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 / Winter 2007 / Issue 49(originally published by Booz & Company)


Best Business Books: Behavioral Theory

How We Know and Why We Act

Mark Buchanan
The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You
(Bloomsbury USA, 2007)

John Henry Clippinger
A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity
(Public Affairs, 2007)

David Weinberger
Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder
(Times Books, 2007)

Although it’s tempting to view new technologies as objects of wonder or ends in themselves, history shows that the most significant technological breakthroughs are those that prompt profound changes in the way human beings behave. This year three books introduce fresh theories about the ways in which such wondrous technologies as the Internet and mobile phones are changing human behavior everywhere.

These three new books — A Crowd of One: The Future of Individual Identity, by John Henry Clippinger; The Social Atom: Why the Rich Get Richer, Cheaters Get Caught, and Your Neighbor Usually Looks Like You, by Mark Buchanan; and Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder, by David Weinberger  — encourage us to lift our gazes beyond the cool designs and functionality of today’s computing and communications technology to consider how digital tools are transforming the way we live individually and interactively; how we organize, specialize, market, signal, coordinate, transact, communicate, conspire, brainstorm, deliberate, manipulate, negotiate, and reciprocate. What we know and who we know will always be important to success in all aspects of life, especially in business. But increasingly, these authors argue, how we know and how we share what we know are becoming just as essential to success.

Paleontologists have long understood that the abil­ity to create weapons wasn’t enough to explain how our evolutionary ancestors — lightweight bipeds who lacked claws, fangs, or wings — became the most successful predators on the savannah. It’s only recently that social scientists have come to understand the importance of human beings’ capacity to share what they know with one another, to work together to manage and improve their lives, and to use that ability to invent new means of communication and social forms. If Clippinger, Buchanan, and Weinberger are right, the networked society, the always-on lifestyle, and the global economy that digital networks have made possible over the past 20 years are merely setting the stage for momentous changes in the behaviors and beliefs of billions of people around the world in years to come.

A New Identity Narrative
In A Crowd of One, John Henry Clippinger shares the theories of evolutionary psychologists and sociologists who think they’ve found evidence that the unique human capacity to negotiate social contracts and keep track of other people’s social behaviors is what enabled our primate ancestors to evolve from herds and packs to tribes and communities. As the human brain evolved, it developed the capacity for ever more sophisticated social interaction — detecting the motives of others, tracking complex relationships in social networks, and remembering past favors and slights. These capabilities give groups powers that individuals can’t summon on their own, and lead to new innovations in social organization, Clippinger says. With the onset of the digital communications age, he argues, we are once again evolving our neural capabilities.

Paradoxically, though, at the core of every group enterprise is the individual, and at the core of every in­dividual is identity. Clippinger, an advisor to the United States military and a senior fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, asserts that we human beings have new powers and opportunities to influence, and even attempt to design, our own identity. He marshals evidence from the social behaviors that are just now emerging on digital networks to argue that we can use what we know, how we know, and how we share what we know to productively shape “identity narratives.”

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