async iterations

Async Iterations: The Secret Sauce of Cultural Evolution.

In this post, I would like to take a trip through history, describing in part the world of thought, how timz.flowers came into being, and where I see the potential for further developments.

Obviously, we are all living in a phase of rapid change right now. 

Subjectively, this is expressed by the fact that we have been caught in lockdowns for nearly a year worldwide. The reality of life for billions of people around the globe has changed in a matter of a few months.

Biologically, we are observing epochal species extinction. Geologically, we are changing the earth’s crust, atmosphere, and oceans. Scientists are talking about the Anthropocene Epoch in which we are currently living – a new geological era marked by human activity. 

In these unusual times of massive change, all of us need to generate new knowledge faster. We have to be quicker than in the past to remain adaptable. And for the blessing of our descendants, we must move faster to stop climate change before it is too late.

It is worth, therefore, taking a look at how we arrived at knowledge and insight in the course of cultural evolution. Can we identify principles that help us generate new knowledge faster? Where can Scrum Masters and Facilitators expand their fields of activity to achieve valuable products quicker?

Structural Misunderstandings

Have you ever noticed that we cut each other off all the time in normal conversation? It feels so normal that we don’t even notice it anymore. Unless the topic is controversial, then emotions run high. In such cases, we are so animated that we don’t even let each other finish – just an argument, bygones be bygones. 

In reality, this is a structural phenomenon. When a person talks, they never refer to an isolated, discrete topic. Every topic is related to many others. To isolate a topic to the point where it stands exclusively for itself in crystalline clarity is impossible.

Language itself can’t produce this purity because it is based on universal terms, which are general containers of meaning. There is no single word that produces complete interpretive agreement among all people. 

What is a father to me? Or to you? Your father? Your partner’s father? An ideal father? What face do you have in mind when you hear the term? You didn’t have a father? What experiences did you have? Good ones? Bad ones? 

Everyone has a different understanding of the term. This structural misunderstanding between speaker and listener has been discussed for centuries under terms such as “problem of universals” or later as semiotics. The philosopher Jaques Derrida said of this problem: “Reading is writing new.”

We cut each other off

The Linear Timeline is Not Enough

In conversation, the speaker and listener’s perspectives remain hidden from each other. If one person speaks and ten listen, at least ten individual subject complexes arise. In corporate contexts, everyone listens from an individual role related to the topic. 

If one had a super lens that made the associations of the listeners visible, every topic would immediately branch and sub-branch many times in the individual minds of the listeners. 

Now we are trained by the physical facts of reality to lead conversations linearly. Only one can speak at a given moment in time. So there is a natural linear timeline into which we project this branching complexity. The principle looks something like this:

Speaker A | Speaker B | Speaker C| Speaker D | …

Each speaker fights for their speaking time through gestures, mimicking, throat clearing, or, in a quarrel, shouting loudly – doing their best to give their perspective. 

In communicating this way, only a fraction of the team’s thought structure comes to light. 

Now the question arises, What thoughts come to the floor? The most important ones? The angriest? Those of the most important people? 

We don’t know, because other thoughts disappear into a fog of oblivion. This is a consequence of the linear mapping principle of natural conversations. There is constant competition for the few available speaking times.

Whoever wins this competition depends on the composition of the team and the situation. 

What percentage of other valuable or even more valuable thoughts are lost, we do not know. We can only speculate. And we can set out to find a better way to facilitate the creation of better knowledge.

History Is a Treasure Trove of Endless Annotations

Before I propose a solution to this problem, I would like to take a look at history. If we consider the inconceivable technical evolution, we can speak of a great success – at least in the sense of science.

The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead noticed here an interesting principle: 

“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” 

For most, this is a funny quote; for me, it is a leading insight into the cultural evolution of the last two millennia in the Western tradition. We can generalize Whitehead’s idea. We will not find any scientific or technical masterpiece that does not refer to the fundamental insights of our ancestors. 

The history of knowledge works as a huge, constantly growing network of annotations. Participants in this network are given their lifetime to produce thoughts and make them available in written form. Even if they are contradicted in synchronous conversations or articles, their insights remain in precise original form for centuries or millennia. 

Every opposed thought is merely an annotation. If you burn the idea giver, as happened to Giordano Bruno, his thoughts remain. People still can relate to them. And the funeral pyre just draws more attention to the heretic’s thoughts.  

The history of science is thus a history of annotations. Or, as Whitehead smugly notes, a history of footnotes. 

Can this principle be used to accelerate our contemporary knowledge processes? Can we integrate knowledge networks into our everyday lives that organize our thinking processes as annotations?

Would such an annotation network help us to save the team’s branching thoughts from evaporating into oblivion?

Asynchronous Iterations Instead of Synchronous Evaporation

Before literacy, in times of orality, people sang huge heroic epics. The melodic-rhyme format was incredibly important because the words could be better memorized through rhythms and melodies. 

The epics had different functions. They manifested moral laws and values. They served as maps to give the listeners a precise idea of distances and geological formations. 

Above all, however, they served as cultural memory, transmitting knowledge and culture beyond the lifespan of the individual. Therefore, the period of orality was characterized by strict rites and traditions. If the descendants did not inherit the ritual and oral heritage, the culture was lost. 

On the functional level, oral cultures therefore developed more slowly than the more recent literal cultures. 

The later literal cultures could afford contradiction as a cultural technique. They could invent iteration because the original information was not lost with the contradiction. The back and forth of dialectics could develop. It did not matter whether the dialecticians knew each other personally. They iterated asynchronously on the knowledge of their ancestors.

The Speed of Light and Its Slow Discovery

In times of literacy, centuries could lie between fragments of information. Iterations of original information could migrate into other linguistic areas, from Greek into Arabic, Latin, French, German, Hindi, English. The chain of annotations was never really broken but continued over time, enriched by cultural and scientific progress and ethnic diversity. 

A particularly impressive example for me is the discovery of the speed of light. The first proven mention of this absurd idea that light could have a finite speed goes back to Empedocles

Empedocles was a philosophical giant of his time and a madman. According to legend, he ended up jumping into a volcano to destroy all evidence of earthly ancestry. He was the first to demonstrably adopt the idea of a finite speed of light, about 450 years before Christ. 

Later, the idea can be traced nicely in its many dialectic iterations throughout history. Aristotle contradicted him more than a hundred years later. Then, many of the greatest thinkers of human history lined up, names such as EuklidPtolemyKepplerNewtonGalilei. This goes on for more than two thousand years until Christiaan Huygens suddenly mentions a number in the 17th century: 220,000 km/s.

Then the notion moves relatively fast, and the number becomes more and more precise until it is exactly defined in nine digits at the end of the 20th century: 299,792.458 km/s (1983). The precision is impressive. 

But even more impressive is that Einstein elevated the speed of light to the most central constant of space-time – a late and indirect annotation to Empedocles that dominates our entire epoch. It shows how great a seemingly crazy idea can get when we iterate long enough on it.

async video meetings

The Bouncing Ball of Dialectics

If we look at the back and forth of this well-documented development, it is strikingly reminiscent of a bouncing ball. The ball moves in long arcs at the beginning to swing in very short time intervals at the end before coming to a standstill, which is, in this case, scientific precision. A very stable fundamental for further knowledge creation.

Now, the bouncing ball analogy may become important in an AI-driven knowledge network, such as the one we are building. It is a mathematical function that can be used for pattern recognition and automatic facilitation. 

So, if there is an older piece of information that is suddenly revisited by users after a while and iterated on, the information may have a deeper meaning that was not initially recognized. If this process repeats, algorithms can increase the visibility of this information and its later iterations to trigger even more interaction.

Automated facilitation is a promising means for knowledge networks. And here we see the embryo of a social media algorithm, optimized not for entertainment but for knowledge acceleration. 

The bouncing ball is only a handy analogy here. The mathematical function describing the iterations of the discovery of the speed of light probably looks a bit more complex. It needs more investigation. 

Asynchronous Iterations for the Working World

We can see from the light-speed example that the asynchronous creation and exchange of information is a very effective way of building knowledge. Furthermore, it is important to document this information and make it accessible for future consumption. 

This asynchronous iteration is characterized by deep work. The idea giver performs an introspective thought process. Then they annotate high-quality new information to the already existing information network.

In some ways, this sounds trivial; we all know this since we learned science history in school. All of contemporary science is based on the principle of exact citation, and to that extent, the principle is well established.

That is true; however, it is not true in the present working world. Large parts of collaboration take place in synchronous meetings. People sit together and exchange their information. But this information evaporates in the memories of the participants because it is not recorded. 

The ephemeral nature of such information is reminiscent of early oral cultures. Except for the missing techniques of oral culture. Our brains are not trained anymore to memorise six hundred verses for exact citation. 

This pure orality leads to information being lost the moment it is reproduced and forwarded in a distorted way. Or where only its contradiction is passed on and spread. The oral information is easily subject to intentional manipulation, individual bias, and random distortion.  

If the original information is valuable, it has to be reimagined again and again because it is constantly lost in normal conversation-based work loops. 

In addition, as discussed above, competition for little speaking time in linear meetings means important information is not even projected into the meeting’s short timeline. Important perspectives are excluded because speaking time in meetings is often driven by rank and seniority.

Self-Similar Structures Needed

video conferencing software

If we take a bird’s eye view on history, scientifically important developments would look like an ever-branching web. Important nodes of information are linked to others. 

Particularly important information is highly interconnected with other particularly important information. In network theory, these centres are called “rich clubs”. The rich-club coefficient expresses the degree of interconnectedness. 

Einstein’s theories represent a rich club with Maxwell and Newton. But from Einstein, again, sheer infinite connections link to contemporary and future scientists. 

The interconnectedness in science is similar to the basic structure of the human brain. The brain is a self-similar structure. The overall human scientific artefact that comes out of it looks very similar in its networking structure. Origin and result are similar.

The networking structure of the brain allows the simultaneous activation of multiple network nodes. Here it becomes understandable how intuition works. Multiple nodes get activated at the same time. 

Now it is difficult to project thoughts that arise from such a rich structure into a linear timeline. The classical meeting structure is exactly such a one-dimensional structure.

We are, of course, observing attempts to overcome this problem. For example, techniques such as Open Space and later Zoom offer so-called breakout rooms. This way, at least minimal branching can be created. But the weak point is obvious. The summaries of the room hosts do not have enough bandwidth to transport the content of generated information.

No, it needs something else. Something that is radically self-similar. Something that does justice to the basic structure of the human brain. 

Remember, when ten people sit together and talk, there are ten such complex structures assembled. The projection of assembled thoughts into a linear timeline is therefore even more difficult. What about when 90,000 people collaborate in a large company?

CC BY 2.5  Partical map of the internet as example for the richt-club coefficient.

The Company of Tomorrow is Social Media

If we look at the resounding success of social media over the last fifteen years, we have to assume that a basic principle has been recognized there.

There are different social media, but the classics, such as FacebookInstagramRedditYouTubeTwitter, or TikTok, already work with asynchronous iterations to some extent. All interactions take place asynchronously. Most interactions are based on artefacts that were initially created in introspective deep work. 

On YouTube, the active user group creates a video. The same applies to TikTok. On Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit, active users create a post. Others consume it and react asynchronously with comments or curate interactions such as sharing or forwarding. 

There have never been so many good chess players as there are today. I am convinced that YouTube has made a tremendous contribution to this. As a result, the current world chess champion, Magnus Carlson, is the strongest chess player of all time in terms of his performance data. If the base becomes broader, the top can grow higher. 

We observe the same phenomenon in the virtuosity of musicians. Tutorials on YouTube are triggering performance improvements in all professions. 

While social media is often under scrutiny for producing hate and political division, we also see other developments. YouTube and TikTok make valuable contributions with their tutorials in all areas of interest.

Intrinsically motivated users generate a gigantic wealth of knowledge in the aforementioned social media that grows from day to day.

Formerly Passive Employees Become Curators

Passive users have in social media a particularly important function – they are not that passive. Through pure consumption, they already make a statement about the quality of information; we all know the “views” on YouTube are an important indicator. Likes and sharing are important approvals of passive users. 

Passive users fulfil an important curatorial function to distinguish important information from unimportant. Like water, they are a medium in which lighter objects float up and heavier ones sink down. The user learns where to look – on the surface or on the floor.

In classic meetings, the passive user may be cognitively active, but he has few opportunities for interaction. They have no interaction possibilities that have a curatorial function. In other words, a guiding, pioneering function. However, we are seeing the first attempts in this direction with the tools from Mentimeter. 

How Can All of This Change Corporate Communication?

I took a wide swing. We have seen how philosophers and scientists figured out the speed of light through asynchronous iterations to the highest accuracy. What does this have to do with communication in companies?

Well, we are establishing a system that shifts the focus from synchronous communication to asynchronous. In timz.flowers, users communicate with video messages instead of live telephony.

The following effects occur with this:

  • Individual statements become referenceable
  • Users can iterate asynchronously
  • Users can recombine and recontextualize statements 
  • Users can prepare their statements in deep work
  • Statement quality increases
  • Company knowledge does not evaporate but grows into a treasure in a knowledge network
  • As in social media, passive users turn into active curators
  • Users’ activity rate is much higher than in classic meetings
  • Users project the complexity of their thoughts (and speech) into a more powerful, self-similar network than in normal meetings

I assume that companies that use this structure will see very positive effects. 

  • Knowledge does not constantly disappear because it’s forgotten
  • Statements can no longer be distorted and manipulated
  • Important statements can be more easily distinguished from unimportant ones
  • All participants can have their say more easily
  • Competition for speaking time is reduced
  • Users can reallocate distributed knowledge more quickly at the moment of need
  • External experts can be involved more easily. 

We can learn from the history of science, as well as social media, to apply these principles to more efficient and effective communication in companies. I am particularly looking forward to working with Scrum Masters and facilitators from around the world to keep improving the system. Please apply to be one of the pioneers.

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