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Pollan’s potatoes and the spread of ideas


Last weekend I watched The Botany of Desire. In this PBS documentary I streamed off Netflix, Micheal Pollan (the foodie hero who brought us The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book also called The Botany of Desire, and the documentary Food, Inc.) examines the natural history of the spread of four plants: apples, tulips, potatoes, and marijuana, but with a twist– he tells the story from the plants’ point of view.

Man, I love stuff like that. By switching the perspective, Pollan is able to show how each of these plants has manipulated humans into propagating it far and wide throughout the world. For example, apples are indigenous to the mountains of Kazakhstan and potatoes to Peru, but now both can be found pretty much everywhere. And wait ’til you watch the section about marijuana, a plant that has managed to get many humans to raise it better than their own children.

I thought it might be interesting to take Pollan’s trick, but rather than apply it to plants, apply it to ideas. Get all anthromorphic and consider how ideas get us to spread them.

There are tons of people out there looking at how ideas spread, probably most famously/recently Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. But what if, for a second, we take the perspective that the ideas might be using us the same way flowers use bees.

Early in human history, ideas weren’t particularly good at getting us to do their bidding. Heck, the idea for inventing paper first showed up in Egypt over 5000 years ago, and it couldn’t even get humans to take it one continent away to Asia. The idea for inventing paper appeared in China independently about 3500 years after it appeared in Egypt, according to what Wikipedia tells me.

The ideas got better at it over time. As paper spread, ideas started to propagate themselves better too. The printing press helped, universities and libraries helped too. Fast forward to today, and ideas are now ridiculously good at getting us to do their bidding.

A few weeks ago, John Poelstra’s blog pointed me to a Chris Brogan post entitled “Are we addicted to giving our own opinions?” In it, Brogan points out that now that we have these incredible social media tools like Twitter and blogs and whatnot at our disposal, we are giving our opinions more than ever– almost viewing our ability to do so as a right.

Maybe this is what the ideas had in mind all along. Get humans to invent better and better tools to spread them.

5000 years ago, an idea couldn’t make it from one continent to another. Now millions of ideas pass across every continent on the planet every second. It used to be that only a few select people could spread ideas– people that published books, taught school, people who traveled, for example. Now almost every person on Earth with a computer can, as Poelstra and Brogan point out, spread an idea to any other person on the planet, whether it is an idea for solving world hunger or an opinion about Tiger Woods’s extramarital affairs.

Impressive– the potatoes would be proud.

A final thought: I wonder if the open source way is just another tactic by ideas to get us to spread them faster and further. After all, one of the things that has caused ideas to die is getting them stuck inside the walls of one company as intellectual property.

Maybe open source is one more killer move by ideas to escape and propagate.

About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is President & Partner of New Kind, where he builds sustainable brands, cultures, and communities in and around organizations. He is the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World and is the Community Guide on the Management Innovation Exchange (hackmanagement.com).

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