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»
To non-scientists, it may not be obvious that science tends to be an optimistic endeavour. While academics working in the arts or humanities may be more equivocal abut the state of the world, those working in science tend to be hopeful, at least about furthering the limits of human knowledge and the possibilities of what can be known in the future. These are essentially optimistic goals.
What Are You Optimistic About? is a collection of essays from "the world’s leading scientists and thinkers" addressing the 2007 annual question posed by John Brockman on his website www.edge.org. Like its predecessors from previous years, it covers an impressively wide range of topics, including the futures of religion, the origins of the universe, climate change, neuroscience, human relationships, medicine, artificial intelligence, communications and psychology, among others. Inevitably, many important ideas get brief, superficial discussion, but as a whole the collection provides an overview of where the work in a number of interesting fields is heading, and makes both engaging and consoling predictions about the future. As Brockman is careful to articulate in his introduction, not all of these things will come to pass, but some certainly will.
Almost all the contributions are written by scientists or at least "thinkers in the empirical world": people Brockman considers to be the new intellectuals of modern culture. Steven Pinker explains why the decline in violence in the world will continue; Dan Sperber considers altruism on the web; and Oliver Morton writes on how solar energy can save the planet. A number of these essays assert confidently that we are living in a time of shifting paradigms, but they rarely agree on precise terms, and some hopes for the future openly contradict others. The most memorable moments in the collection do not come from ambitious contributions on the showstopper science of torpedoed religion, cancer cures and climate reversals. Instead they come when the contributors address wider hopes for human ingenuity, our capacity for progress and problem-solving. The edge question for 2008 is: what have you changed your mind about? This will surely provoke another stimulating array of responses, profiling issues and ideas where recent data are challenging preconceptions and highlighting the topics on the brink of breakthrough and development
This year's Big Question at Edge from John Brockman, et al., is this, What have you changed your mind about? This is, at least, an interesting question, so I'll start by saying that what I've changed my mind about is whether, in general, the Edge's annual question is worth reading. Okay, sometimes it is.
That said, are any specific answers to this year's Big Question worth reading? Somewhat surprisingly, yes. Granted, some of the answers are just wankery, scientists and others saying that they used to think we wouldn't solve Problem X, and now they think we will, someday, etc. Or, worse yet, there is a passel of up-with-the-environment puffery, where the previously unconverted become carbon holy-rollers. ...
Here are a couple worth reading. Feel free to add more.
"The partisan bickering that ensued throughout the 1790s suggested . . ."
Hold it right there. The 1790s? Does the historian Joseph J. Ellis, who wrote those words in his fine 2007 book American Creation, mean to say that "partisan bickering" dates almost from the founding of the American republic, when political parties themselves were still looked upon as divisive embarrassments?
He certainly does.
Partisan bickering - sometimes mild but often shockingly vicious - has characterized every decade of this nation's history, although you'd hardly know it to hear the many complaints about partisanship today. It's worth keeping this history in mind as the election season unfolds and presidential candidates once again pledge to end the rancor in Washington, restore civility and respect, and stop the political squabbling.
Barack Obama is most associated with this superficially pleasing theme. He promises to "change politics," uniting Americans around a "politics of purpose" that transcends "partisan calculation."
Alas for Obama, he has set himself an impossible task - however appealing it might seem to many Americans fed up with the routine nastiness of Washington debates. The "bickering" reflects not only a struggle for power, after all, but also real policy differences. And no, it won't end, ever, unless one side manages to silence the other - presumably not what Obama or anyone else running for the White House actually has in mind.
The Western world has split into "two cultures," the British scientist C.P. Snow declared nearly half a century ago, in which scientists and literary intellectuals no longer know how to speak to each other.
Snow's lengthy thesis was sloppy and attracted well-aimed barbs. Yet the cliche "The Two Cultures" has survived, I suspect, in part because it does help to explain the oblivious attitude toward science exhibited by so many otherwise educated people.
Take the fact that The New York Times' "100 Notable Books of the Year" from its Book Review includes no science books. The reader who pointed this out to me saw it reported on John Brockman's Edge Web site. Brockman's indignant assessment: "Given the well-documented challenges and issues we are facing as a nation, as a culture, how can it be that there are no science books (and hardly any books on ideas) on the New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year list; no science category in the Economist Books of the Year 2007; only Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker's list of Books From Our Pages?"
Since Brockman wrote those words nearly two weeks ago, the Times' three daily reviewers have published lists of their favorite books, too. Only one is about science - although science decades old (Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science).
Brockman argues that "Elite universities have nudged science out of the liberal arts undergraduate curriculum" and thus produce graduates "who don't even know that they don't know." Maybe so, but those graduates, if they work at a paper like the Times, must know this much: Their readers include many people trained in the sciences who might prefer a book on what scientists think, about our future, say, to a book on what Tina Brown thinks about Princess Diana.
Yes, The Diana Chronicles actually made the Times' "notable" list.
Even the world’s best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge
Lewis Smith, Science Reporter
The new year is traditionally a time when people tend to look back and try to work out where it all went wrong – and how to get it right in the future.
The new year is traditionally a time when people tend to look back and try to work out where it all went wrong – and how to get it right in the future.
This time the Edge Foundation asked a number of leading scientists and thinkers why they had changed their minds on some of the pivotal issues in their fields. The foundation, a chat forum for intellectuals, posed the question: “When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy. When God changes your mind, that’s faith. When facts change your mind, that’s science. What have you changed your mind about? Why?”
The group’s responses covered controversial issues, including climate change, whether God or souls exist and defining when humanity began.
This time the Edge Foundation asked a number of leading scientists and thinkers why they had changed their minds on some of the pivotal issues in their fields. The foundation, a chat forum for intellectuals, posed the question: “When thinking changes your mind, that’s philosophy. When God changes your mind, that’s faith. When facts change your mind, that’s science. What have you changed your mind about? Why?”
The group’s responses covered controversial issues, including climate change, whether God or souls exist and defining when humanity began.
When thinking changes your mind, that's philosophy.
When God changes your mind, that's faith.
When facts change your mind, that's science.
WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?
Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?"
John asked me to contribute. At first I demurred, both because I didn't have anything to say to match what I expected from the august company of scientists he'd assembled to answer his question and because I'm more in the "when thinking changes your mind" camp. Working as I do to shape how people think about social and technology trends, I'm less involved with facts that can be right or wrong than how what we believe changes what we see and do. Besides, my thinking tends to evolve rather than reverse itself. As I retell my story, I'm continually updating and revising.
John persisted. I eventually offered some ideas and he jumped on one: my skepticism about the term "social software" after Clay Shirky's "Social Software Summit" in November 2002. As it turns out, Clay was right and I was wrong. This was a powerful meme indeed, just five years early.
Here's what I wrote for the 2008 Edge question. As I suspected, it's a meager offering at a remarkable feast of the intellect. Use it, if you must, as an entry point to an amazing group of reflections on science, culture, and the evolution of ideas. Reading the Edge question is like being invited to dinner with some of the most interesting people on the planet. .
"The Edge 2008 question (with answers) is in. This year, the question is: 'What did you change your mind about and why?'. Answers are featured from scientists as diverse as Richard Dawkins, Simon Baron-Cohen, George Church,David Brin, J. Craig Venter and the Astronomer Royal, Lord Martin Rees, among others. Very interesting to read. For instance, Stewart Brand writes that he now realizes that 'Good old stuff sucks' and Sam Harris has decided that 'Mother Nature is Not Our Friend.' What did Slashdot readers change their minds about in 2007?"
The changes of mind that gave philosophers and scientists new insights
They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds.
When tackling subjects as diverse as human evolution, the laws of physics and sexual politics, scientists and philosophers, including Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett, Paul Davies and Richard Wrangham, all confessed yesterday to a change of heart.
The display of scientific modesty was brought about by the annual new year's question posed by the website edge.org, which drew responses from more than 120 of the world's greatest thinkers.
Edge's publisher, John Brockman, asked the intellectual cream what they had changed their mind about and why. "Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?" said the brief.
A common theme in the responses is that what distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge and from faith is that new ideas can rapidly overturn old ones as new evidence emerges. So there's nothing to be ashamed about in admitting an intellectual switch. Some responses, such as Dennett's change of heart on how the mind works, resist paraphrasing in 100 words, but here is a selection of the rest.
What was the turning point in human evolution?
Richard Wrangham, British anthropologist who studied under Jane Goodall. Now at Harvard University, his research includes primate behaviour and human evolution.
"I used to think that human origins were explained by meat-eating. After all, the idea that meat-eating launched humanity has been the textbook evolutionary story for decades, mooted even before Darwin was born.
"But in a rethinking of conventional wisdom I now think that cooking was the major advance that turned ape into human ... Cooked food is the signature feature of human diet. It not only makes our food safe and easy to eat, but it also grants us large amounts of energy compared to a raw diet, obviating the need to ingest big meals. Cooking softens food too, thereby making eating so speedy that as eaters of cooked food, we are granted many extra hours of free time every day."
Why do men dominate society?
Helena Cronin, philosopher at the London School of Economics and director of Darwin@LSE, a research group devoted to what Darwinism can tell us about human nature.
"I used to think that patterns of sex differences resulted mainly from average differences between men and women in innate talents, tastes and temperaments ... Add to this some bias and barriers - a sexist attitude here, a lack of childcare there - and the sex differences are explained. Or so I thought ... But they alone don't fully explain the differences ... Females are much of a muchness, clustering round the mean. But, among males, the variance - the difference between the most and the least, the best and the worst - can be vast.
"So males are almost bound to be over-represented both at the bottom and at the top. I think of this as 'more dumbbells but more Nobels'... Unfortunately, however, this is not the prevailing perspective in current debates, particularly where policy is concerned."
Are there genetic differences between "races"?
Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist at Reading University. His research includes work on language and cultural evolution.
"Flawed as the old ideas about race are, modern genomic studies reveal a surprising, compelling and different picture of human genetic diversity. We are on average about 99.5% similar to each other genetically. This is a new figure, down from the previous estimate of 99.9%. To put what may seem like minuscule differences in perspective, we are somewhere around 98.5% similar, maybe more, to chimpanzees, our nearest evolutionary relatives.
"The new figure for us, then, is significant. It derives from among other things, many small genetic differences that have emerged from studies that compare human populations ... Like it or not, there may be many genetic differences among human populations - including differences that may even correspond to old categories of "race" - that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem.
"This in no way says one group is in general "superior" to another ... But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.
Are humans still evolving?
Steven Pinker, leading psychologist and language expert at Harvard University. Author of The Language Instinct and The Blank Slate.
"I've had to question the overall assumption that human evolution pretty much stopped by the time of the agricultural revolution ... New [laboratory] results have suggested that thousands of genes, perhaps as much as 10% of the human genome, have been under strong recent selection, and the selection may even have accelerated during the past several thousand years ... If these results hold up, and apply to psychologically relevant brain function ... then the field of evolutionary psychology might have to reconsider the simplifying assumption that biological evolution was pretty much over and done with 10-000-50,000 years ago."
Is the universe flat?
Laurence Krauss, physicist at Case Western Reserve University and prominent opponent of the Intelligent Design movement. His books include The Physics of Star Trek.
"I was relatively certain that there was precisely enough matter in the universe to make it geometrically flat ... according to general relativity [geometrically flat] means there is a precise balance between the positive kinetic energy associated with the expansion of space, and the negative potential energy associated with the gravitational attraction of matter in the universe so that the total energy is precisely zero ... We are now pretty sure that the dominant energy-stuff in our universe isn't normal matter, and isn't dark matter, but rather is associated with empty space! And what is worse (or better, depending upon your viewpoint) is that our whole picture of the possible future of the universe has changed. An accelerating universe will carry away almost everything we now see, so that in the far future our galaxy will exist alone in a dark, and seemingly endless void. And that is what I find so satisfying about science ... that the whole community could throw out a cherished notion, and so quickly! That is what makes science different than religion."
Should we use brain-boosting drugs?
Philip Campbell, editor-in-chief of the leading scientific journal Nature
"I've changed my mind about the use of enhancement drugs by healthy people. A year ago, if asked, I'd have been against the idea, whereas now I think there's much to be said for it. The ultimate test of such a change of mind is how I'd feel if my offspring (both adults) went down that road, and my answer is that with tolerable risks of side effects and zero risk of addiction, then I'd feel OK if there was an appropriate purpose to it ... Research and societal discussions are necessary before cognitive enhancement drugs should be made legally available for the healthy, but I now believe that that is the right direction in which to head.
Does God exist?
Alan Alda, perhaps best-known as Hawkeye in the 70s series MASH. He now hosts Scientific American Frontiers on US television.
"Until I was 20 I was sure there was a being who could see everything I did and who didn't like most of it. He seemed to care about minute aspects of my life, like on what day of the week I ate a piece of meat. And yet, he let earthquakes and mudslides take out whole communities, apparently ignoring the saints among them who ate their meat on the assigned days. Eventually, I realised that I didn't believe there was such a being ... I still don't like the word agnostic. It's too fancy. I'm simply not a believer."
What did you change your mind about in 2007? The world's intellectual elite spread some New Year humility.
James Randerson, science correspondent
Since I wrote my piece on this year's show of scientific humility for the New Year's day paper some big names have added their thoughts to the mix.
Here's evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on how being a "flip-flopper" is no bad thing in science...
The controversial geneticist Craig Venter has had a change of heart about the capacity of our planet to soak up the punishment humanity is throwing at it...
There are also interesting contributions from Simon Baron-Cohen, the University of Cambridge autism researcher who has changed his mind about equality; psychologist Susan Blackmore, who has gone from embracing the paranormal to debunking it; and artist and composerBrian Eno, who was once seduced by Maoism, but now believes it is a "monstrosity".
What did you change your mind about in 2007?
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!