Sunday, December 31, 2006

Shout, shout ... let it all out.

Wandering as I was through the local sprawl of shops, I chanced upon a small book "What is your dangerous idea". It piqued my interest, so I bought it. The book is a collection of ideas about the future, it's cute, speculative and generally interesting. As with all good books, it led me on a journey.

The journey in this case, was because of its claim to provide "today's leading thinkers on the unthinkable". How do you define "today's leading thinkers?" One of the lessons that Cambridge taught me was that true genius is very scarce. I was there, and I'm a fully paid up member of the dazzlingly daft society. Along with 90% of the population, I believe I'm above average intelligence which either means I can't count or I'm deluded - I prefer to think I'm deluded. The one thing this does tell me is that I'm not one of the great thinkers, but fortunately I've got a lot of people to keep me company.

The truly great thinkers are often hidden away in the most obscure places and in my experience they never think of themselves in such terms. Now if you are a truly exceptional individual, let's say in the top 0.01%, then in the world today there are over half a million people just as bright as you; enough to make a small city. No matter how smart you think you or your clique are, there is a city of smarter people out there. Now this is the rub - the city couldn't exist anyway. The problem is that unless you exist in a true meritocracy most of these brilliant people are unlikely to be discovered. I believe I've met many outstandingly intelligent and thoughtful people who, because of the cards that life has dealt them, have never come close to realising their potential. A true meritocracy needs to hunt out these individuals.

So what do we live in; isn't the internet a true meritocracy? Well, it seems closer to a "shoutocracy" or, not to mix languages, a Stentorocracy (from the greek hero with the big lungs) than to a true meritocracy. There are those who argue the "wisdom of the crowd" creates a meritocracy. However the crowd is equally wise as daft (see Marquis de Condorcet for a more formal examination of this). You also still have to shout at the crowd and then you have the problem of memes.

So anyway back to the book. It led me to a group called the Edge. It's an interesting mix of self-selecting cultural imperialism, combined with some ardent beliefs and pleasurable intellectual discourse. Now there is nothing wrong with this - it's a talking shop - but the claims it makes are somewhat disturbing. It's not so much the edge, as sailing close or over it.

  • "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."

All hail to the priesthood. Hmmm, Hume would be turning in his grave - where has the humility gone?

  • "America now is the intellectual seedbed for Europe and Asia."
  • "The emergence of the third culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the preeminence of America in the realm of important ideas"

All hail to the imperium! I think 6 billion people might disagree with this. This doesn't mean the ideas or people aren't interesting, the claims are just a tad strong though.

  • "Who are the 'digerati' and why are they 'the cyber elite'? They are the doers, thinkers, and writers who have tremendous influence on the emerging communication revolution. They are not on the frontier, they are the frontier."

All hail to the Kings and Queens. They may well be self-anointed, but let the meme spread long enough and soon the crowd in its wisdom will be chanting. Still, it could be worse :-

King Arthur: I am your king.
Serf: Well I didn't vote for you.
King Arthur: You don't vote for kings.
Serf: Well how'd you become king then?
King Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. THAT is why I am your king.
Serf: Listen, strange women lyin' in ponds distributin' swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
Serf: You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you.
Serf: If I went 'round sayin' I was Emperor, just because some moistened bint lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away.
(Monty Python, Holy Grail ... if you haven't seen this, you should)

and finally ...

  • "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."

Ah, the Stentorocracy in action, the pantomisation of science (oh no it isn't, oh yes it is - I can't hear you!) - this is as dangerous a meme or idea as any in the book. Still, it's an interesting book - worth reading and it won't make you go blind.
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