How listening to grandma guaranties human evolution

Trust I was lucky enough to drop in on a talk by the chief scientist at at the Dublin Web Summit. And like most great talks, it started by something completely unrelated to his main subject (data science and database management): Bankruptcy. The word comes from “Bench” and “Rupto”. What?! Well, you see. In 13th century Venice, merchants used to sit on benches waiting there for other dealers. Merchants who lied and lost others' trust used to get kicked out and their bench would get broken for them not to be able to come back and deal in the market.


And it's interesting how 'real' trust was. Trust was a bench. If you break trust, your bench gets broken. In today's world, that would be the equivalent of a LinkedIn Profile with an irremovable stamp saying 'LIAR' maybe :)

And it's interesting how the physical space around us carved our emotions and feelings towards each other. How form ends up influencing function in a way. The De la Rullaye brothers gave a great talk at TEDx Sorbonne where they explained how we domesticated water with our tools. We were bale to store it in vases and bottles. I think we even domesticated information through language. We found a way to store it. First in our brains then, with the advent of writing, in our archives. We domesticated relationships when we created families. There was a stable unit that preserved links created among us. We domesticated animals obviously but families and monogamy were men’s way of domesticating women. That same leap in evolution (not the monogamy ;) but the storage part) allowed us to consume what we didn't produce. Because things could now be stored, we were able to consume what others were now able to produce and store. Consumption could now be shifted in time. It wasn't an immediate act anymore.

And along the way, a major technology came about. One that would also carve our relationship: Walls. Let me explain how this circles back to trust. I believe walls appeared first and foremost to shield our sexual privacy. But soon evolved to protect our cities and belongings. In other terms, we built walls because we weren’t comfortable with, and also because we didn’t trust, our surroundings anymore.

cute-cat-doing-walking-on walls


Maybe tribes had grown too big and full transparency was no longer an option. In small tribes, everyone knew everyone and acts were quickly and easily made public: One's trustworthiness was a common knowledge. This was no longer the case in big cities however and I think walls came in to restore that. To make it so trust was again something within our grasp. I think walls decreased cities’ fear of each other and enabled exchange.

Brainpickings sums up a book called “eavesdropping, an intimate history” whose author explains that walls freed us from looking around:

“The disappearance of human vigil gave us the time necessary to build relationships both marital and familial. In other terms: walls brought about structured society.”

Trust was an un-existing concept before walls. You didn't need trust when you could see what others were doing. Computer screens in an office play the same role. How can you trust somebody when you can't see what he's doing? Real-time collaboration brought back instant accountability partly, hence re-instituting the old dynamics we used to have in our primal non-opaque societies. Delayed accountability creates distrust.


Small philosophical stint here: I think it was distrust that brought about the concept of trust. In other terms, distrust precedes trust. I need to know I can trust you because, essentially, I can't.

Trust = human currency

While writing this, I was reminded of the movie "The lives of others". A Nazi officer saves a couple that’s betraying the country’s regime. And the lesson here is that diving into the intimacy of others, beyond the walls that separate us, helps us reconnect in a way. It awakens our primal empathy. It makes us understand and relate to others' feelings, needs and emotions. Walls, large, structured societies, decimated the little empathy our race was still capable of.


Another speaker at TEDx Sorbonne, Frederic Mazella, said something along the lines of: Trust is an exclusive good. Like an apple, if one person consumes it, another person can’t. Dead wrong. Trust is information. It’s a non-exclusive good. Publicly available. What changed however is the easiness with which we can access this information. Whereas in small villages, anyone can vouch or not for someone else’s trustworthiness, that’s not possible in big cities.

Now Fred got something right. Our online transactions could be a way to determine our trustworthiness. It’s as if we were replicating the Venetian market. We’d each have our bench. Kabbage, for example, is an online company that gives loans to online merchants based, among other things; on their ratings on Ebay and Amazon. It’s turning trust into a 5 star rating basically, and acting upon it. Now will the online world turn trust into a graspable concept back from the abstract one walls turned it into? The jury is out.

Tribes = culture-yielding entities

When everything else fails, when institutions, nations and religions disappoint, all what's left is the tribe. This was our first evolutionary instinct. We formed tribes to outrun antelopes then hunt them. Jonathan Haidt, in his TED talk, mentions we are the only mammals capable of forming bigger clusters than the simple groups other mammals form. Take armies for example. Ever seen a 10,000 chimpanzee army? Right.

So if tribes are so important and the primal entity we rely on today isn't the family anymore, as it is the case in most Western countries, will the new support entity be the company? The group with which we effectively spend most of our time.

The strength of tribes lie in their culture actually. It is the traditions or the rites, as a friend puts it, which mold their unity. The fire dances, the masks, the Christmas dinner … And I believe great companies succeed only if they create great cultures, through great traditions. A bottle of champagne for every small victory, a portrait of every new addition … Interestingly communism is supportive of the weakening of tribalization. And that in a way means then it sees itself as a new stage in evolution, redefining what it is to be human. It didn’t miss the tradition bit however. And communal festivities were thoroughly implemented. Trust is the garanty of healthy exchange.


The more we share with others, through common traditions for example, the more likely we are to relate to them, to empathize with them and eventually to trust them. But traditions survive for a reason probably. In our human lives, they compete against the rest. So their survival relies on a mix of time needed to execute, value and behavioral impact. When traditions disappear, it means individualism is probably winning over.

Your grandma in all of this

Our tribes form around common conceptions and convictions, common concepts of beauty... Cultures are collective convictions. There is a beauty in sharing a common subjectivity. And obviously, such a form of unanimity is harder to reach in a large group. At burning man, one probably feels it because people there have a common belief. Start-ups are more efficient and more prone to success because they're made up of like-minded people who share a common conviction. Conviction forms more easily in a small group just as consensus is easier to reach in a small group. The smaller the group, the nearer each member is to the decision point and the more likely it is that the final outcome will meet most peoples’ expectations.

The bigger the group, the more difficult it is to find a common denominator. Still tribes won’t disappear, as big as our societies get. And maybe that’s where Marc Rougier’s TEDx talk comes in:

“We’ve always needed to filter information. Our first online answer was a directory. Yahoo, a dictator. Vader style. The second was Google and search robots. Terminator style. Social media helped us shift to a more human search. Problem is you end up with Ganganm style being the most popular video on the web. Curators are the last step in that filtering evolution. Curation is a means of expression. Subjectivity, pertinence and impertinence are essential to organizing information.”


And that makes sense: In our tribes, tradition, culture, common tales and conviction were the product of the chiefs, magicians … the tribes’ seniors, the references.  The people’s adoption and peer selection then made sure only the best was passed on as a thumb up to the efforts of the elder, the ones who understood how important the tribe was. Grandma in other terms :) Tribes are the fundamental organizing units of information in our societies. Filtering it, selecting it, promoting it, sharing it and ultimately preserving it.

Funny that thumb up turned into a Facebook like today. Our modern culture-creating, tribe-building technology. And funny how opposable thumbs and Facebook likes seem to be more and more what defines us as human today :)