Population, connectivity and innovation


Jason Collins


June 21, 2012

Near the close of his acceptance speech for the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Julian Simon Memorial Award, Matt Ridley suggests that the total number of people is not the major driver of technological progress:

[W]hat counts is not how many people there are but how well they are communicating. … [I]t’s trade and exchange that breeds innovation, through the meeting and mating of ideas. That the lonely inspired genius is a myth, promulgated by Nobel prizes and the patent system. This means that stupid people are just as important as clever ones; that the collective intelligence that gives us incredible improvements in living standards depends on people’s ideas meeting and mating, more than on how many people there are. That’s why a little country like Athens or Genoa or Holland can suddenly lead the world.

Bryan Caplan takes on Ridley’s argument:

Isn’t the correct position clearly that both population and communication matter?  A two-person world linked by Skype wouldn’t be very creative.  Neither would a world of a trillion people in solitary confinement.  Creativity requires minds to generate ideas, and mouths to share them. …

I agree that we need to consider both population and communication, but there is a third element: quality. Caplan nods to this in his response to Ridley’s statement that stupid people are just as important as clever ones:

This is frankly an absurd leap.  Geniuses are overrated?  Maybe.  Stupid people are “just as important” for progress as clever ones?  Come on.  Question for Ridley: Whose the most creative person alive with an IQ under 100?  Under 80?

Without quality, quantity or connectivity, technological progress of the type we see today would not be possible.

Take an example Ridley uses in the speech - that the internet and mobile telephony had no inventor. True, they were collective enterprises involving many networked people using many accumulated technologies. But what was the average IQ of the inventors of the technology used in creating them? Or the average level of education?

Or consider the comment on Caplan’s post where Ridley notes the success of Athens, Genoa, Holland, New York, San Jose, Singapore and Hong Kong. They do not look like a random sample. They comprise intelligent, educated populations.

Ridley’s agnosticism about whether people are smart is reflected in his recent post dismissing concern about shrinking brains. As I mentioned then, there are few better predictors of a country’s wealth than the IQ of the population. There are significant benefits to a high average IQ.

Finally, connectivity is at least partly a consequence of quality. Higher IQ people are more trusting and more likely to trade. Those with higher IQ are more likely to be connected and share the ideas they have created.