Paper’s Revenge


11 April 2006

Financial analysts are being asked to sign documents agreeing that they will only publish their research “in physical form” and not allow it to be “included in an electronic retrieval system” before Tuesday’s briefing by Standard Life, a British company.

They must also agree not to distribute their findings to the USA, Canada, Japan, or Australia, and to limit the recipients to professionals, not private investors or the general public.

This is one of the better examples I have found recently of the disruptive power of the internet. It is not about the technology, but about our ability to change our social, cultural, and legal norms to take advantage of new developments in our world. In this case a combination of factors seem to be behind the Luddite stance of Standard Life, including an understandable fear of legislation that is still rooted in the outdated concept of nation states, but also a deep, long-established (and long-criticized) corporate culture of secrecy and arrogance.

Changing social and cultural norms is something Homo sapiens sapiens is just not very good at. It was Suw Charman who first pointed out to me that perhaps the main reason some segments of society feel threatened by and fearful of the internet is exactly because it forces us to change our norms, and change is always scary. In The Prehistory of the Mind, Steven Mithen makes a reasoned argument that social intelligence, the ability to work together as a group and society, is the oldest development of the human brain. Anything that challenges our social structures therefore raises very ancient and primitive fears in our species that are very hard to control.

(Amazon UK paid link)

This is a problem, and one that is larger than the internet. For sure, the degree of human connectivity that has been achieved is an extreme change, and therefore challenging. But global warming will force massive changes in the physical distribution of humans and change the relative power balance between those outdated nation states, and advances in biology will challenge what it means to be human and to be alive. The pace of change is accelerating, and it is not completely clear that our brain structures will be able to cope.

On the other hand, I also read in today’s news that Disney will begin a two-months trial to make some of their television programs available for download, so perhaps there is still hope.

But my money is on thousands of years of brain evolution. I will be buying stock in paper companies.