 'group.' However, all these years later there is not a viable, i.e. testable, theory that fits into the experimental realm of physics. Time will tell if this mass collaboration is worth it in the end...it may end up one brilliant idea, from one brilliant person, completely separated from the string theory group, will end up being correct. Individuals may still change the world.

Perhaps the notion of individual genius making its mark in the modern mass collaboration age is evolving to the point of the genius required to form the right group. Web 2.0 technology has been applied in an unprecedented way by Barack Obama and a small, few person group of advisers. The creativity, forward-thinking plan and then the discipline and message-delivery by Obama himself has taken a young, smart, but relatively unknown and inexperienced politician whose future was supposed to be a decade away (according the group-thinking of the more traditional political parties)to the presidency. It still takes individuals or very small groups to develop a concept and start the larger group/collaboration, so perhaps this is where we will see genius more often than not.

There will always be a place for individuals, so we need to be careful not to push young minds, which tend to be the most creative and open to new ways of thinking, entirely into a group-think mindset...they still need to be encouraged to think for themselves, be skeptical of the group, and not be afraid to offer up 'outside the box' thinking and creative solutions. I want my students, at least, to never shy away from individual interests and ideas, and to not just go along with the latest fad if they don't agree with it. As always, I am not a proponent of going with one way of doing something, but rather using variety; not to fall into a 'whole language only' or a 'phonics only' way of learning, but rather taking the good things from each and using them. Variety, in this case group-think and individual-think, and the good that comes from each, is the spice of the new Web 2.0 life.

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