Kentucky, Galapagos Islands, Franchises and Groupthink

The state of Kentucky has 120 counties. It has so many because the idea was that you should be able to make it to the county seat and back in a single day. That speaks to how isolated people used to be.

Likewise, the Galapagos Islands are known for their diversity, in part because the islands are so isolated. That isolation provided the opportunity for species to evolve on their own.

I’ll bet that businesses that began from 1900-1950 were more varied than businesses that started from 1950-2014. I suspect that the growth of franchises has radically reduced the diversity of businesses. Drive around almost any city in the U.S. and you’re likely to see the same cookiecutter chains that you could see in almost any other city. The disruptive advent of the car brought all sorts of new opportunities, but it also encouraged a monoculture of franchise businesses.

The web has been an amazing invention. On one hand, you could create a website and instantly reach a worldwide audience. That disruption has created a ton of opportunities that are still being explored. But I do wonder if connecting so many people to each other will lead to certain types of groupthink.

If connecting so many people ultimately leans toward less diversity of thought, that might prevent society from making faster progress or exploring new approaches to problems. Maybe that’s why many successful recent businesses have seemed crazy or contrarian at first blush?

16 Responses to Kentucky, Galapagos Islands, Franchises and Groupthink (Leave a comment)

  1. Diversity of thought was the big dream and rallying cry of the internet in the ’90s. However, in the 10’s, the web is becoming increasingly dominated by large content creators and aggregators – Disney, Google, etc.

    When the web was new, you could create a web page on any topic and reach a worldwide audience. Now, network effects have played out, and the web is dominated by those who got in first and won. The large content creators are the ones with the resources to produce professional-looking sites, to analyse their traffic and perform A/B testing to make their content more attractive. They are the ones with the resources to stay on top of emerging trends and technologies.

    To a far greater extent than in the 90’s, the big players are able to proactively ensure they stay ahead. The small, new players will be lucky to achieve one-hit-wonder status.

  2. Max, This is interesting. Diversity does not guarantee development, and isolation may not always be inspiring. Also, connectivity cannot curtail creativity.

    The creative component increased since connections developed in the human history. The creative always have the courage and control to craft their own unique way, in whatever circumstances.

    Groupthink will no doubt develop and might have its pros and cons – it can also directly or indirectly serve as the cause or reason to a better and revolutionary new idea or invention to progress further. That’s evolution.

  3. Max, This is interesting. Diversity does not guarantee development, and isolation may not always be inspiring. Also, connectivity cannot curtail creativity.

    The creative component increased since connections developed in the human history. The creative always have the courage and control to craft their own unique way, in whatever circumstances.

    Groupthink will no doubt develop and might have its pros and cons – it can also directly or indirectly serve as the cause or reason to a better and revolutionary new idea or invention to progress further. That’s it.

  4. Hi Matt,

    A fascinating post on something I have been considering for a while too because you are talking about evolution and what I see is that evolution is everywhere. What I would put to you is that evolution and development look different depending on your viewpoint. Like you I notice most the common large companies that all look the same and wonder where the diversity is.

    Then I wonder if my viewpoint hides the diversity. For example both Apple and Google subsume other companies in order to grow. I have heard that Google were buying a company every week and I certainly noticed that when they bought the company behind wave the related technology became integrated quickly in google docs. On TWIG I think it was you who explained how google were making this leap.

    Apple do the same and so do microsoft because that is common practice for bigger companies. In the same way organisms in nature create symbiotic relationships or subsume other organisms, mitochondria being subsumed by a larger cell is an obvious example.

    All I am getting at is that in all ecosystems we notice the obvious big stuff because you can’t miss it but there have always been the small and medium sized organisms. I believe there have also always been small and medium sized companies for the exact same reason that ecosystems create them.

    Thanks for the interesting question. I think you have a point but I also believe that the there are always new ecosystems evolving on top of the existing ecosystem that will provide the impetus for future diversity. 3D is one area I am following that has yet to make the leap to the mainstream internet for example. In its greatest form it is still locked away on consoles with only a few decent opportunities for use within standard browsers. That is just one example of the diversity out there, atleast as far as I can see.

  5. I been thinking of that myself. I’m 60 now, and when I travelled Europe back in the 1970s, you could buy stuff in every country, every region of a country that were unique. Bring souvenirs home that no one ever seen before. Now it’s more or less the same products you can buy in Denmark, Italy or Greece.
    Does it matter? I read somewhere (I forgot the source), that it is in the human nature, that the maximum of people you can know during a lifetime (and I mean know, not just as friends on Facebook or Google+) is 127. I think it is worth to think about that. So everyone outside these 127 are someones that you really don’t know, except forname, adress, aso.
    The important thing is: Who did you choose, or who did choose you within this circle of 127 people? Which micro-universe did you create out of these 127 during your lifetime? I have only a few decades left to live, but I think I still got a few more to include in those 127 people.
    In the “old days” – at least the “old days” I knew: the 1950’s and 1960’s – most people’s micro-universe of 127 people were the village, a part of the city where they lived and/or worked. You could drive through and “read” from how they lived, how they were.
    It’s no longer so. Most people pick their 127 people from many parts of the world, including over the internet, they move about much more than before, they get their food, information, experiences, education, etc from maybe all over the world, and thus create an “invisible” micro-universe. It is there, but you just can’t “drive through” and see it, visible.
    The last two years, I have a hobby. I walk around in Denmark, and watch how the “local” or regional society no longer exist like in my “old days”. I have to scratch the surface to find what is underneath. But there IS “something” underneath, and I leave the proof on my blog, Vandringsløse Tidende.
    Just to mention one thing: In the 1950’s and 1960’s we all did see the same television. We talked about what we saw the day before, because it was the same. It’s no longer so. With the possibility of choosing 100-200 different channels – the diversity you ask for – people construct their own television universe, instead of it’s the television universe creating you.
    There is a catch: The diversity of the television channels is an illusion. They pretty much show the same, if not programs, then concepts. And that’s my point: There were more diversity in the 1950’s, but really, it was just an illusion! Something people THOUGHT were there.
    My two cents!

  6. It cuts both ways. There may have been more variations on how to run a general store in days of yore, but there had to have been a lot less room for specialization. With larger and more connected economies, you can afford to be store that sells party supplies or antique books or Japanese food ingredients. The Sears catalog opened up new options for people who wanted to venture beyond a general store, and the Internet is doing the same now. No longer do you have to live in a city to get access to specialty markets. However, for local purchasing done in person, I still think cities offer more economic room for non-chains.

    For groupthink, it’s the filter bubble again. You can choose to surround yourself with like-minded folk or you can choose to go farther afield. I suspect that, as with economic activity, the Internet will foster niche/contrarian/countercultural beliefs as much as it will squash them. Want to speak Latin? There’s a community for that now, even though it’s a dead language. I do think the Internet can lead to cultural homogeneity (as did TV before it), but I also think it makes it vastly easier to encounter other ideas. I can now read Chinese newspapers, for example.

  7. The Gallapagos ecosystem (I’ve seen first hand) is very simple because there wasn’t much migration of land species. This simplicity made it easy for Darwin to visualize evolution. Thd Amazon or other “connected” ecosystems have a lot more diversity.

  8. It does make sense and I sometimes wonder if this is adding to our political polarization. People gathering with like minded other people leading to a decrease in diversity of thought.

  9. Part of the group think issue has to be partly lain on the feet of the companies (including Google) who use personalization and filter bubbles that increase the likelihood of confirmation bias. This is not just in how we think, but what we buy, and what we see.

    Why is this an issue? Innovation and creativity require contrary thought and exposure. If we are only exposed to what we already know, what we already see; we are do not have the outliers in our world that allow us to take our thoughts, jump bridges and bring them together. Ie if I never exposed to alternate views and realities I never creatively organize these in my mind which can lead to new ideas and beliefs even innovation. (No sparks of insight or aha moments where dissimilar ideas are brought together)

    This is similar to the Galapagos. The animals are diverse because of exposure to environments and evolution. We become diverse in our thoughts and manifestations of these thoughts by exposure to differing mental stimulation and environments. Ie How do we evolve if even though diverse in appearance, we are not made to adapt and evolve our thought.

    Now the Internet is not the first to create homogenous thought of course it has been with us since well – man, but it was the first to really offer a method of disruption without requiring a change of environment.* It exposed us to new worlds and ideologies which are gradually bring lost with the pushing of geolocal, personalized and filtered information. Which is why the loss of unfiltered sites like Twitter as an unrestricted source of information is infinitely sad for our ability to learn, adapt, evolve and grow. There is a reason it helped spark revolution.

    So to answer the question that seems to be lain out is to point out that while animals evolve in differing environments even when isolated from other animals as part of evolution. Man’s evolution is based on mental dissonance which can evolve in isolation given proper input.

    So while they are really the same, they are measured differently. The solitary man with a 1,000 books can become radically diverse in thought and opinion. Then from that he might go into society and change the environment of many. So he can be isolated, yet changed by the mental input. Whereas animals evolve in their physical environments, so diversity of environment creates change in the physical populations and isolation from other influences has no effect on development. The stimulation for change is similar, but the application point is not. One is mental and one is physical.

    That’s my take on it anyway 🙂
    Though wondering if this makes any sense at all LOL

    *Libraries were once this as well.

  10. Now you’re thinking outside the box, or non-cookie-cutterish yourself. I hope we don’t have too much groupthink because that might slow the progression of the human race. I agree we absolutely need what might seem crazy at first like those businesses you mention that seem crazy or contrarian when they first appear. When I started my business other IT guys told me it was stupid to do virus removal with reformatting and they were wrong, because that has become my market niche. People love to have viruses removed without reformatting and losing their programs, settings, and personal files and photos.

    I worry, now that you mention it, about the groupthink because the internet does spread ideas quickly, both bad and good ideas. Some really bad ideas might take hold and do so widely. Yet on the internet there is also something for everyone. With search you can possibly find other people who think like you or are like you so you don’t feel alone in your thoughts or way of being.

  11. I see a relationship between your post on power center cities and franchises. The root cause of both of them is centralized control by the federal government. When you centralize power you get centralized power. Too-big to fail banks are exhibit a. This does lead to less diversity of thought as there is one central force that many peoples energies and thoughts are directed toward appeasing.

    The internet if anything should have fractured this control. The governments response has been to try and wrestle control back. We will see who wins out. I am guessing we are in for a bout of less centralization as governments around the world are destroying their credibility one bad decision after another.

  12. … “connecting so many people ultimately leans toward less diversity of thought”
    Good point Matt; I actually worry about this more often than less. The way I try to stay objective is by asking “why” as often as I can.

  13. While much of the new construction in the USA is very much the same, and very boring in some ways, there are still a tremendous number of cool and unique places once you get off the beaten path.

    As far as businesses, I think creativity is exploding, especially with so many young people accessing so much information and so many other people with fantastic tools at their disposal. And what they decided to do with those tools and the speed of change is amazing to me. My 9 year old can download mods for Minecraft and skype with a group of gamers all over the US and even the UK. What he’ll be doing by the time he’s 20 I can’t imagine.

    While there is some groupthink, creativity is growing, IMHO.

  14. I think this is a very important question and one that we will be discussing a lot during the next 5-10 years. I guess we will not really know the actual effect of the Internet on society before 50-100 years after its birth. We can of course already see different trends and developments, but the big picture and cause and effect is difficult when right in the middle of it.

    It could be very interesting to see some of the great philosophers of today discuss this topic. Maybe you could arrange this Matt? 🙂

  15. I find it slightly ironic to read this interesting post considering the source. It seems to me that Google, and perhaps even Matt’s team in particular, play a large role in steering users towards “less diversity of thought” via search results.

  16. I find it slightly ironic to read this in light of the author.

    Doesn’t Google, and perhaps even Matt’s team in particular, play a large role in steering users towards “less diversity of thought” via search results?