The disciplinary structure in the universities is an important foundation. It enforces methodological rigor. But it doesn't really correlate with reality (why do we have one field, psychology, concerning the inner life and another field, sociology, concerning the outer life, when the distinction between the two is porous and maybe insignificant?). If there's going to be a vibrant intellectual life, somebody has to drag researchers out of their ghettos, and Brockman has done that, through Edge.
The book you hold in your hand accomplishes two things, one implicit, one explicit. Implicitly it gives you an excellent glimpse of what some of the world's leading thinkers are obsessed with at the moment. You can see their optimism (or anxiety) about how technology is changing culture and interaction. You'll observe a frequent desire to move beyond deductive reasoning and come up with more rigorous modes of holistic or emergent thinking. You'll also get a sense of the emotional temper of the group. People in this culture love neat puzzles and cool questions. Benoit Mandlebrot asked his famous question "How long is the coast of Britain?" long before this symposium was written, but it perfectly captures the sort of puzzle people in this crowd love. The question seems simple. Just look it up in the encyclopedia. But as Mandelbrot observed, the length of the coast of Britain depends on what you use to measure it. If you draw lines on a map to approximate the coastline, you get one length, but if you try to measure the real bumps in every inlet and bay, the curves of each pebble and grain of sand, you get a much different length.
That question is intellectually complexifying but also clarifying. It gets beneath the way we see, and over the past generation the people in this book have taken us beneath our own conscious thinking and shown us the deeper patterns and realms of life. I think they've been influenced by the ethos of Silicon Valley. They seem to love heroic attempts at innovation and don't believe there is much disgrace in an adventurous failure. They are enthusiastic. Most important, they are not coldly deterministic. Under their influence, the cognitive and other sciences have learned from novels and the humanities. In this book, Joshua Greene has a brilliant entry in which he tries to define the relationship between the sciences and the humanities, between brain imaging and Macbeth. He shows that they are complementary and interconnected magisteria. In this way the rift between the two cultures is being partially healed.
The explicit purpose of this book is to give us better tools to think about the world. Though written by researchers, it is eminently practical for life day to day.
As you march through or dance around in this book, you'll see that some of the entries describe the patterns of the world. Nicholas Christakis is one of several of scholars to emphasize that many things in the world have properties not present in their parts. They cannot be understood simply by taking them apart; you have to observe the interactions of the whole. Stephon Alexander is one of two writers (appropriately) to emphasize the dualities found in the world. Just as an electron has both wave-like and particle-like properties, so many things can have two sets of characteristics simultaneously. Clay Shirky emphasizes that while we often imagine bell curves everywhere, in fact the phenomena of the world are often best described by the Pareto Principle. Things are often skewed radically toward the top of any distribution. Twenty percent of the employees in any company do most of the work, and the top 20 percent within that 20 percent do most of that group's work. As you read through the entries that seek to understand patterns in the world, you'll run across a few amazing facts. For example, I didn't know that twice as many people in India have access to cell phones as latrines.
But most of the essays in the book are about metacognition. They consist of thinking about how we think. I was struck by Daniel Kahneman's essay on the Focusing Illusion, by Paul Saffo's essay on the Time Span Illusion, by John McWhorter's essay on Path Dependence, and Evgeny Morozov's essay on the Einstellung Effect, among many others. If you lead an organization, or have the sort of job that demands that you think about the world, these tools are like magic hammers. They will help you, now and through life, to see the world better, and to see your own biases more accurately.
But I do want to emphasize one final thing. These researchers are giving us tools for thinking. It sounds utilitarian and it is. But tucked in the nooks and crannies of this book there are insights about the intimate world, about the realms of emotion and spirit. There are insights about what sort of creatures we are. Some of these are not all that uplifting. Gloria Origgi writes about Kakonomics, our preference for low-quality outcomes. But Roger Highfield, Jonathan Haidt, and others write about the "snuggle for existence": the fact that evolution is not only about competition, but profoundly about cooperation and even altruism. Haidt says wittily that we are the giraffes of altruism. There is something for the poetic side of your nature, as well as the prosaic.
The people in this book lead some of the hottest fields; in these pages they are just giving you little wisps of what they are working on. But I hope you'll be struck not only by how freewheeling they are willing to be, but also by the undertone of modesty. Several of the essays in this book emphasize that we see the world in deeply imperfect ways, and that our knowledge is partial. They have respect for the scientific method and the group enterprise precisely because the stock of our own individual reason is small. Amid all the charms to follow, that mixture of humility and daring is the most unusual and important.