Edge.org, 30.05.2006 (USA)
The best essays about the disconcerting media revolution known as the Internet continue to come from the USA. A fortnight ago in the New York Times Magazine, Kevin Kelly (more here) set out his euphoric vision of the Internet-based collective and the universal book. Almost immediately, although without direct reference to Kelly, Jaron Lanier (more here) penned an acerbic counter argument, criticising the collective spirit kindled by projects such as Wikipedia which believes a collective intelligence will aggregate by itself on the net without responsible authors. Lanier talks of a "new online collectivism" and the "resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise". "This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous." Lanier does not believe in erasing authorship: "The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots."
Lanier's essay provoked many people to enter into the debate at edge.org, Kevin Kelly among them.
Peter Oborne reports from Darfur: "When we visited the scene of the battle we found that bodies had beenshoved hastily into mass graves. An arm stuck out from under one bush, and the flesh had been eaten by wild animals. A human foot obtruded from another grave. Dried pools of blood stained the ground. The stench of human putrefaction was heavy in the air. Bits and pieces of clothing, spent bullets and theprotective amulets used by African fighters lay scattered on the ground. One body still lay exposed. The dead man had evidently climbed a tree to escape his attackers, but been shot down from his hiding place."
Il Foglio, 10.06.2006 (Italy)
The Golf GTI was, sociologically speaking at least, the forerunner of the now controversial SUV, writesMaurizio Crippa, and also the perfect symbol of the 80s. "If cars have a spirit, then it is certainly an evil one, demonic. The enemy is inside them, a man like in Stephen King's 'Christine' of 1983. Christine might have been a Plymouth Fury of 1958, but its cursed spirit uncovered the ghastly depths of the GT decade and all the souped-up, turbo-boosted and drilled-out engines. That all came to an end in 1989, famously the year of salvation. The Golf, in particular the GTI, the black one - and we are not talking about the one with rabbit's foot in the back – was aggressive, demanding, loud."
After substantial renovation, the legendary New York coffee house, one of the most important literary coffee houses of the Danube monarchy has reopened. The writer Ivan Bächer recollects:"Once upon a time, not only the coffee house but the whole palace, even every room, every corner every nook and cranny of the the entire block of the surrounding houses was full of journalists, writers, publishing houses and editorial offices." The new Italian owners have redeveloped the literary spirit to death, Bächer states disappointedly: "On the wall is a box of reinforced glass in which a dozen beautiful old books are hermetically sealed. A book safe. At the opening celebrations in 1895 the playwright Ferenc Molnar threw the keys to the coffee house into the Danube so that the splendid institution could never be closed again. After the reopening, perhaps someone should take the precaution of throwing the keys to the reinforced glass box into the Danube to prevent anyone from entertaining the idea of ever opening a book in these rooms. (Here and here photos of the coffee house in its heyday, Here, here and here after the renovation.)
DU magazine focusses on Germany for the World Cup and has its correspondents report from every corner of the Bundesrepublik. As usual only a very small selection is available online, but Albrecht Tübke's photographic portraits which accompany the pieces of writing can be viewed here.
The lengthy discursive essays are less illuminating than the small atmospheric pieces such as the one by Svenja Leibe on the village where she grew up. "Drive off the motorway, on and on through the scattered settlements, none of which you will find surprising. Drive through them, but do not hope to see anything through the panorama windows of the bungalows, drive on down the curvy streets, past the pig farms, past the silver bunting of the car show rooms. Follow the neon coloured invitations to 'foam parties and barn raves'. Look out for people, you won't see many of them. Don't think the red lantern in front of the family house is a forgotten Christmas decoration. Drive. Drive down the pretty hill, on past the hidden building sites in the garden of the old pheasantry, down to the 'tank resistant' bridge that stoutly spans a tiny stream. The road runs directly into the heart of the village and to a little house behind a metre-long curve sign where it turns very sharply to the left. Don't look out of the window with too much interest here, you will only make them suspicious. There is nothing to buy any more. Leave them in peace. Let them file away at their gardens, take that seriously."
Inspired by Isaac Asimov's futuristic vision "I, Robot", The Economist asks in itsTechnology Quarterly how secure our future will be among robots. Do Asimov's three lawsfor the protection of humans hold today? "Regulating the behaviour of robots is going to become more difficult in the future, since they will increasingly have self-learning mechanisms built into them, says Gianmarco Veruggio, a roboticist at the Institute of Intelligent Systems for Automation in Genoa, Italy. As a result, their behaviour will become impossible to predict fully, he says, since they will not be behaving in predefined ways but will learn new behaviour as they go."
Other articles dealing with new fuel cells, artificial neural networks in car motors and the victory march of Bluetooth (wireless personal area networks) are unfortunately not online. Not in the magazine but also topical here is Robocup, the world robot football championships taking place this week in Bremen.
Does globalisation make Karl Marx a "pioneer of modern thinking"? The question is tossed around in this issue by two indiviuals who are convinced the answer is yes: English historianEric Hobsbawm and Jacques Attali, economist and former advisor to Francois Mitterand, whose book "Karl Marx ou l'esprit du monde" was published last year. Hobsbawm finds a renewed interest in Marx entirely natural: "Today we are seeing the globalised economy thatMarx anticipated. Still, he didn't foresee all of its repercussions. For example, the Marxist prophesy whereby an increasingly numerous proletariat topples capitalism in the industrial countries did not come about." Attali comments: "The Socialist International was a remarkable attempt on Marx's part to think the world in its entirety. Marx is an extraordinarily modern thinker, because rather than sketching the outlines of a socialist state, his writings describe the capitalism of the future."
Daniel Binswanger portrays Segolene Royal, the promising presidential candidate whose conservative views are pushing French socialists into an identity crisis. "Re-education camps for criminal youths controlled by the army, state paternalism of parents with authority problems, cutbacks in funding for people with delinquent children: for the last week people in France have been discussing a whole catalogue of measures aimed at coming to grips with youth violence in the banlieues. But for once the debate has not been set off by the hyperactive Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy. The French are rubbing their eyes in disbelief: as if in a political mirage, the discourse on law-and-order has changed camps."
What's become of lunch? A sandwich gulped down while you're walking. Folio presents this rule and exceptions to it.
Stephan Israel visits Michel Addons, cook for the Italian EU Commission: "Today there's lobster tails on spring rolls with ginger and oyster sauce. For the main course there's veal sweetbreads with new potatoes and green asparagus from Provence. For desert there's strawberries on creme brulee. Today is the yearly visit of the much-feared auditors from Luxembourg."
Italian author Andrea Camilleri commiserates with those who have to swallow down a hamburger on the street, reminiscing about how his grandmother used to cook at noon. "As primo there was mostly pasta, as a gratin or with meat sauce, sometimes there was also melanzane alla parmigiana. As secondo there was poultry, lamb or fish, then cheese and sausages. Of course a lunch like that took its time. No one went back to work before four in the afternoon."
Bernard-Henri Levy is up in arms that no one in France has said a word about Simone de Beauvoir, who died 20 years ago. In his "notebook" column, he pays homage to seven women, all of whom are "proof of the timelessness of de Beauvoir's tremendous work": Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, French politician Segolene Royal, women's rights activist Fadela Amara, Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and – German chancellor Angela Merkel. Levy writes: "Angela Merkel, 'that woman' as Gerhard Schröder, Putinist and world record holder in matters of corruption under a democracy, called her; that 'girl' who peeved him no end at the time of his election defeat... She, the specialist in quantum physics (elementary particles are not Michel Houellebecq's terrain, but hers), enjoys a popularity that has her predecessor, and all of Europe's heads of government, green with envy. And on top of that she's rehabilitating the finances of an economy that thanks to her is once more becoming what it always has been and should definitely be once more: the moving force in the European equation."
Five years after the American victory over the Taliban, Ahmed Rashid sees Afghanistan once more on the verge of collapse: "A revived Taliban movement has made a third of the country ungovernable. Together with al-Qaeda, Taliban leaders are trying to carve out new bases on the Afghanistan–Pakistan border. They are aided by Afghanistan's resurgent opium industry, which has contributed to widespread corruption and lawlessness, particularly in the south. The country's huge crop of poppies is processed into opium and refined into heroin for export, now accounting for close to 90 percent of the global market."
Further articles: Alan Ryan presents three books in which renowned philosophers – Kwame Anthony Appiah, Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum – address concepts of cultural diversity andcosmopolitanism. Freeman J. Dyson reviews Daniel C. Dennet's philosophical treatise on religion,"Breaking the Spell", in which Dennett pinpoints the real problem as "belief in belief": "He finds evidence that large numbers of people who identify themselves as religious believers do not in fact believe the doctrines of their religions but only believe in belief as a desirable goal."
Two weeks ago, Edge.org published Jaron Lanier's essay "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," critiquing the importance people are now placing on Wikipedia and other examples of the "hive mind," as people called it in the cyberdelic early 1990s. It's an engaging essay to be sure, but much more thought-provoking to me are the responses from the likes of Clay Shirky, Dan Gillmor, Howard Rheingold, our own Cory Doctorow, Douglas Rushkoff, and, of course, Jimmy Wales.
From Douglas Rushkoff:
I have a hard time fearing that the participants of Wikipedia or even the call-in voters of American Idol will be in a position to remake the social order anytime, soon. And I'm concerned that any argument against collaborative activity look fairly at the real reasons why some efforts turn out the way they do. Our fledgling collective intelligences are not emerging in a vacuum, but on media platforms with very specific biases.
First off, we can't go on pretending that even our favorite disintermediation efforts are revolutions in any real sense of the word. Projects like Wikipedia do not overthrow any elite at all, but merely replace one elite — in this case an academic one — with another: the interactive media elite...
While it may be true that a large number of current websites and group projects contain more content aggregation (links) than original works (stuff), that may as well be a critique of the entirety of Western culture since post-modernism. I'm as tired as anyone of art and thought that exists entirely in the realm of context and reference — but you can't blame Wikipedia for architecture based on winks to earlier eras or a music culture obsessed with sampling old recordings instead of playing new compositions.
Honestly, the loudest outcry over our Internet culture's inclination towards re-framing and the "meta" tend to come from those with the most to lose in a society where "credit" is no longer a paramount concern. Most of us who work in or around science and technology understand that our greatest achievements are not personal accomplishments but lucky articulations of collective realizations. Something in the air... Claiming authorship is really just a matter of ego and royalties.
From Cory Doctorow:
Wikipedia isn't great because it's like the Britannica. The Britannica is great at being authoritative, edited, expensive, and monolithic. Wikipedia is great at being free, brawling, universal, and instantaneous.
From Jimmy Wales (italics indicate quotes from Jaron's original essay):
"A core belief of the wiki world is that whatever problems exist in the wiki will be incrementally corrected as the process unfolds."
My response is quite simple: this alleged "core belief" is not one which is held by me, nor as far as I know, by any important or prominent Wikipedians. Nor do we have any particular faith in collectives or collectivism as a mode of writing. Authoring at Wikipedia, as everywhere, is done by individuals exercising the judgment of their own minds.
"The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first."
UPDATE: Jaron Lanier writes us that he's received a lot of negative feedback from people who he thinks may not have actually read his original essay:
In the essay i criticized the desire (that has only recently become influential) to create an "oracle effect" out of anonymity on the internet - that's the thing i identified as being a new type of collectivism, but i did not make that accusation against the wikipedia - or against social cooperation on the net, which is something i was an early true believer in- if i remember those weird days well, i think i even made up some of the rhetoric and terminology that is still associated with net advocacy today- anyway, i specifically exempted many internet gatherings from my criticism, including the wikipedia, boingboing, google, cool tools... and also the substance of the essay was not accusatory but constructive- the three rules i proposed for creating effective feedback links to the "hive mind" being one example.
Collectives have their uses, but writing encyclopedias? With no firm editorial hand? Call it the Wikipedia problem...
THE Web has given airline customers more convenience and more power. The ability to compare prices instantly at several airlines — something that was previously available only to travel agents — can't help but keep prices down.
But the airlines are still in control. The complicated algorithms they employ to analyze demand, competitors' prices and other data are the reason the same flight costs $350 one day and $550 the next. Here, online travel sites like Expedia and Travelocity aren't much help. That's because "Expedia's real customers are the travel companies — not you," writes John Battelle of Searchblog (battellemedia.com).
Farecast, a new Web service still being tested, monitors and analyzes price data and gives probabilities on when and by how much future fares might rise or fall. The "when" is crucial. Fares tend to fluctuate, but the trick is to know when they will hit their low point. Farecast is designed to predict it for you.
For Mr. Battelle, Farecast represents a potential return to the Web's early promise of shifting power to consumers. That was thwarted, he writes, when merchants began to collude with one another and with aggregators. "If you think AutoByTel or Expedia is on your side, you're kidding yourself."
One problem with Farecast is that it doesn't include Southwest Airlines, which doesn't supply information to aggregators. For Michael Arrington, that's a deal breaker. "Farecast is a nice solution that distills useful information from complete pricing chaos by the airlines," Mr. Arrington writes in his TechCrunch blog. But without Southwest, "the lowest and most understandable prices are excluded from the service."
The Trouble With Wikis There is nothing wrong, per se, with Wikipedia, writes Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist, artist and author, in a provocative essay on the Web site Edge: The Third Culture (edge.org). Rather, he says, the problem is how Wikipedia is used and the way it has been elevated to such importance so quickly.
Is it a good idea to rely on an encyclopedia that can be changed on a whim by any number of anonymous users? Is relying on the "hive mind" envisioned by the former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly the way to go about using the Web?
Usually not, Mr. Lanier writes. Doing so amounts to taking techno-utopianism to its extreme — favoring the tool over the worker, and the collective over the individual.
The kind of "foolish collectivism" represented by Wikipedia — as well as "meta" sites like Digg, Reddit and popurls, which aggregate sites based on popularity-driven algorithms — grinds away the Web's edges and saps it of its humanity, he argues. "The fallacy of the infallible collective" gives such sites more credibility than they deserve, he writes.
Often, he acknowledges, the hive mind is smarter than any individual — in determining prices, for example. "The collective is good at solving problems which demand results that can be evaluated by uncontroversial performance parameters," he writes, "but it is bad when taste and judgment matter." Often, he says, it is best to combine the strengths of the hive mind with those of the individual — as with open-source software.
"The best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first," he concludes.
Luminaries like Mr. Kelly, Douglas Rushkoff, Esther Dyson, Howard Rheingold and Jimmy Wales, a founder of Wikipedia, reacted to the essay, "Digital Maoism," on Edge.
On Wikipedia, Mr. Kelly said, there is "far more deliberate design management going on than first appears."
The "bottom-up hive mind will never take us to our end goal," he adds. "We are too impatient. So we add design and top-down control to get where we want to go."
Monkey Chow Diaries "Imagine going to the grocery store only once every six months," paying less than $1 a meal, Adam Scott, a blogger writes. His imaginings led him to experiment with a diet of nothing but Monkey Chow. It is "a complete and balanced diet for the nutrition of primates," he says. Track his — um, progress? — at angryman.ca/monkey.html. DAN MITCHELL
More than a dozen years ago I was involved in a project to build an internet-delivered encyclopedic reference source. Those of us who worked on it were dazzled by the potential that seemed to be opening up before us. There was a worldwide communication network that anyone could use; here in hand was the most comprehensive and authoritative generalreference work in the English language; and in between us and the goal that grew more ambitious each day were only some technical challenges and the limits of our imaginations. It was a wonderful time to be an encyclopedia editor.
Well, things didn't work out just as we hoped, for reasons too numerous to mention here. I recall this episode mainly to make the point that I understand the enthusiasm, the evangelism, that Wikipedia evokes in many, many people. I wish I could share it with them now. But, as David Shariatmadari's openDemocracy article "The sultan and the glamour model" (25 May 2006) shows once again, Wikipedia's most eloquent advocates fail, or refuse, to acknowledge certain issues.
Bias and imbalance
Shariatmadari's article praises the work of a group calling itself by the unfortunately self-congratulatory labelWikiproject: Countering Systemic Bias and ends with a call for more such efforts to improve the coverage of the encyclopedia. Certainly such work is needed. I would suggest that it needs to begin with a clear distinction between "bias" and "imbalance", terms that Shariatmadari uses interchangeably but that to an editor mean quite different things. The Wikiproject seems to concern itself with topics that are treated in insufficient detail or not at all; to me, this is addressing imbalance. "Bias" denotes a lack of objectivity or fairness in the treatment of topics. Thus, when a writer called Joseph McCabe alleged in a widely distributed pamphlet that certain articles in theEncyclopedia Britannica had been unduly influenced by the Catholic church, he was charging bias. (That was in 1947, and he was quite wrong, by the way.)
Is imbalance in Wikipedia "systemic"? I should rather say that it results inevitably from a lack of system. Given the method by which Wikipedia articles are created, for there to be any semblance of balance in the overall coverage of subject-matter would be miraculous. Balance results from planning. As an example, the planning of the coverage of the fifteenth edition of Britannica took an in-house staff and dozens of advisers several years to complete. That was forty years ago; it would be harder now.
It is unremarkable that the topics covered at present in Wikipedia reflect the interests of those who contribute to it, and that these contributors represent a relatively narrow, self-selected segment of society. In the absence of planning and some degree of central direction, how else could it have been?
It is well to bear in mind also that imbalance is a judgment, not a fact, and that it cannot be reduced to numbers. To say that article A is longer than article B is not to show that B has not been given its due. Some subjects require more background, more context, more sheer wordage to convey a sense of understanding to the reader. Are 260 lines too much to devote to the Scots language? Clearly, someone does not think so. Someone else might well feel that there ought to be much more. Three lines for the language of the Yi is almost certainly too few, but what is the right number? Who – I'm asking for a showing of hands here – knows? What is lacking is not some numerical standard but editorial standards: a set of principles that define what constitutes adequate treatment of various kinds of topics for an intended audience.
Truth and openness
David Shariatmadari writes that the situation is "uncannily like free market economics applied to knowledge." This is quite inapt. I suppose it is meant to shock; what could be worse than, you know, capitalism? I'll just point out that another shocking word that might properly be applied to Wikipedia is "globalist." Sorry, but I calls 'em as I sees 'em.
More seriously, a better analogy might be a children's soccer team. It is notorious that, in the United States, at least, a game involving the youngest children will consist of a swarm of twenty or so players buzzing ineffectively about the ball. As the children grow older, however, they will develop individual skills and learn to play positions and to execute strategies. Just so, traditionally, have editors honed skills, learned appropriate methods and processes, and developed the synoptic view required by the job.
No complex project can be expected to yield satisfactory results without a clear vision of what the goal is – and here I mean what a worthy internet encyclopedia actually looks like – and a plan to reach that goal, which will include a careful inventory of the needed skills and knowledge and some meaningful measures of progress. To date, the "hive mind" of Wikipedia's "digital Maoism" (as Jaron Lanier'svigorous critique on edge.org calls it) displays none of these.
That vision of the goal must do something that Wikipedia and Wikipedians steadfastly decline to do today, and that is to consider seriously the user, the reader. What is the user meant to take away from the experience of consulting a Wikipedia article? The most candid defenders of the encyclopedia today confess that it cannot be trusted to impart correct information but can serve as a starting-point for research. By this they seem to mean that it supplies some links and some useful search terms to plug into Google. This is not much. It is a great shame that some excellent work – and there is some – is rendered suspect both by the ideologically required openness of the process and by association with much distinctly not excellent work that is accorded equal standing by that same ideology.
One simple fact that must be accepted as the basis for any intellectual work is that truth – whatever definition of that word you may subscribe to – is not democratically determined. And another is that talent, whether for soccer or for exposition, is not equally distributed across the population, while a robust confidence is one's own views apparently is. If there is a systemic bias in Wikipedia, it is to have ignored so far these inescapable facts.
"powerful and persuasive essays"
In this paperback original, 16 noted scientists, including Steven Pinker and Richard Dawkins refute the "intelligent design" movement in powerful and persuasive essays.
Jaron Lanier, who more or less invented virtual reality in the 1980s (making me a lifelong Lanier fan), has published a fascinating Edge essay on Digital Maosim: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism.
The opening gambit is: "The hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring. Why pay attention to it?" What he is pointing to is the collective output exemplified by Wikipedia etc, meta-sources of informaiton such as Google, and meta-meta-meta sources such as (in increasing order of meta-ness), Boing Boing, Digg and Popurls.
It's not hard to see why the fallacy of collectivism has become so popular in big organizations: If the principle is correct, then individuals should not be required to take on risks or responsibilities. We live in times of tremendous uncertainties coupled with infinite liability phobia, and we must function within institutions that are loyal to no executive, much less to any lower level member. Every individual who is afraid to say the wrong thing within his or her organization is safer when hiding behind a wiki or some other Meta aggregation ritual.
I've participated in a number of elite, well-paid wikis and Meta-surveys lately and have had a chance to observe the results. I have even been part of a wiki about wikis. What I've seen is a loss of insight and subtlety, a disregard for the nuances of considered opinions, and an increased tendency to enshrine the official or normative beliefs of an organization. Why isn't everyone screaming about the recent epidemic of inappropriate uses of the collective? It seems to me the reason is that bad old ideas look confusingly fresh when they are packaged as technology.
Why do we do it? As Lanier points out later:
It's safer to be the aggregator of the collective. You get to include all sorts of material without committing to anything. You can be superficially interesting without having to worry about the possibility of being wrong.
Comment: Edge is based on the idea of accumulating the knowledge of a very small number of the world's smartest people -- more or less the opposite of Google or Wikipedia
The intelligent-design movement suffered a political setback last December when a federal judge ordered a Pennsylvania school district to stop talking about it in high school, but it lives on as an idea, to the bemusement and occasional frustration of most serious scientists. Sixteen of them, including Dennett, contributed essays in defense of evolution to a small anthology called "Intelligent Thought," published last week. It was compiled by John Brockman, better known as the editor of the Web site edge.org, the thinking man's Drudge Report. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins deconstructs the claim by ID proponents that the "designer" could be an intelligent alien rather than God, and psychologist Steven Pinker shows how moral sensibility can arise by way of natural selection. "Evolutionary biology certainly hasn't explained everything that perplexes biologists," Dennett concludes, "but Intelligent Design hasn't yet tried to explain anything at all."
It's just an empty glass box now, but this site will become the world's most powerful nerd magnet tomorrow. Expect to see geeks flying through the air towards it, whoosh! over Manhattan, like steel dust drawn to a neodymium disc. Many thanks to literary uber-agent John Brockman for the photo. Link to full-size (jpeg). Steve Jurvetson has some thoughts about it here.
The worst kind of argument to have is one with someone who Just Doesn't Get It. The debates that find your well-reasoned points countered with the tautological equivalent of "nuh-uh" or "because, that's why" may not make you feel like you lost the argument, but you certainly don't feel like you won, either. Especially when the topic you're disagreeing on isn't even something that should be up for debate.
That's the overriding sense one suspects the writers of the essays in Intelligent Thought were experiencing when they put pen to paper. More than one of them, I'm sure, muttered to himself: "I can't fucking believe I'm having to write this."
By elegantly and eloquently explaining the airtight science behind Darwinism (not a theory anymore, by the way, but a scientifically proven fact) and deftly swatting away the distortions and dogma that define ID, Brockman and the other contributors to Intelligent Thought may not end the "debate" with this book, but they've managed to provide an excellent and readable primer on evolution and the power of the scientific method.
Intellectuals are not just people who know things, but people who shape the thoughts of their generation...
Edge is not so much the "Internet as highbrow cocktail party," as it is the "Internet as Center for Advanced Studies." Here, Brockman and the leading thinkers in a raft of scientific and social disciplines exchange ideas and build theories…and we get to watch.
EVERYONE HAS A fleeting fantasy in which they are reborn as, say, a Hollywood star or a stupendously wealthy author. My occasional fancy is that I am a science reporter of some repute, bringing beard-tuggingly important matters — such as the dialogue between science and religion — to the attention of readers and opinion-formers.
So I flirted with the idea of applying for a Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowship in Science and Religion. The placement at Cambridge University would undoubtedly be fun — I’d spend two months listening to scientists, religious scholars and philosophers. I’d hang out with serious thinkers, meet high-minded hacks, my credentials as an intellectual would soar. With a stipend of about £10,000, plus book allowance and travel expenses, it wouldn’t be a badly paid gig, either.
The only hitch, apart from selling the jolly to my editors, was the origin of the cheque. The John Templeton Foundation is an enormously wealthy charity that awards an annual prize of $1.4 million for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities (Sir John Templeton, a financier, insisted that the prize should be more lucrative than the Nobel Prize).
Over the past decade Templeton prizes have gone to scientists who have explored such concepts as nothingness, infinity, and multiple universes, exactly the kind of “wow” subjects that inspire awed contemplation. Next month the Cambridge University cosmologist John D. Barrow will receive his cheque at Buckingham Palace; he is praised for work that “has illuminated understanding of the Universe and cast the intrinsic limitations of scientific inquiry into sharp relief” .
Ah, yes, the “limitations of scientific enquiry”. This quote hints at the religious agenda of the foundation, which has become a significant donor to such institutions as Oxford University, where it is funding research to discover whether religious belief can reduce pain. The foundation is also paying for studies about the effect of prayer on health. That would be fine, were it not for the aims stated on the section of its website devoted to spirituality and health: “. . . the foundation hopes to contribute to the reintegration of faith into modern life”.
The foundation wisely rejects intelligent design but nevertheless emphasises the metaphysical dimension of any funded research: “What can research tell us about God, about the nature of divine action in the world, about meaning and purpose?” it asks. Which, to my reading, assumes the existence of both God and divine action.
Anyway, at the end of their jaunt, Templeton journalism fellows are “encouraged to write and publish news stories, editorial pieces, or magazine articles ... contributing to a more informed public discussion of the relationship between science and religion”.
Now, consider that one of my more memorable articles about just this topic contended that illusions of the divine may point to mental illness. Another article rubbished a study that claimed that childless couples could double their chances of IVF success by getting strangers to pray for them. Neither study was associated in any way with the foundation, but I wonder whether it would have considered those pieces “more informed”?
My vague misgivings have now been articulated by John Horgan, a science writer and agnostic who became a 2005 Templeton fellow. “I rationalised that taking the foundation’s money did not mean that it had bought me, as long as I remained true to my views,” he wrote last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the US equivalent of The Times Higher (click here to read his essay).
So, what happened when Horgan told a foundation official that he had no wish for religion and science to be reconciled? “She told us that . . . she didn’t think someone with those opinions should have accepted a fellowship.”
I applaud those writers who become Templeton fellows; I commend their desire to learn more and I wish them well in their efforts to keep an open mind. In truth, I envy them their two-month summer sabbatical.
Perhaps I lack backbone, but I worry that accepting the foundation’s largesse might make me a bit soft. And a soft reporter is the last thing needed by infertile couples who wrongly believe that a stranger’s prayer will help to bring them a child.
From left, Elizabeth Spelke, John Brockman, Seth Lloyd, and Daniel C. Dennett engage in a panel discussion of the book “What We Believe But Cannot Prove,” to which they all contributed, in Radcliffe’s Longfellow Hall yesterday.
Last night, three Harvard professors, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor, and a Tufts professor provided their own answers to this question before a crowded audience in Askwith Lecture Hall at the Graduate School of Education.
The ideas that they debated included individual consciousness, a common human gene pool, and the existence of electrons.
The discussion, sponsored by the Harvard Bookstore and Seed Magazine, marked the recent release of the essay collection, “What We Believe But Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty,” which was edited by John Brockman.
The panelists, who all contributed essays to the book, featured Harvard psychology professors, Daniel Gilbert, Mark D. Hauser, and Elizabeth Spelke, as well as a Tufts philosophy professor, Daniel C. Dennett, and an MIT engineering professor, Seth Lloyd.
Spelke said she believes human beings are alike, but that she also believes they are predisposed to believe they are fundamentally different.
She said, though, that she remained convinced that people are capable of overcoming their beliefs when these are disproved.
Gilbert claimed that “the only fact that proves itself is our own experience.”
“The fact of your experience is not a fact to me,” he said.
He argued that we can demonstrate “to our own satisfaction” that a creature has a consciousness.
After the introductory remarks, discussion focused largely on human consciousness and language.
The ability to communicate through language may be a key to determining other people’s consciousness and experience, according to Dennett.
But the panelists also pointed out that another unique feature of language is that it allows humans to hide intentions.
“God gave us language so we can conceal our thoughts,” Dennett responded.
Questions from the audience focused on issues such as free will, spirituality, and what constitutes certainty and proof.
“Proof is that which makes everybody shut up,” Gilbert said.
“No,” Hauser responded to break the silence, prompting laughter from the audience.
Todos los años, el sitio de Internet www.edge.org, que nuclea a los científicos más importantes y prestigiosos del mundo, inaugura el calendario haciéndoles a sus miembros una pregunta crucial. La de este año fue ni más ni menos que: ¿cuál es la idea más peligrosa del mundo? A continuación, las diez respuestas más explosivas, y una yapa.
...Presented with photos on a screen, the white Israeli infants preferred looking at new faces of their own race; African babies raised in Ethiopia preferred to look at African faces. But the Ethiopian-Israeli infants, who had been exposed since birth too people of both races, showed no preference. The import of this study is ambiguous, Spelke said. The finding could mean that babies aren't born prejudiced after all—that they earn to be wary of others only if they grow up in an isolated environment. Or it would mean that babies are programmed to to use people who look more like their own parents, and this instinct can be counterbalanced through enlightened education.
If the latter interpretation proved to be the case, Spelke would be optimistic. As she recently posted on Edge [*], a Web publication that airs scientific controversies, "Humans are capable of discovering that our core intuitions about geometry once led humans to believe that the world was flat—until the science that humans perfected proved otherwise—core intuitions night lead us to believe that linguistic and racial differences mean something more fundamental than they really do.
"Nobody should ever be troubled by our research, whatever we come to find," Spelke told me. "Everybody should be troubled by the phenomena that motivate it: the pervasive tendency of people all over the world to categorize others into different social groups, despite our common and universal humanity, and to endow these groups with social and emotional significance that fuels ethnic conflict conflict and can even lead to war and genocide." This mirrors her belief that, in time, feminism will embolden more women to take up high-level careers in the physical sciences, and more of us will recognize hoe alike men's and women's minds really are. For Spelke, who has spent most of her life documenting the core knowledge that we're born with, the most important thing about it is our uniquely human abilities to rise above it.
[* ED. NOTE: See "The Science of Gender and Science—Pinker vs. Spelke, A Debate"]
John Brockman: 40 years of "intermedia kinetic environments"
Here's what the New York Timeshad to say about "cultural impresario," sci/tech literary uber-agent, and EDGE founder John Brockman -- 40 years ago, today. Snip from "So What Happens After Happenings," an article dated Sunday, September 4, 1966. "Hate Happenings. Love Intermedia Kinetic Environments." John Brockman is partly kidding, while conveying the notion that Happenings are Out and Intermedia Kinetic Environments are In in the places where the action is.
John Brockman, the New York Film Festival's 25-year-old coordinator of a special events program on independent cinema in the United States, plugging into the switched-on "expanded cinema" world in which a film is not just a movie, but an Experience, an Event, an Environment. ...
posted by Xeni Jardin at 09:26:03 PM
...The above are the opinions of experts on profound issues of love, consciousness, existence of God. However, the laypeople, too, reach a similar conclusion with the help of their common sense, which are often vague, prejudiced, and what an expert would term as irrational. Paradoxically, the rational as well as the irrational mind reaches a similar conclusion though from the opposite directions. What is then the path to truth?
In a front-page article, Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy's largest financial daily, announced the "Edge Question Forum" in "Domenica", the weekend Arts & Culture section. The Forum, an ongoing project designed to bring third culture thinking to Italy, features excerpts from the Edge responses in addition to articles solicited rom Italian humanist intellectuals and scientists.
Democracy is not the best way to rule a country. The concept of the free will disappear the more we learn about the brain. Internet undermines the quality of our relationships. Read the leading brains of the world list their most dangerous ideas.
You might have wondered who all those people are who write explicitly mean anonymous comments online. Face to face, most people are pretty well behaved, but a worrying number of them show a whole other face protected by their digital KuKlux Klan-hood. The danger with anonymity is one of the thoughts being debated when New York-based literary agent John Brockman asks the world's leading thinkers about their most dangerous ideas. ...
"Woran glaubst du, obwohl du es nicht beweisen kannst?", wollte Edge-Herausgeber John Brockman letztes Jahr wissen. Zuvor waren Fragen wie "Welches ist die wichtigste unerzählte Geschichte?", "Was ist die bedeutsamste Erfindung der letzten zweitausend Jahre?", "Was sind die akutesten wissenschaftlichen Probleme?" oder schlicht "Was nun?", die in die Runde geworfen worden. Mit der Fragestellung für 2006 ist es gelungen, die Atmosphäre der Dringlichkeit im Generellen noch weiter anzuheizen. "Was ist deine gefährlichste Idee?", will Edge wissen. Geantwortet haben 172 Wissenschaftler, die sich als der Third Culture-Community zugehörig begreifen und das Ideal eines Intellektuellentypus hochhalten, der den Naturwissenschaften statt der Literatur als Leitdisziplin zugewandt ist.