In a series of three blogs, Senetas CTO Julian Fay explores the importance of collaboration and what it means to organisations in the modern, digital economy.

The bestselling book Sapiens by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari describes in 400 fascinating pages how one species of humans has come to completely dominate the planet.

It turns out that 70,000-100,000 years ago there were several species of humans that walked the earth at the same time; including Homo Sapiens (our ancestors), Neanderthals and Homo Floresiensis. At that time, there were probably less than one million humans in total roaming the earth. Today all human species, except for Homo Sapiens, are extinct and there are seven billion of us on this tiny planet, which we have come to dominate above every other living creature.

The story of how our species did this is told at length in Harari’s book but the core idea is very simple:

Homo Sapiens flourished above all other creatures because of our unique ability to collaborate at scale, through a collective belief in shared stories.

Those shared stories allowed humans to expand from small tribes of hunter-gatherers into much larger communities. So, what were these stories that changed history? Well, they were stories like belief in the presence of gods; rain gods and sun gods who might determine whether crops grow or die. Belief in cultural myths, belief in the idea of currency that allowed trade between humans who had never met before and ultimately into more complex stories such as the idea of justice and legal systems and ultimately even modern fictions such as corporations.

All these ‘stories’ are really ideas that were invented by the human mind and that are not grounded in any physical reality. They are incredibly powerful ideas that powered humans through the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. In many ways, they have shaped our modern world.

I think there are parallels between this concept and how our digital economy works. In our digital economy, we need to collaborate with people who we have never met and that we don’t meaningfully know we can trust. Yet we do this every day, without thinking about it, and it works (for the most part) very well.

It works because in our digital world we have a collective belief; not in the existence of gods, but in the power of mathematics and, specifically, encryption algorithms that provide a secure foundation on which all our digital ecosystems and secure collaborations are built.