Rory Sutherland

Eugenics for your email

Francis Galton was wrong about how people breed – but right, I suspect, about information

Eugenics for your email
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You won’t read much about Sir Francis Galton nowadays because, while it’s inarguable that the man was a giant in scores of scientific fields (many of which he invented), it is hard to deny that he was a teensy-weensy bit racist. That he wrote a letter to the Times in 1873 entitled ‘Africa for the Chinese’ is probably as much as you need to know.

At the moment, I can’t find my copy of his 1869 book Hereditary Genius; possibly, along with the rest of my vast library on eugenics, it’s at Der Roryhof, my holiday home perched high on a crag overlooking the Bavarian Alps. But I remembered it when my company updated its email interface last week so ‘Reply all’ was now the default mode of reply.

Galton (who invented the term ‘eugenics’) argued that, in the absence of any Malthusian constraint, people of low-quality stock (cyclists, joggers, etc) rapidly outbreed people of high-quality stock (fat, Jag-driving advertising executives, say). There were two factors driving this trend: the inferior sort of people had more children and — just as important — they bore children younger. In a given unit of time you might have three generations of ad executives with two kids apiece, and six generations of joggers with four children apiece; at which point the joggers’ descendants outnumber the advertising executives’ by 1024:4.

Now it’s clear that Galton can’t have been completely right here; for one thing human intelligence seems to be rising. And, with the lone exception of Anni-Frid from Abba, who was the product of a wartime programme where SS officers were paired with Norwegian women ‘to enrich the Aryan gene pool’, attempts to apply the theory to humans did not go well.

However, when I saw the ‘Reply all’ button it occurred to me that we shouldn’t discard Galton’s theory just yet. You see, while it may not apply to human genetics, it may be highly applicable to email — and information in general. Bullshit, like Galton’s low-fitness individuals, may outbreed sense by 1024:4, and for the same reasons: bullshit is more fecund than truth, and it starts breeding sooner.

Email, for instance, is highly dysgenic. The value of the information an email contains is inversely related to the number of people it is addressed to; any email copied to more than five people is usually worthless. And the more trivial the email is, the faster people reply to it. So ‘Reply all’ as a default is a disaster; absent some Malthusian force, my inbox will be trampled by an unthinned herd of irrelevant emails at the expense of anything important.

How would you create a eugenic email system based on Galton’s principles? Try these rules to start: 1) the more people an email is addressed to, the longer it takes to arrive; 2) bcc, not cc, becomes the default for copying people — a bcc is infertile; c) Only emails marked urgent will arrive in real time, the rest will be delivered in batches thrice daily; d) mortality: all unread emails not marked ‘important’ will disappear after 24 hours; e) simple ‘thanks’ and ‘like’ buttons should be devised to kill needless replies.

Additionally, on social media, all posts with pictures containing the author’s children or pictures of cakes would be deleted after 30 minutes, and all posts expressing outrage at someone’s supposed comments would be deferred by 72 hours to allow the provost of University College London time to determine whether the incident in fact occurred before anyone was forced to resign. (Building a time buffer into communication can be beneficial: it is a profoundly stupid assumption of technologists that instantaneous always equals good.)

Social Darwinism was a bad idea. But Social Media Darwinism? It could work.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK.