Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Progress of Crowds

I read a business article last week by James Surowiecki about Toyota’s success. One interesting point runs parallel to the belief system of my book, The Secret Peace: “defining innovation as an incremental process, in which the goal is not to make huge, sudden leaps but, rather, to make things better on a daily basis. (The principle is often known by its Japanese name, kaizen – continuous improvement.)”

That’s a classic concept of progress that has fallen in and out of favor, but I wholeheartedly believe in it. Sure, there are sometimes dramatic events or inventions that pop up and make a huge change, but many of those that we learn about actually built on previous work that remained under the radar. There are also often missteps backwards, but the good outweighs the bad.

An important aspect of this is how spread out the improvements are among people: “And so it rejects the idea that innovation is the province of an elect few; instead, it’s taken to be an everyday task for which everyone is responsible. … Toyota implements a million new ideas a year, and most of them come from ordinary workers (Japanese companies get a hundred times as many suggestions from their workers as U.S. companies do.)”

Take the same principle and spread it out among the world’s people, and we see civilization improving daily. The vast majority of people are daily trying to make things better for themselves and their families. (Or, they can be lazy and do nothing; but the number of people actively trying to make things worse is very small.) Many mistakes are made, and big mistakes can push many people back at once (like, say, invading Iraq) but adding together all that effort means history practically has no choice but to improve.

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