A new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs ... and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans. —Freeman Dyson
In his 2009 talk at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, Freeman Dyson pointed out that we are entering a new Age of Wonder, which is dominated by computational biology. In articulating his vision for the future he noted that Edge is the nexus of this intellectual activity.
This "worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders" has been getting together for an annual dinner since 1998. The dinner has had many names: "The Millionaires Dinner", "The Digerati Dinner", "The Billionaires' Dinner", "The Edge Science Dinner", "The Age of Wonder Dinner".
The industrial age had the nineteenth century Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal dinner club and learned society of leading cultural figures, natural philosophers, and industrialists, whose members included engineer James Watt, manufacturer, and his business partner Matthew Boulton (Boulton & Watt steam engines), physician and natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, author and abolitionist Thomas Day, arms manufacturer Samuel Galton, Jr., chemist Joseph Priestly (discoverer of oxygen), potter Josiah Wedgewood, clergyman, natural philosopher, clock-maker John Whitehurst, botanist and geologist William Withering, and Benjamin Franklin. (Erasmus Darwin and Wedgewood were the grandfathers of Charles Darwin). The Society met each month near the full moon in each other's homes, and in venues such as Soho House, and Great Barr Hall. They referred to themselves as "lunarticks".
Edge, through its Master Classes, seminars, online activities, dinners, gathers together the third culture intellectuals and technology pioneers of the post-industrial, digital age. This year's dinner, held in Vancouver at the Blue Water Cafe, was no exception. The group, including founders of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, the father of the iPod, the inventor of the WYSIWYG word processor, people in art, photography, music, distinguished journalists and thinkers, was a remarkable gathering of outstanding minds. These are the people that are rewriting our global culture.
Some of the topics of conversation at the dinner included analog computation; neuromorphic computing; Nick Metropolis; when bad people are smart (speculating about Flight 370); the psychological pleasure of touching a historical artifact; gene expression patterns in the mouse brain; neuroscience-based understanding of human cognition; digitizing the human brain; space travel; Afonso Cuaron's movie Gravity; the outdated ISS space station; recovery of the Apollo 11 engines; the Superbowl; the Crimean crisis; brain waves and water; love in a warm place; art and danger; the nature of intuition; the inner workings of newspapers; animal interfaces for accessing internet; the role of luck in success; the design of interior configurations of private jets; the history and features of lighter-than-air ships; business models for broadcasting; love in a workplace; digital controls and state secrecy; research showing what produces happiness; how big a role luck plays in forming our destinies; the plasticity of the brain; how to develop your abs by surfing big waves; the marriage of youth and experience; and all generously lubricated by expensive wine and cheap gossip.
Vancouver, March 17, 2014
"No one ever got fired for buying IBM" is a wonderful example of understanding loss aversion or "defensive decision making". The advertising and marketing industry kind of acted as if it knew this stuff—but where we were disgracefully bad is that no one really attempted to sit down and codify it. When I discovered Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and the whole other corpus on Behavioral Economics…. when I started discovering there was a whole field of literature about "this thing for which we have no name" …. these powerful forces which no one properly understood—that was incredibly exciting. And the effect of these changes can be an order of magnitude. This is the important thing. Really small interventions can have huge effects. ...
...Markets actually work because they're adaptive. Bad things get killed, good new things sometimes get promoted. But most of the time what you'll find in business is no one has the faintest idea of why the things that work actually work. What's very useful here is that finally a group of academics with money, time, and immensely high intelligence were finally sitting down to codify and make sense of things, which we'd been aware of for years but which, to our shame, we'd never attempted to actually try and systematize.
RORY SUTHERLAND is Executive Creative Director and Vice-Chairman, OgilvyOne London; Vice-Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather UK; Columnist, The Spectator.
THIS THING FOR WHICH WE HAVE NO NAME
The strange thing about academics, which always fascinates me, is that they believe they're completely immune to status considerations and consider themselves to be more or less monks. In reality, of course, academics are the most status-conscious people in the world. Take away a parking space from an academic and see how long he stays. I always find this very strange when you occasionally get in the realm of happiness research, you get fairly considerable assaults on consumerism as if it's just mindless status seeking. Now, the point of the matter is, is that academics are just as guilty of the original crime, they just pursue status in a different way. ...
~ ~ ~
I have probably stolen, without realizing it, your own job title of "impresario" rather unfairly. The reason I did this was that occasionally people started writing about me online as a "behavioral economist" and I realized that, among academic behavioral economists, this would drive them practically apoplectic to have someone with no qualifications in the field so described. (I'm a classicist by background in any case). So my being described as a behavioral economist would make them practically deranged.
"One way to look at the trajectory of Chinese thought is that it's driven by this tension I call "the paradox of wu-wei." Wu-wei is effortless action or spontaneity. They all want you to be wu-wei, but none of them think you are right now. You've got to try to be wu-wei, but how do you try not to try? How do you try to be spontaneous? I call it the paradox of wu-wei, and I argue it's at the center of all their theorizing about other things. There are theories about human nature, there are theories about self-cultivation, there are theories about government. These are all ways of grappling with this central tension that's driving a lot of the theorizing."
EDWARD SLINGERLAND is Professor of Asian Studies and Canada Research Chair in Chinese Thought and Embodied Cognition at the University of British Columbia and the author of Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity.
THE PARADOX OF WU-WEI
My training was fairly traditional. I got degrees in sinology, the study of Chinese language, and religious studies. I finished my dissertation, which was a fairly traditional, intellectual history of this concept of wu-wei, or effortless action in early China, and it got accepted by Oxford University Press. I was supposed to clean it up and turn it in, and then everything started to go sideways. The first job I had at the University of Colorado, Boulder, I was about to turn in the manuscript and a graduate student in a class I was teaching handed me this book and said, "You might be interested in this," and it was Lakoff and Johnson's Philosophy in the Flesh, which had just come out. This book blew my mind. It immediately solved all of these problems I had with what I was doing.
I had this problem where I was arguing with all these different stories and different texts and saying they're all about wu-wei, they're all about effortless action, but many of the stories don't use the term wu-wei. So how can I say they're really talking about the same concept if they're not using the word? My only solution at that point was just to put the stories side by side and go, "Eh?" Reading about metaphor theory changed everything. The basic argument that Lakoff and Johnson lay out is that we're not disembodied minds floating around somewhere. We are embodied creatures. A lot of our cognition is arising from our embodied interactions with the world, pre-linguistic interactions with the world. And so we build up these basic patterns: walking down a path, dealing with objects, dealing with containers that then structure our abstract thinking. A lot of even very abstract philosophical language is relying on very basic bodily experiences.
"Imagine a painter who could, like Vermeer, capture the quality of light that a camera can, but with the color of paints. . . . She is at the forefront of a new wave in photography.". —Kevin Kelly, Executive Editor, Wired
Every year, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman summons some of our eras greatest thinkers and unleashes them on one provocative question, whether its the single most elegant theory of how the world works or the best way to enhance our cognitive toolkit. This year, he sets out on the most ambitious quest yet, a meta-exploration of thought itself: Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making, Problem-Solving, and Prediction (public library) collects short essays and lecture adaptations from such celebrated and wide-ranging (though not in gender) minds as Daniel Dennett, Jonathan Haidt, Dan Gilbert, andTimothy Wilson, covering subjects as diverse as morality, essentialism, and the adolescent brain.
Thinking is excellent and mind-expanding in its entirety. Complement it with Brockman's This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, one of the best psychology books of 2012.
"For ... readers interested in keeping up with what serious thinkers are thinking about thinking, this book offers nourishing food for thought". —Kirkus Reviews
Contributors: Daniel C. Dennett, Philip Tetlock, Gerd Gigerenzer, Daniel Gilbert, Vilayanur Ramacahndran. Timothy D. Wilson, Sarah-Jane Blakemore, Bruce Hood, Simon Baron-Cohen, Gary Klein, Simon Schnall, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Alva Noë, Daniel L. Everett, Jonathan Haidt, Joshua Greene, Sam Harris, Roy Baumeister, Paul Bloo, Daivd Pizarro, Joshua Knobe, Daniel Kahneman