It's becoming something of a New Year ritual. For almost a decade, the website www.edge.org has been asking a selection of eminent thinkers and scholars to answer a single question and publishing the results on 1 January.
In the past it has presented such posers as "What do you believe is true, even though you cannot prove it?" and "What is the most important invention of the past 2,000 years?"
This year Edge wanted to know: "What have you changed your mind about and why?" As usual, it's a good question. And the responses of the likes of Steven Pinker and Helena Cronin are as fascinating and weighty as one would imagine.
What have you changed your mind about, and why? John Brockman’s Edge put the question to over a hundred scientists and scholars... more»
The best men really do outperform the best women, drugs should be used to enhance our mental powers, and marriages suffer from a “four year itch”, not a seven year one.
These are among the provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures who have been asked what has changed their minds about some of the biggest issues.
The poll of Nobel laureates, scientists, futurists and creative thinkers is published by John Brockman, the New York-based literary agent and publisher of The Edge website.
Changes of mind lie at the core of almost every breakthrough in science, art and thought
This is the season when, for a day or two, millions of people delude themselves into thinking that fixed goals, firm purposes and rock-like convictions will bring happiness. Set up some distant destination whether of weight loss or career progression and trudge doggedly towards it, advise the secular priests of self-improvement. But every lifestyle guru makes one basic mistake. They confuse integrity, which matters, with inflexibility, which doesn't. So why not abandon the narrow path to disappointment and opt instead for some new year's irresolution?
Make 2008 the year in which you choose to change your mind. Because truth, like time, is forever on the march. You will be in the best possible company.
Changes of mind lie at the core of almost every breakthrough in science, art and thought. From Copernicus to Einstein, Leonardo to Picasso, James Joyce to Bob Dylan, lasting innovations rest on a rupture with the principles of the past. Darwin's long struggle with his own evidence for evolution by natural selection stands as one of the greatest feats of self-persuasion in history.
Ludwig Wittgenstein created one revolution in philosophy with his Tractatus. Later he decided it was fundamentally misconceived and created another with the Philosophical Investigations. And if Alan Turing had never revised his view about the practicality of his highly abstract research on "computable numbers", then the machine on which I write this piece would not exist.
The constant testing of doctrines and axioms is how cultures evolve. For that matter, the kind of modern urban life that hosts paradigm-shifters in art and science became survivable only because Victorian-era doctors had changed the mind of civic authorities about the true sources of epidemic disease. Apocryphal it may be, but the motto of every free-thinker should be the reply John Maynard Keynes reportedly gave when accused of altering his stance on monetary policy: "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?"
From tomorrow morning, we can all sample the reasoning that drives shifts in position by a selection of leading scientists and social thinkers. Since 1998, the splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. This time, the new-year challenge runs: "What have you changed your mind about? Why?". I strongly recommend a visit to anyone who feels browbeaten by fans of that over-rated virtue: mere consistency.
Yet in public life, mind-changing attracts the charge of weakness, even when it reveals strength. The taint of flip-flops and U-turns lingers, however justified the altered course. "The lady's not for turning," trumpeted Margaret Thatcher even though she frequently did. Besides, she had come to power precisely because an intellectual project of mass persuasion had convinced many voters that the unchained market would deliver better results than welfare corporatism had.
From the anti-slavery pamphlets of Thomas Clarkson to the global-warming movies of Al Gore, every significant social movement has been fuelled by reformers with changed minds. And one abiding flaw of the centre-ground politics that governs Britain is that it benefits the dark arts of presentation over the open warfare of persuasion. If many voters seem to have drifted lately from brand Brown to brand Cameron, then that has less to do with any deep-seated shift in outlook than with the reduction of political choice to preference-switching on the consumer model.
All parties, and much of the media, share the blame for this debauching of debate. Vince Cable gained acclaim as a modern Demosthenes because he floored the PM with his Stalin-to-Mr Bean quip. How sad that a custodian of the party of supreme persuaders from John Stuart Mill to Gladstone and Lloyd George should win brief fame thanks to a knack for glib soundbites.
Starved of genuine argument, fearful of straying off-message, the political class bows down to the tricks of the roadside hoarding and the commercial break. Outside the intellectual desert of Westminster, thankfully, the business of changing minds carries on as energetically as ever. Human responsibility for climate change ranks as the strongest example today of the interplay between new discoveries, revised opinions and even modified behaviour.
I have changed my mind about everything from country-and-western music to the concept of human nature. I hope and expect to make more changes in the coming year. In the meantime, it would violate the spirit of openness and flexibility to push this proposition too far down the road of dogma. So, if you planned to give up smoking during 2008: please don't change your mind.
Angels! Kennedys! Kay Scarpetta! Steve Martin! Put these irresistible reads under a friend's tree, by your own bedside, or both. By Cathleen Medwick
JOHN BROCKMAN, that most philosophical of editors and founder of the science-oriented Edge Foundation (edge.org), asked some 150 serious thinkers what gave them reasons to smile. In his persuasively upbeat collection, What are You Optimistic About? (Harper Perennial), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins predicts a new scientific enlightenment, wiping out superstition; psychologist Steven Pinker sees a decline in violence worldwide; and physicist Frank Wilczek fully expects that the world will continue to surprise us in fascinating and fundamental ways." Ask a savvy question....
One of the best jokes in this year's crop of upmarket stocking-filler titles is a wholly inadvertent one. In the sparky and provoking What Are You Optimistic About? (Simon & Schuster, £12.99), John Brockman — literary agent to the planet's biggest brains and guv'nor of the ever-stimulating Edge website — asks almost 150 scientists, seers and other gurus (from Steven Pinker to Brian Eno) about their reasons to be cheerful. And what subject strikes hope into the heart of Old Etonian zoologist and (now retired) amateur banker Matt Ridley, who as chairman of the board oversaw the Northern Rock train-wreck? "The future. That's what I'm optimistic about." Thank you, the Hon Matt, and I hope you enjoyed the £24bn that our little Christmas whip-round raised for you.
Ridley aside, Brockman's compilation radiates bright ideas. Let's hope that the various upbeat views on halting climate change prevail soon enough to justify Walter Isaacson's faith in the prospects of "print as a technology". If not, then we may not see many more seasons of Nordic forests felled to manufacture loo-bound volumes stuffed with short-breathed snippets. ...
Hans-Ulrich Obrist and Marek Claassen
Hans-Ulrich Obrist is one of the most prestigious curators of contemporary art. Currently he serves as a Co-director of Exhibitions and Programmes, and Director of International Projects at the Serpentine Galleryin London.
AfN: Hello Mr. Obrist
HUO: Hello. Good morning.
AfN: Rather randomly I browsed to a web site called www.edge.org. A website where usually scientists publish their very personal opinion, for example their dangerous idea. Now it's you the curator asking about the formula of life. When did your connection to the world of science occur?
HUO: My connection to science started a long time ago in Germany. When I was a young curator, I started to work with Kasper König in Frankfurt. He was at Portikus, at Städelschule in the early 90s. We were working in '91 on a book called "The Public View", my first book, and then on a big painting show called "Der zerbrochene Spiegel" [The broken mirror], in '93 in Vienna. I was contacted by Christa Maar who runs the Academy of the Third Millenium which brought people like Ernst Pöppel, Wolf Singer, two German neurologists, together with architects and scholars from all disciplines and artists.
In '93, they had invited me to come to the Academy meetings. For me, it was really a revelation because it was the first time I met scientists. I had never met scientists before in my life, I was always with art and architecture. I had long conversations with Ernst Pöppel and others. And that really triggered a relation to science. I would show Semir Zeki a Mark Rothko exhibition, and he would tell me about neuroscientific issues, about what happens in our brain when we see a Mark Rothko painting.
So little by little, I began to think that it could be very interesting to connect artists with these scientists and develop an approach. And one of the first approaches was called "Art & Brain" which we did in a science centre in Germany where we basically had an extended coffee break. Carsten Höller was there, Rosemarie Trockel, Douglas Gordon and many others. And then, after that extended coffee break, we did another project called "Bridge the gap?", and another one called "Laboratorium" which then became a bigger project.
I started this thing at a certain moment when I thought it could be interesting not only to do conferences but also bring that science link into the medium of the exhibition which is my primary medium. I basically worked on these different things and on conferences like the 24-hour marathon here in London. That obviously shifts the rule of the game of what a conference is.
But for me, the main medium remains the exhibition. And the question was how to bring science into an exhibition, and this was the primary focus for "Laboratorium" in '99 - the show which Barbara Vanderlinden curated, where we invited scientists and artists to talk about the laboratorium, about their studio, about their science lab. Different labs have happened in Antwerpen. Rosemarie Trockel did her sleeping lab;Jonas Mekas revisited Andy Warhol's factory, and wondered what happened to the factory later on, what it became; we had Luc Steels developing colour recognition experiments and robots; we had basically Panamarenko defining his laboratory, his studio to be close to the public; it was a secret place; and we invited also the eminent Bruno Latour to actually curate a show within the show, and he came up with this idea of the table top experiments. So he curated a series of public lectures and demonstrations where scientists, artists and architects would publicly present either a new or an old experiment. So that's the first time in '99 where we - the science investigation - reached a critical mass. We really developed a larger scale exhibition.
Then it moved on with conferences again like "Bridge the gap?" with Akiko Miyake where we invited - for a week - scientists, artists and architects to Japan, and had a sort of a think tank where art meets science meets architecture in a different environment. In this case it was a house on the outskirts of Kitakyushu, very remote.
Then, I moved to London last year, and we started with Julia Peyton-Jones to welcome these different projects of the Serpentine Gallery: education and public programmes, exhibition, and architecture which are the three main strings. Obviously, the question was also: how can the pavilion be a "content-machine"? And Julia had initiated and invented in 2000 this pavilion scheme with world leading architects doing a temporary pavilion every year. Together, we invited Rem Koolhaas and Cecil Balmond to design the pavilion, and we spoke with them about his idea that it could also be a forum, an agora for conversation. We had a very intense summer of conversation last year which culminated in the marathon, and Rem said, architecture without content is meaningless shape. So when this year, we approached Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen, they immediately picked up on this idea as well but pushed it further, and Olafur agreed to be involved. Olafur was here most of the weeks; there was a colour experiment, there was an experiment of models; there was another one about sound. The pavilion became a musical instrument.
Olafur and I had been through "Bridge the gap?", but also through an event in Eidar, in Iceland which was another interdisciplinary think tank. So it's a really long story. We're working a lot on these art-science-relationship. So we felt it could be interesting that the pavilion becomes really a place where a marathon of experiments could take place. And Olafur thought that maybe last year, there have been enough conversations, and it could be interesting to, this year, really not talk but ask people to do something, to do an experiment in the pavilion. There have been up to 60 experiments on the Frieze weekend in October, ten days ago, where artists, scientists did an experiment. The results are onwww.serpentinegallery.org.
Hans-Ulrich Olbrist during the interview in the streets of London
AfN: And is this your formula of life?
HUO: Yes, that brings us to the question about the formula. Besides the exhibitions, the conference season, the symposium, I have always had this other type of projects, more immaterial exhibitions which are basically "Do it", a book made out of recipes, or also "The future will be" where I had asked artists to define the future, and my most recent project of such an immaterial exhibition is "Formulas for the 21st Century".
So in the last 18 months, I started to ask artists from all over the world to send a formula for the 21st century. It was triggered by an interview I made with the great inventor Albert Hofmann. At the end of the interview, he drew on a piece of paper the formula of LSD. It was an incredibly simple formula, and I just thought "wow, it could be interesting to ask 100 artists to email their formula!". My projects are kind of a flanerie. Out of this flanerie, things very often - also by chance - develop. It's not a masterplan. These things, these projects just happen. Little by little, whenever the artists email a formula, I put it on the wall of my office. At the beginning, when I started to work here, my office was empty, there were just three formulas on the wall, and then, the office became more and more full with these formulas which had been faxed or emailed. After about the year, the whole office was full with these formulas.
One night, when we had an opening, Brian Eno who is my neighbour here in Notting Hill and who obviously had been one of the world's great pioneers to bring music in relation to science, he came with John Brockman to one of our openings. John Brockman is the founder of "Edge". He saw all these formulas on the wall at my office, got really excited and said "this is an 'Edge' project! We should do something together!". I had known John Brockman for almost 10 years, through James Lee Byars and many other common friends, but we never had collaborated directly. I contributed to some of his online-things but we have never done a big project together. He said: "You do it with artists but I could ask the 'Edge' list to contribute". John Brockman asked all the scientists of his mailing list to send a formula; so in some kind of way, he had quite a parallel way of working. He took my idea, obviously with my acquaintance, and asked his mailing list to send a formula which we then presented as part of the science marathon we did here. We invited John Brockman not only to do this formula but we also thought it could be interesting that John Brockman actually does a section of the marathon. Brockman invited about 10 scientists to do an experiment, so there was an 'Edge' sequence. Projects of this sort are not developed in one masterplan. It's an archipel-like model of different islands which we then connect in many different ways. So there was a John Brockman island, there was a Israel Rosenfield and Luc Steels island;.... On the website, you can see an image of each experiment.
What happened is that suddenly this immaterial exhibition of formulas has, by being on 'Edge', reached a completely other context. Suddenly we ended up on top of Boing Boing which is the biggest blog on the planet, and hundreds of thousands of people all over the world would visit it. To some extent, that obviously is very important for us because it is not only about bridging the gap between disciplines, but it's also about reaching art and building bridges to other visitors who usually would not come to an art gallery, and we have 800,000 visitors p.a. Admission is free. So this kind of way is also an interesting link to the internet. You go to "Edge", it's free. You come to the Serpentine, it's free.
Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007 by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen
AfN: 'Edge' always asks these interviews "What is your question?" with a question mark. And you have a website called "Point d'ironie", and there is also a question mark but it's turned upside down. So I asked myself how these things are linked with each other? It has nothing to do with irony, right?
HUO: No, artists like James Lee Byars or Alighiero Boetti have been immensely influential for me when I started in the late 80ies, early 90ies to work as a curator. James Lee Byars had in '71 this wonderful project called "The World Question Center". It was a huge inspiration for me, but it was also an inspiration for Brockman who has seen Byars earlier than me because he started earlier than me. But we both, being from different generations, were equally inspired by James Lee Byars, and we kind of met through this inspiration by James Lee Byars' "World Question Center". And he asked as an artist all the eminent people like Freeman Dyson, the Dalai Lama among others, to ask one question. He'd ring them, and the moment, he had that question, he'd hang up the phone. So the World Question Center was certainly a trigger.
The "point d'ironie" leads us to another project; it is related in a sense that we disseminate art broader than just in the conventional way, and it's got to do with this idea of inventing other circuits of disseminating art. The "point d'ironie" was really a discussion between Christian Boltanski, the French artist, Agnes B., the French designer, publisher, and collector, and myself. About ten years ago, we were thinking, it could be nice to do two-folded posters that would be a magazine and a poster in one. We had printed hundreds of thousands of copies and distributed them for free all over the world. If you go the "point d'ironie"-website, you will see that it's been going on now for ten years. Jonas Mekas did the first issue; the most recent ones were done by Damien Hirst and also by Richard Prince and Hreinn Fridfinnsson. What is interesting is that each time, it's also a different circuit because we print about a hundred thousand copies and distribute it globally, obviously through Agnes B.'s channels, then through the mailing list of museums, but each time also, through where the artist wants it to travel. So the artist brings each time his or her mailing list. I think, to some extent, that's the core of this project.
Currently, we have all these forces of globalisation, and obviously, they lead to a danger because sometimes the danger is that in my world of exhibition, they can lead to a homogenising force. The difference disappears. I believe in this idea that we use the forces of globalisation because they are an opportunity, a possibility to stimulate and trigger more global dialogue but that we, at the same time, resist those homogenising forces so that we define models which are actually a difference producing globalisation.
AfN: We are sitting here in this wonderful pavilion designed by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorson. It's a temporary installation. This pavilion will be replaced by another one. Isn't this sad, don't you want to keep it. What's your relationship to possession?
HUO: Interesting question. I mean, to some extent, exhibitions are temporary mediums that is so much related to possession. In the art world, there is a strong art market; there is galleries, there is collections, and I think that's incredibly important. I am very much convinced that there is a necessity for that because it helps to create sustainable, long-term presence of art and of architecture.
However, parallel to that, it is very important that we have laboratories, that we have experiments which not necessarily last, which are temporary because they allow to test things, they allow to test ideas, they allow new things to emerge, and I have always seen my role rather on that end to basically develop experimental situations where temporary constellations can be tested and can be invented. The exhibition is very much a temporary medium; exhibitions are temporary constellations of objects, of quasi objects, of processes which, after the exhibition, dissolve again. You have a book, you have a website, sometimes you have a lot of interviews and conversations, you have a memory, you have a documentation, you have archives, you produce archives but not necessarily permanent objects. With architecture it is similar because we are not producing permanent situations but we basically produce temporary architecture, temporary buildings which are pavilions. And this project initiated by Julia Peyton-Jones has actually developed a very very global visibility for architecture because it is visited by hundreds of thousands of people, it is published all over the world. However, it is not creating a lasting building here. First of all, we are not allowed to do it because this is "Royal Parks", and it can only have temporary things but beyond that, it is also carried by the belief that temporary architecture sometimes produces the most innovative architecture. If you look at the history, there have been a lot of incredible inventions of architecture done by pavilions. If you think for example of the Mies van der Rohe pavilion in Barcelona…
Buckminster Fuller once said that maybe we can own cars or buildings, but we can also consider cars or buildings to be a service which means we only have the building when we need it. We only have a car when we need it. We do not necessarily have to own a car. […]
However, I do believe that there is a place and a necessity for such experiments which are not necessarily gone by thinking. Somebody builds a building, and it has got to last; he builds that building with a different spirit than if he builds a building for two or three months. So it gives the freedom to the architect to really test something maybe more daring, more extreme than he or she would if it was a permanent building. He would build a different pavillion. [...]
AfN: You are known a somebody who breaks the custom habits of viewing (e.g. Hotel Carlton Palace, Cloaca Maxima, Take me (I'm yours)) or the casual ways of presenting art (e.g. Biennale Lyon). Your putting the things in a different context or adding a layer. It's like reminding the people: Hey, this is art, it's here and there it's everywhere. Do you consider yourself as somebody appointed to train our senses?
HUO: I think it grew out of a necessity of conversations with artists. […] Alighiero Boetti once told me that, as an artist, he was always asked to do the same thing. You are asked to do gallery shows, you are asked to do museum shows, you are asked to do these very repetitive things, and it is unbelievably limited and restraining. [...] [An art project and its realisation] are very much driven by discussions where one thinks about how to produce reality, how to make things happen which very often prove to be possible. [...] It has to do with making things happen but it has also to do with the fact that when you ask an artist to do things which are not a routine but which are slightly different, he produces sometimes very very different work. […] It is the drive or necessity to produce new experiences
AfN: Another thing, something that striked me by reading one of the many interviews you did was that there was quite a lot of traveling involved. But not in the sense of just visiting some other place more in the sense of the German word "Wanderjahre" (journeyman). Where one to be considered professional has to gain knowledge by working and learning through emigration. Is this physical emigration obligatory if someone wants to succeed in the art world?
HUO: […] Since last year, I spend my week, from Monday to Friday, in London. Then I started to always travel from Friday night to Monday morning, each time to another continent. So I do my China research, the India research, and then my New York research - I changed my rhythm, and I began to do more short journeys. [...] In 2000, at a certain moment, I chose not to travel at all, to stay for three years at one place. [...] There are so many professions in history where it was not necessary to travel at all, and the idea that it becomes an obligation, in the worst case, even to do travelling without it being a necessity or a pleasure or a conviction, is not beneficial. It cannot be an obligation. Everybody travels, and it is certainly good that there is a lot of travelling going on but then, at the same time, maybe it is not important for every practice. Whenever I write a book, I cannot travel. Then I have - for several weeks - to stay somewhere. So to some point of vue, it is about rhythms, waves with intervals, pauses, silences.
I mean, sometimes it is very interesting not to go somewhere but to imagine a journey; if you think for example of Robert Walser's fictitious Gazettes Parisiennes or Joseph Cornell's European Grand Tour that never took place. It happened in the imagination.
And particularly in terms of exhibitions, it is sometimes not necessary to travel, sometimes it is more important to do a local research. One of my most interesting experiences was for example when I did the first Berlin Biennale with Nancy Spector and Klaus Biesenbach, and we decided "let's just look at Berlin!" [for the selection of artists]. So we did not proceed like curators who travel all over the world to catch artists for a biennale but we just stayed in Berlin and looked at all the artists who live and work in Berlin. And it was really a very interesting experience. [...] I prefer to focus on a few places and to dig deep. The cities where I live are obviously the cities where I research more deeply what is going on. [...]
AfN: I always had the feeling that there are three different layers in the profession of an artist. You either are a teacher, or an installation artist in shows or you produce for the art fairs. And some of them serve every layer. Do you think that this trichotomy exists?
HUO: The big danger is that there is a pressure to homogenise practices, and that the difference disappears. It is interesting, to some extent, to resist this whole organisation and to be different. [...] Everbody doing the same leads to an impoverishment, and in some kind of way, it is all about how - in a context where the homogenising forces are at stake - to produced a difference. That's why there cannot be a prescription which says "It has got to be this way. An artist has to be like this". It is something which has really to do with finding out one's own projectory.
It has a lot to do with "Spaziergangswissenschaften" (Lucius Burckhardt). There are so many different ways of navigating the world.
AfN: But the artists you choose, do you meet them by wandering around?
HUO: It is also systematic. As John Cage said, it is chance but it is very controlled chance. […] I have been very inspired by Cage's idea of the musical score and analogue the curatorial masterplan being too policing; maybe we should allow more chance in it, we should allow more improvisation, and that is something that you have in urbanism, in music a lot.
[…] At the same time, you have Yona Friedman or Oskar Hansen and Cedric Price in urbanism who, since the 60s, have talked about how to question the masterplan.
If you look for example at these people over there at the bus stop, we do not know whether they are going to take the bus or to change their mind, maybe they are going to walk... there is a lot of unpredictability, and how can we actually bring what urbanism and music have done since the 60s about questioning the masterplan, to curating. In terms of curating, it is very much about the masterplan. The curator makes the list of artists. In France, you even call the curator a "commissaire" which is police vocabulary. I found it very inspiring: music and urbanism, and how I can bring that into curating and develop self-organisation, develop models where controlled chance can enter.
AfN: Is this habit you have "quality"? - In the art world everybody speaks about "quality". But when you talk, I get the impression that this is the quality of an artist - to jump in, to build a pavilion, to do something completely different. Would you call this quality in terms of an art work?
HUO: It's also to change what we expect from art. I think, great artists always change what we expect from art.
And then there is the famous "étonnez-moi". In the conversation with Cocteau and Diaghilev and the Ballets russes which was a great moment where art met theatre, and there was this famous explanation, and they said "étonnez-moi" (surprise me).
AfN: Dear Mr. Obrist, thank you for the interview.
I'm going to attempt another of those free-wheeling posts in which I try to make some connections among articles, ideas and writers I've been reading lately. What I hope to accomplish is the beginning of a proposal, a modest call for attention, to establish a new conversation about intellectuals, those who think and feel something is not right in world of art, literature and creativity.
A menu of possible assertions:
1. Intellectuals need to talk less with each other and more to everyone else
2. Scientists have taken the traditional place of the public intellectual
3. Intellectuals need to re-establish the self-evident reality of objective truth
4. As newspapers recede, and the traditional hubs of intellectual activity recede with them, a new grassroots movement of intellectuals is needed to take its place.
Act 1: Theoretical bullshit
I'll start with something that I've returned to often (here and here and here, for instance): the disconcerting intellectual phenomenon that asserts that there is no such thing as objective reality, that epistemology is subjective, that facts are conditional.
I suppose I keep writing about it because without an fundamental agreement about what truth is -- and for that matter, what constitutes deception, equivocation, obfuscation, bullshit and outright lies -- how can we as critics, as mere human beings, accomplish much that is constructive, meaningful and significant?
Please don't get me wrong. I lean left, not right. I'm not trying to defend the high walls of Western Civilization. In fact, I argue that intellectuals need to re-establish the self-evident reality of objective truth as someone once ensconced in the Ivory Tower.
During my time at the University of Cincinnati, I became indoctrinated by literary critical theory. I came to believe in the postmodern condition of American culture. I believed in my ability to "read" anything like a "text," even non-semantic things like fashion, architecture and medical procedures. I suspected Enlightenment ideals like Reason and Truth were vestiges of imperial European colonization. Every subject -- whether porn, pulp fiction, romance novels, comic books -- all boiled down cynically to struggles for political and social power.
While I am grateful for postmodernism as a strategy for dismantling, or deconstructing, formerly entrenched ways of thinking, it's no humanist philosophy. There's little concern for people in it; there's little concern for morality in it. While postmodernist readings of, say, advertisements for Marlboro cigarettes (which I smoked) made "logical" sense, I felt that at its heart, postmodernism was a game of rhetoric, an argument over words and their struggle for meaning.
I left class many, many times feeling a kind of existential disorientation, a kind of out-of-body experience caught between a world constructed by language and a language that's always indeterminate. Hence, the world was indeterminate, like an illusion. If the world is indeterminate, possessing no ontological center independent of human consciousness, authoritative truth matters very little. Instead of one truth, there were many truths, with one being just as "good" as the other.
This kind of thinking is not exclusive to universities, or to people interested in and sensitive to intellectual inquiry. This postmodern relativism has trickled down to popular culture as well. Consider the book "Thank You For Smoking," Christopher Buckley's brilliant 1995 parody of Big Tobacco's downfall. The main character, Nick Naylor, is a master of postmodern relativism. No matter how much he was guilty of the sins of spin, by the judgment-free rules of postmodernism (it's a descriptive strategy, not proscriptive), his truth is as valid as any other, even if it's destructive bullshit.
And even if this kind of thinking is becoming passé in academe, which it is, it's influence lingers beyond the hallowed halls. Consider this response to our dearly departed Molly Ivins, who had offered one last cautionary tale about letting the amateur efforts of bloggers be confused with the professional, gritty and pain-in-the-ass tenacity of beat reporters. This reader was responding to Ivins' suggestion that bloggers try their hand at reporting a highway accident, just to see how difficult, challenging and rewarding determining the truth can be.
"If there is no objective truth, but only subjective truth (hence your five-car pile-up analogy) -- then what difference does it make if someone was a reporter or not? I am able to state subjective truth at a moment's notice -- it's always true for me!"
Act 2: The sins of our intellectuals
I don't think that it's overstating the case when I say that this kind of thinking is the result of academics and other intellectuals abandoning objective truth. And this attitude doesn't stop with fiction and the cranky comments of a Molly Ivins fan.
Harry G. Frankfurt, the moral philosopher formerly at Princeton, said the attitude is ubiquitous among a great many writers, artists and intellectuals in his 2005 treatise titled "On Truth," a follow-up to his bestselling book, "On Bullshit." In it, he said that "we live in a time when, strange to say, many quite cultivated individuals consider truth to be unworthy of any particular respect. ... this attitude -- or, indeed, a more extreme version of it -- has become disturbingly widespread even within what might naively have been thought to be a more reliable class of people."
"Numerous unabashed skeptics and cynics about the importance of truth ... have been found among best-selling and prize-winning authors, among writers for leading newspapers, and among hitherto respected historians, biographers, memoirists, theorists of literature, novelists -- and even among philosophers ...
"These shameless antagonists of common sense -- members of a certain emblematic subgroup call themselves 'postmodernists' -- rebelliously and self-righteously deny that truth has any genuinely objective reality at all. They therefore go on to deny that truth is worthy of any obligatory deference or respect. ... the postmodernists' view is that in the end the assignment of those entitlements is just up for grabs. It is simply a matter, as they say, of how you look at it."
In other words, it seems the intellectuals have failed us.
How can we talk about issues, debate points of view, engage in any kind of public conversation if there is no agreement on reality independent of human whim, desire, interest, folly, fear and ignorance? The intellectuals are suppose to talk about our country's important issues. Instead, for the past 30 years, they've turned inward, addressed themselves, left the pulpit to the pundits and undermined our ability to talk coherently, objectively and constructively about the things that matter most.
The failure of the intellectuals, some say, has lead to America's cultural and political decline. Dana Gioia, the chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, noted in a widely read speech to graduates at Stanford University in June that such decline has occurred even as our economy has flourished and renewed itself since the '60s.
" ... surely artists and intellectuals are partly to blame. Most American artists, intellectuals, and academics have lost their ability to converse with the rest of society. We have become wonderfully expert in talking to one another, but we have become almost invisible and inaudible in the general culture."
"This mutual estrangement has had enormous cultural, social, and political consequences. America needs its artists and intellectuals, and they need to reestablish their rightful place in the general culture. If we could reopen the conversation between our best minds and the broader public, the results would not only transform society but also artistic and intellectual life."
In 1963, the novelist and chemist C.P. Snow wrote a book that provided a vision of just the kind of intellectual transformation that Gioia talks about. It was called "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," a follow-up to his 1959 book "The Two Cultures." In the first book, Snow talked about the division between literary intellectuals and scientists, how each didn't understand the other. In the second book, he envisioned a middle way, a "third culture" that was a consensus in which intellectuals talked with scientists, scientists to intellectuals, feeding the expertise and creativity of each other.
But that never happened.
Act 3: Being replaced by scientists
"The traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical. It uses its own jargon and washes its own laundry. It is chiefly characterized by comment on comments, the swelling spiral of commentary eventually reaching the point where the real world gets lost."
Those are the words of John Brockman, author, impresario and book agent for Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, writing on his website, Edge. Note such words as "reactionary," "nonempirical," "the real world gets lost."
In 1996, Alan Sokal did something that illustrated just how far the real world had gotten lost in the hyper-jargon of literary theory. A physicist at New York University, Sokal submitted a paper to Social Text, an academic journal devoted to the discussion of postmodern literary theory. In it, he argued that quantum gravity is a social construction with profound political implications.
In other words, it was utter nonsense. I'm not really sure I've paraphrased the paper well. But it doesn't matter, because the point is that Social Context thought he was serious, lending credence to suspicions that such things as honesty and truth don't matter. As Sokal wrote in an article in Lingua Franca explaining his "experiment":
In the first paragraph I deride "the dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook": that there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in "eternal"' physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the "objective'" procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the (so-called) scientific method.
Why did Sokal do this? To make a point:
... What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance. At its best, a journal like Social Text raises important questions that no scientist should ignore -- questions, for example, about how corporate and government funding influence scientific work. Unfortunately, epistemic relativism does little to further the discussion of these matters.
In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths -- the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.
Social Text's acceptance of my article exemplifies the intellectual arrogance of Theory -- meaning postmodernist literary theory -- carried to its logical extreme. No wonder they didn't bother to consult a physicist. If all is discourse and "text,'' then knowledge of the real world is superfluous; even physics becomes just another branch of Cultural Studies. If, moreover, all is rhetoric and "language games,'" then internal logical consistency is superfluous too: a patina of theoretical sophistication serves equally well. Incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic. My own article is, if anything, an extremely modest example of this well-established genre.
Postmodernism had already been under attack by right-wing jeremiahs like Alan Bloom in "The Closing of the American Mind." What Sokal's experiment showed, however, was that postmodernism is not just a tool for exposing the power structures of the status quo, to be naturally attacked by defenders of that power, but also, at its core, a poor and perhaps even harmful foundation for intellectual inquiry.
While the editors of Social Context, including the luminous scholar Andrew Ross, author of the near-impenetrable tome, "No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture," were busy accepting a hoax as serious scholarship, John Brockman was getting to work communicating with real people about things that really matter.
According to this piece in the London Guardian titled "The new age of ignorance," Brockman has done more than anyone to break down C.P. Snow's divide. But instead of encouraging literary intellectuals to communicate with scientists and then in turn communicate what they find to an engaged, educated reading public, Brockman has devised a "Third Culture" that doesn't need any help thanks.
"'The Third Culture' consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are," he writes on his website, Edge.
The role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator. In his 1987 book "The Last Intellectuals," the cultural historian Russell Jacoby bemoaned the passing of a generation of public thinkers and their replacement by bloodless academicians. He was right, but also wrong. The third-culture thinkers are the new public intellectuals.
In short, the scientists don't need the intellectuals anymore.
They're doing it themselves.
The Guardian article also notes that Ian McEwan is one of the few novelists to contribute to the Edge's ongoing debates and that he suggests the project is not so far removed from the "old Enlightenment dream of a unified body of knowledge, when biologists and economists draw on each other's concepts and molecular biologists stray into the poorly defended territory of chemists and physicists."
Why can't literary and aesthetic intellectuals talk like this anymore?
Act 4: The new intellectuals
Brockman, via the Edge and the Edge Reality Club, a kind of scientist's salon, is doing wonders for advancing the national conversation about science and scientific thinking. There are more magazines devoted science than ever more, more hunger for science and more books about science, even some that advance atheism.
But what about the literary and aesthetic intellectuals? What about them? They are around, but their influence seems to be shrinking even more drastically thanks to shrinking exposure given to them by Big Media, especially newspapers.
Book sections have traditionally been the forum for such conversations and we all know where these are going: newspapers in LA, Chicago, Minneapolis, Raleigh and Atlanta have all either sacked their books editors, reduced their book pages, consolidated them or even moved them from their historical place on Sundays.
Newspapers, in short, are not going to cut it. So what to do?
Perhaps an answer can be found in a new grassroots publication in Connecticut. Called the New Haven Review of Books, the publication is the result of numerous writers in that city who believe someone has to pick up where the newspapers have left off.
As Mark Oppenheimer, a former editor of the New Haven Advocate and author of "Knocking on Heaven's Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture," writes, these are times that require innovative thinking by innovative people who live just about everywhere, not just in LA and New York.
In an age of shrinking book-review holes in newspapers, we're going to have to find new ways to get the word out about great books. Some of those ways will be local, and small in scale. We may never publish another issue of the New Haven Review (our motto is "Published Annually at Most"), but by just publishing once, we've made a statement in support of literary culture. Wouldn't it be cool if other small- and medium-sized towns -- Austin, Des Moines, Albany, etc. -- decided they wanted local book reviews, too? [italics mine] Maybe such reviews would feature local writers doing the reviewing, the way ours does, or maybe they would feature reviews of books by local authors. Either way, they would be reminders that major urban publications do not have to be the sole instruments for book reviewing.
And that leads us to the second statement that even one issue of a small, local book review makes: there are writers everywhere. Just here in New Haven and the surrounding towns we managed to round up Alice Mattison, Bruce Shapiro, Debby Applegate, Deirdre Bair, Jim Sleeper, Amy Bloom, and a couple dozen other greats. Many of us have never even met one another. We don't have a literary "scene" in this modest city; there is no cocktail-party circuit. But there are writers.
This model won't replace the big-city, big-time book reviews; we still need them. And unless some angel comes along to fund another issue, this may be the last you hear of the New Haven Review of Books. But we're in an age of renewed attention to localism and regionalism, and book reviews -- like farmers' markets, or even local currencies -- can do their part.
With today's concerns over global warming, AIDS, and terrorism, the future can look pretty bleak. surprisingly, many of the worlds' top thinkers see a rosy horizon and in this collection of over 150 essays, compiled and edited by the always iconoclastic Brockman, we lean why. From finding the genes for mental illness, to s saving the Arctic, to ending poverty, our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead.
"Like the participants of failed cultural eras before our own, we have embraced the new technologies and literacies of our age without actually learning how they work and work on us," claims writer and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, in a recent email. He continues:
The 22-letter alphabet did not lead to a society of literate Israelite readers, but a society of hearers, who would gather to hear the Torah scroll read to them by a priest. The printing press and television set did not lead to a society of writers and producers, but one of readers and viewers, who were free to enjoy their own perspective on the creations of an elite with access to the new tools of production. And the computer has not led to a society of programmers, but one of bloggers -- free to write whatever we please, but utterly unaware of the underlying biases of the interfaces and windows that have been programmed for us.
I'd dropped a line to Rushkoff to ask him to explain the following algorithm, titled "Social Control as a Function of Media," which he contributed recently to a special exhibition (on "Formulae for the 21st Century") at the Serpentine Gallery in the UK. (The question was asked by the same folks who brought us recent books in which bleeding-edge thinkers answer questions like, "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?")
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What does this algorithm, which is the subject of his next book ("The Slope: Corporatism and the Myth of Self Interest"), have to do with bloggers like me, not to mention Rushkoff himself? He explains:
Our controllers -- be they pharaohs, kings or corporations -- always remain one dimensional leap beyond us. When we learn to read, they gain monopoly over the presses. As we now gain access to Internet distribution of our text, they create the framework for such publication -- blogs, basically -- by monopolizing the programs, interface, and conduit. Worse, we tend to remain unaware of the new context shaping all our activity. And that's why no matter how much of a revolution Time magazine grants us by calling us "people of the year," we're still paying them for our access, and their sister corporations for our technologies.
As Curly from "The Three Stooges" used to say, I resemble that remark!
Olafur Eliasson together with Hans Ulrich Obrist convenes the Serpentine Gallery 24-Hour Experiment Marathon from 13 to 14 October which blurs the boundaries of art and science and creates a laboratory of experience. A huge variety of experiments exploring perception, artificial intelligence, the body and language, takes place in and around the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007 designed by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen.
This year's Pavilion has been conceived as a laboratory for experimentation and invention with artists, architects, academics and scientists being invited to present hand-held or table-top experiments throughout the weekend.
The Marathon starts with a session convened by renowned scientists Israel Rosenfield and Luc Steels of Sony Robotics Lab, looking into the brain's interpretation of reality, artificial intelligence and out-of-body experiences; Beau Lotto demonstrates 'Why the Sky is not Blue', Paul Drew analyses the notorious 'Yo, Blair' conversation, explaining how we understand language, and Angela Sirigu presents the famous Phantom Limb experiment, in which amputees continue to experience the presence of a lost body part.
John Brockman, founder of Edge.org, leads a session that includes award-winning psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen who will test the claim 'Do women have more empathy than men? Contributions from Steven Pinker, Armand Leroi and Lewis Wolpert are followed by an EDGE-Serpentine presentation of Formulae for the 21st Century which includes formulas from Richard Dawkins, David Deutsch, Brian Eno, Jana Levin, Lisa Randall, Martin Rees, J. Craig Venter, and many more.
Pedro Reyes brings his Three Way Kissing Booth for a public experiment on the permutations of male and female desire and world-famous performance artist Marina Abramovic 'cleans the house' in a renowned experimental work exploring subjects of the body, pain and endurance.
Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment stages a 24-hour, online continuous writing event, passing a cumulative piece of writing from time zone to time zone.
Artist Matthew Ritchie leads an experimental panel for The Morning Line, a public art project investigating alternatives to traditional museum space, developed in collaboration with Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary.
An artists' laboratory will include experiments conducted by John Baldessari, Paul Fryer, Jonas Mekas, Gustav Metzger and Tomas Saraceno.
Notes to editors:
The 24-Hour experiment Marathon builds on the enormous success of the Serpentine Gallery 24-Hour Interview Marathon last October, which featured interviews with 64 leading cultural figures including Brian Eno, Gilbert and George, Zaha Hadid, Damien Hirst and Doris Lessing, conducted by Serpentine Gallery Co-Director of Exhibitions and Programmes and Director of International Projects, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and architect of the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2006, Rem Koolhaas.
Notes for listing:
12 noon, Saturday 13th - 3pm, Sunday 14th October, 2007
Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA.
Nearest Tube: South Kensington or Lancaster Gate.
For full listings please visit: http://www.serpentinegallery.org
Booking: TicketWeb: Tel 08700 600100 or http://www.ticketweb.co.uk or at the Serpentine Gallery Lobby Desk: 020 7402 6075
Tickets also available on the door.
10am - 6pm daily, Fridays 10am - 10pm. Admission free.
Recorded information: 020 7298 1515 http://www.serpentinegallery.org
The favourite "formula for the 21st century" of leading scientists is to take centre stage at an encounter tomorrow between the arts and sciences in London.
At the Serpentine Gallery the mathematical expressions favoured by the likes of evolutionary biologist Prof Richard Dawkins, cognitive scientist Prof Steven Pinker and genome sequencer Craig Venter will be on show at a weekend "Experiment Marathon" to blur the boundaries of art and science.
Venter, head of the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, examines the connection between the ratio of the elements of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus with life, and how this links with the letters of the genetic alphabet that nature used to spell out genes.
Pinker of Harvard University works out the potential number of thoughts we can have and Prof Dawkins underlines the power of Darwin's ideas about evolution.
John Brockman, a New York based literary agent and publisher of the Edge.org web site, which is devoted to science.
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He was inspired to do the project by an earlier visit to the gallery, when he saw the walls of the office of his friend, the curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, were covered with single pages of size A4 paper on which artists, writers, scientists had responded to his question: "What Is Your Formula?" Now he has collected around 100 of them for the exhibition.
"Among the pieces he had collected were formulas by quantum physicist David Deutsch, artist and musician Brian Eno, architect Rem Koolhaas, and fractal mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot," said Brockman.
He will also include contributions from the likes of Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, cosmologists Jana Levin and Lisa Randall, and many more of the 100 leading figures who replied.
Brockman will also lead a session that includes psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University who will test the claim 'Do women have more empathy than men?' among a huge variety of experiments exploring perception, artificial intelligence, the body and language, which will take place in and around the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion.
The Marathon starts with a session convened by renowned scientists Prof Israel Rosenfield of the City University of New York, and Dr Luc Steels of Sony Robotics Lab, looking into the brain's interpretation of reality, artificial intelligence and out-of-body experiences; "We are doing colour, robotics and sound to show how the brain functions," said Prof Rosenfield.
Angela Sirigu presents the famous Phantom Limb experiment, in which amputees continue to experience the presence of a lost body part; and Prof Olaf Blanke from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne shows how a confused mind can generate an out of body feeling.
Pedro Reyes brings his Three Way Kissing Booth for "a public experiment on the permutations of male and female desire" while Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment stages a 24-hour, online writing event, passing a cumulative piece of writing from time zone to time zone.
The experiment follows a similar event last October, which featured interviews with leading cultural figures including Gilbert and George, Zaha Hadid, Damien Hirst and the Doris Lessing, who is now a Nobel laureate.
What do you believe?
What is your personal philosophy?
What do you believe but cannot prove?
Answers to questions like these can reveal much about one's moral, spiritual and intellectual foundations.
It can say a lot about who you are, why you are the way you are and how you live your life.
How do your life views compare to those of writer Thomas Mann?: "Life is possessed by tremendous tenacity. Even so, its presence remains conditional, and as it had a beginning, so it will have an end. I believe that life, just for this reason, is exceedingly enhanced in value, in charm."
How about farmer Steve Porter's view on life?: "I believe in the 50 percent theory. Half the time, things are better than normal; the other half, they are worse. I believe life is a pendulum swing. It takes time and experience to understand what normal is, and that gives me the perspective to deal with the surprises of the future."
Thanks to the Internet, you can learn about other people's beliefs and philosophies, and examine those views in relation to yours.
A Web site called "This I Believe" (http://www.thisibelieve.org) plays host to thousands of short essays by people highlighting the core values that guide their daily lives.
The collection is built on the original "This I Believe" series of books and radio programs hosted by Edward R. Murrow that were popular in the 1950s.
A 21st century version of the books was recently published; National Public Radio has been airing audio versions of the new essays.
The Web site was developed by National Public Radio and Atlantic Public Media.
A related site by National Public Radio is at http://www.npr.org/thisibelieve/about.html.
You can search the essay database by person's name or topic/theme.
Each essay takes barely a minute or two to read, but the insights can get you thinking for hours. You'll be surprised by the number of people, famous and unknown, who share your core beliefs and values. You'll also be enlightened by the many different views, beliefs and observations of others that you might not have considered before.
Another great site to visit is Edge (http://www.edge.org). The mission is to "promote inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society."
That, alone, is a lot to ponder. But what the site is best known for is its series of provocative questions posed to the world's leading scientists and thinkers. One year, the question was, "What do you believe to be true even though you cannot prove it?" Another question was, "What do you consider to be your most dangerous idea?"
In answering these and other questions, the writers and readers explore fundamental ideas, concepts and beliefs that everyone has considered at one point in their lives to which they discover there is no final answer.
For example, French physicist Carlo Rovelli writes, "I am convinced, but cannot prove, that time does not exist; that is, there is a consistent way of thinking about nature that makes no use of the notions of time and space at the fundamental level."
Communications expert Howard Rheingold writes, "I believe that we humans, who know so much about cosmology and immunology, lack a fundamental framework for thinking about why and how humans cooperate."
The Edge Web site questions prompted the publication of several books cataloging hundreds of the responses.
You can read those short essays online as well as examine other issues and topics put out for public discussion. This site is a nice complement to the "This I Believe" site and concept.
These sites and the topics discussed are examples of how the Internet can be used in a positive manner. It seems we hear so much about what's wrong with the Internet that, on those rare occasions when something positive can be found in the digital world, that news needs to be loudly and widely recognized.
Who's the most odious man in the world today? Some people might name Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust ever happened and seems quite happy at the thought of unleashing nukes against the Jews. These unsavoury views didn't deter Columbia University from issuing him an invitation to speak on campus. The university's president, Lee Bollinger, described the event as part of "Columbia's long-standing tradition of serving as a major forum for robust debate."
Or perhaps it's Larry Summers, the man who created such a storm with his remarks about women and science that he had to step down as president of Harvard. This week, he was disinvited from a regents' dinner at the University of California, where he was going to speak, after a bunch of faculty members protested that his views were too repellent. "I was appalled and stunned that someone like Summers would even be invited to speak to the regents," said biology professor Maureen Stanton, who helped put together a petition drive. "I think many of us who were involved in the protest believed that it wouldn't reflect well on the university that he even received the invitation."
So much for the notion that our universities are supposed to champion fearless free inquiry and debate. Obviously some ideas - such as the idea that innate differences between men and women might affect their aptitudes and career preferences - are too dangerous to even have.
The renowned psychologist Steven Pinker (whose new book is reviewed in today's Books section) recently got to thinking about some of the other ideas that are too dangerous to discuss. In an essay first posted at Edge (www.Edge.org), he wrote: "By 'dangerous ideas' I don't have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age." ...
“What sound is green?”
“Ssshh,” Alex answered correctly, and then demanded a nut. Instead he got another question.
“What sound is orange?”
“Want a nut!” Alex demanded. The interview was over. “Want a nut!” he repeated. “Nnn ... uh ... tuh.”
Dr. Pepperberg was flabbergasted. “Not only could you imagine him thinking, ‘Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it for you?’ ” she said. “This was in a sense his way of saying to us, ‘I know where you’re headed! Let’s get on with it.’ ”
She is quick to concede the impossibility of proving that the bird was actually verbalizing its internal deliberations. Only Alex knew for sure. ...
...The experiment is not only represents a collaboration by Brockman and Obrist’s of their own work; it is also a continuation of a movement that began in the '60s on America’s East Coast. John Cage brought together young artists and scientists for symposia and seminars to see what what would happen in the interaction of big thinkers from different fields. The resulting dialogue, which at the time seemed abstract and esoteric, can today be regarded as the forerunner to interdisciplinary science and the digital culture....
Recently I entered a bookstore. After ambling by the coffee and dessert area and passing the CDs and DVDs, I found actual books! The title of one of them stopped me: What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Potential answers came quickly:
Test the hypothesis first posited as a child that a red towel tied around the neck will indeed confer the ability to fly.
Go all in against a poker player named after a city or state, such as Amarillo or Colorado.
Wear a Yankees jacket in the bleachers at Fenway Park.
Carry a book called What Is Your Dangerous Idea? through airport security.
A closer inspection, however, revealed the book to be a collection of dangerous intellectual ideas, concepts that in many quarters might be considered to be literally unthinkable. In his introduction, Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker (who came up with the dangerous idea idea) throws examples around, including: “Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men?” “Is homosexuality the symptom of an infectious disease?” “Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?” To test whether the mere asking of these questions might be dangerous, pose the first to Hillary Clinton, the second to Ellen DeGeneres and the third to William J. Bennett, author of the Book of Virtues, who nonetheless lost millions in venues dominated by guys named Amarillo and Colorado.
The book is edited by John Brockman, editor and publisher of Edge (www.edge.org), a Web site devoted to “inquiry into and discussion of intellectual, philosophical, artistic, and literary issues, as well as to work for the intellectual and social achievement of society,” and whose “informal membership includes some of the most interesting minds in the world.” One can therefore find in Edge critiques of the antievolution essay of presidential candidate Sam Brownback, but not the antievolution essay itself. (The New York Times published that work, which immediately dropped P. J. O’Rourke down to second funniest conservative commentator.)
In his preface, Brockman notes that a provocative question is an annual Edge feature. The roots of this exercise date back to 1971, when artist James Lee Byars identified his 100 most brilliant people on the planet. His plan was to have them ask one another the same questions they had been asking themselves. Byars “called each of them,” Brockman explains, “and asked them what questions they were asking themselves. The result: 70 people hung up on him.” Which may prove that Byars was in fact only 70 percent successful in his personal assessment of brilliant minds.
The book includes 108 contributions, some of which go egghead-to-egghead. For example, physicist and computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis’s dangerous idea is “the idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas.” Whereas psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s dangerous idea is “the idea that ideas can be dangerous.” I both agree and disagree with both.
Nature’s chief news and features editor Oliver Morton has the dangerous idea that “our planet is not in peril,” although he quite rightly points out that many inhabitants of the planet are in great jeopardy because of environmental crises. Actually, George Carlin covered this territory years ago when he said, “The planet is fine. The people are f*^#ed ... the planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.”
My personal favorite entry is that of philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who knows a dangerous idea when he sees one and so simply quotes Bertrand Russell’s truly treacherous notion: “I wish to propose ... a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it true.” The danger of ignoring this doctrine can almost certainly be found in the politics or world events stories on the front page of today’s New York Times. On whatever day you read this.