How to Pick a Winner

Everyone likes to pick a winner. There’s something smug and satisfying about prevailing in a heated contest. And we all know the dread of betting on the wrong horse.

In a time when many of us feel incapable of picking a winner for lack of options, I’d like to share a secret. If you want to back a real champion, side with a virus.

Viruses are interesting little things. They have no shame about appropriating the hardware of their host to propagate until the cows come home. They thrive on the structure of host organisms, protected in their cells, transported by their blood, powered by their fuel. The most prevalent viruses don’t kill us—they just encourage us to share abundantly. Mmm.

Most interestingly, viruses aren’t particularly protective of their source code. In fact, they thrive on chance mutations and inaccurate replicas that deviate so quickly that human antibodies fail to recognize them only a few weeks later.

This virus is worth spreading. (Mashup of "Swine Flu H1N1 virus influenza 4.0" by hitthatswitch CC-BY-NC-SA (
This virus is worth spreading. (Derived from “Swine Flu H1N1 virus influenza 4.0” by hitthatswitch CC-BY-NC-SA

Ideas can behave this way, too. Consider this one: education is sharing.

The idea is simple enough: two nouns and an equals sign. Both seem like good things, ideals we were taught to value as kids. It’s simple and small enough to enter just about any system and sit there, dormant, waiting for an opportunity to abruptly duplicate itself repeatedly ad nauseam.

To borrow a marvelous phrase from an old missionary companion, viruses are ambitiously lazy. Big, complicated organs and bodies are difficult to change. They’re complicated. So why bother? Like microscopic judo masters, viruses side-step this mismatch, using their host’s strength against them. Their true excellence is in war, not in individual battles; their dominance is numbered in populations.

So too with this idea. It’s not going change K-12, colleges, or universities with invasive surgery. It’s not going radically overturn any critical system full of stability and storied history (at least not immediately). Rather, it will float along, quietly leveraging existing communication structures, naturally co-opting the mechanisms that tend to spread it around.

Eventually, they’ll end up in places like the lungs and throat; the launchpad for wide-scale diffusion. By becoming just strong enough, they’ll compel their host to project them like self-propagating rain around their world, hoping to catch in other communities that are ready to reinforce them.

This is already starting to happen with E1S1 (“education is sharing” virus). It’s given rise to symptoms like Creative Commons licensing, which makes it easy to share abundantly at a tremendous scale. It’s been contracted by major players like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, who are forcefully spewing resources for open ed around the globe that’s measured in the millions, and MIT, which became a major vector in 2001 by open-sourcing a lot of its courseware.

The prevalence of E1S1 will rise and fall in individual bodies, but remember: it’s not about the battles; it’s about the war. If you want to pick a winner, pick a virus. This one’s worth spreading.


Author: Zane

Zane is a learning experience designer passionate about the intersection of education, software development, and human-centered design. He manages a language acquisition app for missionaries and studies instructional psych & tech at Brigham Young University.

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