One to Many – How Things Spread
Patrick and I are going to Amsterdam next month for a little mini-vacation. I’ve never visited, and he’s sending me links to interesting, fun things we can do while we’re there.
One of the places that sounds particularly intriguing is the Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam, the Amsterdam Botanical Garden. In reading about it online, I discovered that they consider the coffee plant one of the “crown jewels” of their collection – which piqued my curiosity; coffee would seem to be the most common of plants.
But as it turns out, the first coffee plant in Europe was grown in the Botanical Garden greenhouses, in 1706. Coffee then went to France as a gift to Louis XIV, via France to its colonies in Central and South America, and finally to Brazil – which is today the largest coffee-producing country in the world.
A fascinating story. And then I realized that this is how ideas spread, as well. Someone thinks of something for the first time — using a pulley, conceiving of zero, E=mc² — and it behaves just like a seed. Sometimes it lies fallow, to be brought to life at a later time (European philosophers re-discovering the Greeks); sometimes it takes root in one place and not another. But eventually, if it’s broadly compelling (the idea of personal will), or it seems to be an accurate understanding of an important phenomenon (the law of gravity) it will spread throughout the world.
It took coffee centuries – by ship and horse-drawn cart – to move from Ethiopia to the the Middle East, to Indonesia, to Europe, to South America. Today, on the internet, an idea can spread throughout the world in days.
And depending on the quality of the idea, that can be a great thing, or a very bad thing. For instance, the viral spreading of ideas seems to be making it more difficult for truly repressive regimes to control large populations over long periods of time. But, on the other hand, there’s the idea that we are all stuck in an endless economic malaise from which we my never recover…the daily reseeding of that idea throughout the world’s media channels is a powerful negative force in prolonging our economic difficulties.
What’s an idea you’d like to see better spread – or one you’d like to see wither and die?