Breakpoint: A book review by Bob Morris

BreakpointBreakpoint: Why the Web Will Implode, Search will Be Obsolete, and Everything Else You Need to Know about Technology Is in Your Brain
Jeff Stibel
Palgrave Macmillan (2013)

How and why problems associated with too much growth are as relevant to business and economics as they are to natural sciences

As Jeff Stibel explains, “growth is a core tenet of success. But we often destroy our greatest innovations by constant pursuit of growth. An idea emerges, takes hold, crosses the chasm, hits a tipping point, and then starts a meteoric rise with seemingly limitless potential. But more often than not, it implodes, destroying itself in the process.” In a word, it has experienced a breakpoint. That’s the bad news. The good news, however, is that self-destruction need not occur. “This book is not about failure, or even about breakpoints. It is about understanding what happens after a breakpoint. Breakpoints can’t and shouldn’t be avoided, but they can be identified. It turns out that all successful networks go through a breakpoint, but some fail, but many succeed spectacularly…Growth is nit a bad thing unless it becomes the only thing. Studying biological systems is perhaps the best way to understand the complex networks that humanity has created.”

This last passage frames the nature and extent of Stibel’s subsequent discussion (Chapters Two-Eleven) during which he suggests lessons to be learned from natural phenomena that are relevant to human networks in general and to the brain in particular. Several of these lessons will be of special interest and value to business leaders who are challenged to achieve and then sustain profitable growth with fewer resources and in less time within an increasingly more volatile competitive marketplace. For example, lessons to be learned from colonies of ants and termites about residential design/construction/maintenance, division of labor, renewable food sources, communication, preventive maintenance, climate control, and collaborative response to crisis.

One of several key points to keep in mind is that the evolutionary success of any social species is best explained in terms of its networks. Of all the species that have ever existed on earth, 99.9 percent have gone extinct. The process of natural selection inevitably reaches a breakpoint. Then, as Charles Darwin explains, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” The potential changes that result from a breakpoint are positive and negative. I am again reminded of the fact that the Chinese character for “crisis” means both peril and opportunity.

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which several merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now offer a representative selection of brief excerpts that suggest the thrust and flavor of Stibel’s narrative:

o “Nature has a lesson for us if we care to listen: the fittest species are typically the smallest…The deadliest creature is the mosquito, not the lion. Bigger is rarely better in the long run. What is missing — what everyone is missing — is that the unit of measure for progress isn’t size, it’s time.” (Page 6)

o “There are three phases to any successful network: first, the network grows and grows exponentially; second, the network hits a breakpoint, where it overshoots itself and overgrows to a point where it must decline, either slightly or substantially; finally, the network hits equilibrium and grows only in the cerebral sense, in quality rather than quantity.” (18)

Comment: However, breakpoints offer opportunities for what Joseph Schumpeter characterizes as “creative destruction.” In business, that could be a successful turnaround achieved by vigorous elimination of waste, non-essentials, clarification of focus, and In the human brain, that could involve the elimination of neurons.

o “With so much focus on growth, few people have seen what happens to network in the long term. Growth is necessary when oxygen remains, but once it runs out, you have hit the breakpoint. At this stage, the carrying capacity has been consumed and the market is dominated. It is then, when it is almost impossible for formidable competition to arise, that there is an opportunity for a network to become a business. A network past its breakpoint is like a sea squirt who has found his lasting rock home; its time to reap the rewards and eat the brain.” (133)

o “With animal intelligence as we as artificial intelligence, we keep changing the goalposts [goal lines?]. We draw a line in the sand, we reach that line, and then we cross it out and draw a new line further down. Events leading toward artificial intelligence have been happening for hundreds of years, but there is no one big event that will happen to generate the headline ‘singularity is here.’ We have already reached a singularity, and will reach a singularity. The inevitable conclusion may elude us, but it is no less a fact: artificial intelligence is real, it’s here, and it will continue to evolve.” (177)

o “Not only are networks vital to our success, they’re vital to our success. Post-breakpoint are much, much more intelligent than any individual member of the network. It’s true for humans as much as for other species, and it’s similarly true for technological networks. After all, our technology networks — the internet, web, Facebook — are just tools to further connect our human network.” (185)

o “The network revolution has changed the game permanently, and this is just the beginning. What is to come will be more exciting than ever. Technology is on the verge of creating the types of things habitually reserved for human consciousness, intelligence, and emotion. The future will be limited only by the limits of the greatest imaginations of our technological and biological networks.” (188)

No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the quality and value of the information, insights, and counsel that this book provides. I urge those who read this review to check out others as well as Stibel’s previous book, Wired for Thought: How the Brain Is Shaping the Future of the Internet, as well as another, Dan Dennett’s Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. They can help us to achieve two separate but independent objectives: to expand and enrich our own intellectual capacities, and, to expand and enrich the networks with which we are associated. I agree with Jeff Stibel: ” The future will be limited only by the limits of the greatest imaginations of our technological and biological networks.” I presume to add, the limits on our own imaginations will be self-imposed.

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