An Asimovian Empire Avenue: Hari Seldon, the Market Maker


Isaac Asimov
When I was a kid, there was nothing more enjoyable than cracking open an Isaac Asimov science fiction story. I read them all and dog-eared copies still proudly “hang out” on my bookshelves. From Pebble In The Sky, to the Caves of Steel and the entire Robots series and stories. However, nothing compared to the original ground-breaking Foundation Trilogy. This was the first science fiction series I read without fantastic creatures, without superhuman adventurers, or cataclysmic destruction. It was the story of humanity, civilization, the end of an Empire and catered to my belief that “ordinary” people could do extraordinary things, that each person is inherently of great value. To this day, no science fiction or fantasy series has ever come close to Asimov’s original Foundation Trilogy.

@ChrisPirillo challenged me on Twitter to write a blog post on how science fiction influenced Empire Avenue. I think he was joking, but he had no idea how a singular fictional creation of Isaac Asimov has influenced my personal thinking: Hari Seldon and Psycho-history.

For those that haven’t read the Foundation series, I’m probably going to ruin some of it with spoilers. The great galactic Empire is breaking apart, just like the once-mighty Roman Empire collapsed, into warring states and chaos: it is the start of an intergalactic “Dark Age”. One man uses the subjects of mathematics, economics, statistics, history and psychology to create a path for humans to keep a light on in the dark of the ensuing intergalactic chaos. He uses “Psycho-history” to create a colony called the Foundation and charts its course across 1000 years towards the birth of a new civilized galactic Empire. Order from chaos, based on science, history and economics.

Before Asimov decided to try and tie everything together into a sweeping arc of his own making (which I believe ultimately took away from what his younger self created), the Foundation series set the tone for analysis on how humans as a group acted. In Hari Seldon and Psychohistory is embodied my fundamental belief that human beings, as a whole and as individuals, are for the most part incapable of radical change, only stepwise evolution. We are predictable, not like machines and only in general terms: predictable in our base needs, in our base thinking, in our base reactions. We move from platform to platform, situation to situation and we carry a base set of predictable behaviours, somewhat based on genetics and upbringing, somewhat based on culture, definitely based on the “milieu” and affected by Zeitgeist. It’s not that mathematics can model our behaviour entirely, but more that our behaviour, especially as a group, is not as irrational as we’d like to believe.

Asimov realizes through the series, as do the people of the Foundation, that while mathematics and science could show a general path, humans were still needed to guide people to their end goals; randomness is the hallmark of the universe after all. But I don’t want to spoil the story!

Empire Avenue, I believe, embodies all of the above. Humans are social in similar ways no matter online or offline; the differences have to do with the platform, medium, overall culture as well as socio-economic backgrounds of the participants. Generally though, we don’t change our behaviour. Every time I meet people offline at an Empire Avenue event, it strikes me how much their behaviour offline is similar to how they behave online on Empire Avenue, or should that be the other way around 😉

On Empire Avenue, our algorithms give you a general direction, just like Hari Seldon maps a general course, a starting point if you will. But it’s the humans, you, who are the “Second Foundation” of Empire Avenue. It is you, through your actions in investing your social capital, through the connections you make, through your social networking elsewhere, that charts each individual course.

Like Hari Seldon, the staff at Empire Avenue spend time doing predictive analysis and it isn’t based on pure numbers. We look at your social behaviour, we think about psychology, we look at cultural biases. When you look at our algorithms you are seeing more than just X retweets caused share price to go up, you are seeing the intersection of history, math, psychology, economics and statistics. We always said Empire Avenue is more than just a score, well, maybe it’s the beginnings of Psycho-history.

If you are a parent and say “I wonder what my 13 year old will take from those trashy science fiction/fantasy novels s/he reads?”, well hopefuylly I have now shown you how profound their impact has been on me — as much as Weiss and Hickman’s Dragonlance drove me directly to beg for work at BioWare, but that’s another story. Do note, that the other founders of Empire Avenue and Staff see everything differently, and this is my vision and my opinion only!

So, finally, I raise a glass and toast the memory of Isaac Asimov: a true visionary, scientist and ultimately, despite all the work on Robotics, one of the great humanists of the 20th century. I wouldn’t be here without you! I’m not entirely sure how he would feel that a social game and network like Empire Avenue owes him some thanks, but I suspect he would have chuckled and just composed a limerick.

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