October 27, 2013

The Three Proto-Skills of Civilisation : Language, Mathematics & Infotech

A species evolves when some of its members acquire some characteristics that gives them an advantage in the competition for resources, a characteristic that makes them more "fit to survive" in a hostile and adverse environment. From this perspective, the appearance of language in the animal world was a watershed moment in the ascent of man.  It may not have happened overnight but the emergence of this unique ability  to capture fleeting perceptions and experiences as concepts and ideas in a matrix of grammar and vocabulary and then transmit them for debate and discussion gave such huge evolutionary advantage to those apes who acquired this ability that in effect a new society was born. Language was a very unique skill -- a skill that allowed one to acquire, modify, transmit and disseminate knowledge and information about other skills like hunting, cooking, farming and building shelters. It did not matter which skill was important for survival, a language to talk about the skill was a pre-requisite to acquire all the other skills. Hence language is the first proto-skill.
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Using language as a key differentiator, human society evolved rapidly away from the rest of the animal kingdom and established itself as the dominant species of the planet. Things were relatively placid for the next 100,000 years as human society gradually fractured itself along racial, geographic and finally national boundaries and then as nations started competing with each other, the importance of a new skill or ability made itself apparent and this was the rationality of the scientific method or, its epitome, mathematics.

The renaissance in Europe, that brought down the curtains on the Medieval Era in Europe in the 15th century and led the way to the Modern Era was powered by mathematics. This may sound a little odd to those who have been brought up on a staple diet of algebra, arithmetic and geometry in school but one must understand that mathematics is something far more fundamental. We may be aware of Euclid's theorems of geometry but what is far more important is the brilliant structure of axioms and proofs that allow us to begin with the simplest of facts and create an edifice of knowledge whose completeness and veracity can be established beyond doubt even in the face of extreme complexity. Knowledge is power and mathematics makes knowledge infinitely extensible, both in width, that is across domains, and in depth into each specific domain. All areas of modern knowledge are based on these fundamental principles of mathematics, though in some cases, as in science and technology, the importance of mathematics is more readily apparent. Hence mathematics is the second proto-skill. In this context it is interesting to note that mathematics depends on and cannot exist without language -- even though the language of mathematics may be very different from the language used in the bazaar !

However mathematics, the second proto-skill, works as very significant force multiplier on the advantage provided by language, the first proto-skill. A group that "has" language has a strong advantage over a group that does not,  just as a group that "has" mathematics has a strong advantage over a group that does not, but a group that "has" both language and mathematics has a far, far stronger advantage over a group that "has" just language.

While there is no doubt that language and mathematics are key proto-skills that a population (or a community or a group) needs to ascend the evolutionary spiral it is also true that the first mover advantage is temporary. Once all human populations acquired the first proto-skill, language, it ceased to have the same value across human populations and it was the appearance of the second proto-skill, mathematics, that provided the next level of differentiation and dominance. Even today, we find that societies that have adopted the path of rationality or mathematics, are more successful than societies that are stuck in irrational beliefs and prejudices of the middle ages.

The main hypothesis of this post is that information technology, or infotech is the third proto-skill -- both at the personal as well as at the societal or group level -- that is powering and will continue the power the next phase of the upward evolutionary spiral.

It goes without saying that infotech is everywhere. While there may be spectacular progress in many areas  --  from the design and constructions of space stations, through genetics, molecular biology, robotics, manufacturing, supply chain optimisation, advertisements, marketing, movie making, human relationship management, energy management, smart cities and all the way up to social relationships through social media, and the list can go on as long as you want -- the key driver in each and every area is the usage of increasingly complex tools of information technology.

Irrespective of its skill or aptitude in any other area of  human endeavour, an individual or an organisation that is uncomfortable with the usage of infotech is extremely vulnerable to the competitive threat posed by one that has mastered infotech, the third proto-skill. It is not that infotech is valuable only to a computer scientist, a professional programmer or an infotech company. Anyone who chooses to specialise and excel in any area must first get his infotech right because it is infotech that will be the force multiplier that will propel the individual or the organisation in whatever direction that it wants to move.

Does this mean that everyone must study the algorithms and data structures of computer science ? Or learn to write Java, Python, or Hadoop :-) programs ? Or build faster microchips ? No certainly not. In the case of language, it is not that everyone had to become Panini, Shakespeare, Wren & Martin or Rabindranath Tagore but it was the ability to articulate and manipulate thoughts that separated the men from the apes. In the case of mathematics, it is not that everyone has to be Newton, a Gauss or a Godel but every humble engineer working on any branch of engineering was using their tools and techniques to create better systems related to machinery, habitat, energy and food. So is the case with infotech. You or  your company may be in a business that is far removed from infotech -- you may be prospecting for oil, selling soap or even serving idlis and dosas for lunch -- but unless you have a deep understanding of infotech and how it can, does and will impact your business then the possibility of your growth is severely limited.

To reiterate the centrality of infotech in the 21st century may sound like a tautology to a generation that has been weaned on smartphones and social media but perhaps because we are living in the age of computers we do not have the perspective to understand the immensity of the impact that it is causing on human society. The first apes who made the first few noises that eventually became language never knew the revolution that they were unleashing on the world. Da Vinci and Newton might have had the foresight to understand what they were doing but it is highly unlikely that their neighbours would have been any wiser. We, who have the good fortune to be a witness -- as a participant or a bystander -- to this emergence of infotech must understand and appreciate that we are living through the third great surge in human civilisation. Where man and machine, mind and matter is coming together to create an incredible tomorrow.
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Change Log : The original post used the word Meta-skill to describe what is being referred to as a Proto-skill. I just thought that proto is better than meta to describe the skill that comes before or is a pre-requisite for the subsequent skills

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