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Writing In The 21st Century

Conversation:
[6.9.14]
Topic:

What are the arts but products of the human mind which resonate with our aesthetic and emotional faculties? What are social issues, but ways in which humans try to coordinate their behavior and come to working arrangements that benefit everyone? There's no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself. 


(37 minutes)

Introduction

Psychologist Steven Pinker's 1994 book The Language Instinct discussed all aspects of language in a unified, Darwinian framework, and in his next book, How The Mind Works he did the same for the rest of the mind, explaining "what the mind is, how it evolved, and how it allows us to see, think, feel, laugh, interact, enjoy the arts, and ponder the mysteries of life".

He has written four more consequential books: Words and Rules (1999), The Blank Slate (2002), The Stuff of Thought (2007), and The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011)The evolution in his thinking, and the expansion of his range, the depth of his vision, are evident in his contributions on many important issues on these pages over the years: "A Biological Understanding of Human Nature""The Science of Gender and Science""A Preface to Dangerous Ideas""Language and Human Nature""A History of Violence""The False Allure of Group Selection""Napoleon Chagnon: Blood Is Their Argument", and "Science Is Not Your Enemy". In addition to his many honors, he is the Edge Question Laureate, having suggested three of Edge's Annual Questions: "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?"; What Is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, Or Beautiful Explanation?"; and "What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?". He is a consummate third culture intellectual.

In the conversation below, Pinker begins by stating his belief that "science can inform all aspects of life, particularly psychology, my own favorite science. Psychology looks in one direction to biology, to neuroscience, to genetics, to evolution. And it looks in another direction to the rest of intellectual and cultural life— because what are the arts but products of the human mind which resonate with our aesthetic and emotional faculties? What are social issues but ways in which humans try to coordinate their behavior and come to working arrangements that benefit everyone? There's no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself."...

John Brockman

STEVEN PINKER is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of ten books, including The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Sense of Style (September). Steven Pinker's Edge Bio page


WRITING IN THE 21ST CENTURY

I believe that science can inform all aspects of life, particularly psychology, my own favorite science. Psychology looks in one direction to biology, to neuroscience, to genetics, to evolution. And it looks in another direction to the rest of intellectual and cultural life— because what are the arts but products of the human mind which resonate with our aesthetic and emotional faculties? What are social issues but ways in which humans try to coordinate their behavior and come to working arrangements that benefit everyone? There's no aspect of life that cannot be illuminated by a better understanding of the mind from scientific psychology. And for me the most recent example is the process of writing itself. 

I'm a psychologist who studies language—a psycholinguist—and I'm also someone who uses language in my books and articles to convey ideas about, among other things the science of language itself. But also, ideas about war and peace and emotion and cognition and human nature. The question I'm currently asking myself is how our scientific understanding of language can be put into practice to improve the way that we communicate anything, including science?

In particular, can you use linguistics, cognitive science, and psycholinguistics to come up with a better style manual—a 21st century alternative to the classic guides like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style?

Writing is inherently a topic in psychology. It's a way that one mind can cause ideas to happen in another mind. The medium by which we share complex ideas, namely language, has been studied intensively for more than half a century. And so if all that work is of any use it ought to be of use in crafting more stylish and transparent prose. 

 

This Thing For Which We Have No Name

Conversation:
[5.12.14]
Topic:

"No one ever got fired for buying IBM" is a wonderful example of understanding loss aversion. The advertising and marketing industry kind of knew this stuff mattered, but where we were disgracefully bad is that no one really attempted to sit down and codify it. When I discovered Nudge—Predictably Irrational—was another one, 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. The effect of these changes can be an order of magnitude. This is the important thing.  ...

...Markets actually work because they're adaptive and they're responsive to new information. Bad things get killed, good things 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 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.

(49:17 minutes)

RORY SUTHERLAND is Executive Creative Director and Vice-Chairman, OgilvyOne London; Vice-Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather UK; Columnist, The Spectator. 

Rory Sutherland's Edge Bio page.

 

The Paradox of Wu-Wei

Conversation:
[5.2.14]
Topic:

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. He is the author of Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity. Educated at Princeton, Stanford and the University of California, Berkeley, he is an internationally renowned expert in Chinese thought, comparative religion, and cognitive science. In addition to over twenty academic journal articles in a range of fields, he has written several scholarly books, including What Science Offers the Humanities and a translation of the Analects of Confucius. Edward Slingerland's Edge Bio Page.

 

A GOLDEN AGE OF COSMOLOGY

Conversation:
[3.17.14]
Topic:

"Even though cosmology doesn't have that much to do with information It certainly does have to do with revolution and phase transitions, in fact phase transitions in both the literal and the figurative sense of the word."
 

 

THE INFLATIONARY UNIVERSE: ALAN GUTH

Conversation:
[3.17.14]
Topic:

"Inflationary theory itself is a twist on the conventional Big Bang theory. The shortcoming that inflation is intended to fill in is the basic fact that although the Big Bang theory is called the Big Bang theory it is, in fact, not really a theory of a bang at all; it never was."

 

A BALLOON PRODUCING BALLOONS, PRODUCING BALLOONS:A BIG FRACTAL

Conversation:
[3.17.14]
Topic:

"Think about it this way: previously we thought that our universe was like a spherical balloon. In the new picture, it's like a balloon producing balloons, producing balloons. This is a big fractal. The Greeks were thinking about our universe as an ideal sphere, because this was the best image they had at their disposal. The 20th century idea is a fractal, the beauty of a fractal. Now, you have these fractals. We ask, how many different types of these elements of fractals are there, which are irreducible to each other? And the number will be exponentially large, and in the simplest models it is about 10 to the degree 10, to the degree 10, to the degree 7. It actually may be much more than that, even though nobody can see all of these universes at once."

 

The Technium

Conversation:
[2.3.14]
Topic:

KEVIN KELLY is Senior Maverick at Wired magazine. He helped launch Wired in 1993, and served as its Executive Editor until January 1999. He is currently editor and publisher of the popular Cool ToolsTrue Film, and Street Use websites. His most recent books are Cool Tools, and What Technology Wants.

Kevin Kelly's Edge Bio Page

Introduction
by John Brockman

A few weeks ago David Carr profiled Kevin Kelly on page 1 of the New York Times Business section. He wrote that Kelly's pronouncements were "often both grandiose and correct." That’s a pretty good summary of Kevin Kelly's style and his prescience.

For the thirty years I've known him, Kelly has been making bold declarations about the world we are crafting with new technologies. He first  began to attract notice when he helped found Wired as the first executive editor. "The culture of technology, he notes, "was the prime beat of Wired. When we started the magazine 20 years ago, we had no intentions to write about hardware—bits and bauds. We wrote about the consequences of new inventions and the meaning of new stuff in our lives. At first, few believed us, and dismissed my claim that technology would become the central driver of our culture. Now everyone sees this centrality, but some are worried this means the end of civilization." 

The biggest change in our lives is the rate of change and it's interesting to note that this week marks the 10th anniversary of the 2004 founding of Facebook. (Twiiter, founded in 2006, was still 2 years away). If you were to get your news electronically at that time, most likely is was on a Blackberry pager. Nobody was talking about "sharing".

Kelly's is well aware that his complete embrace of what he calls "The Technium", is a lightning rod for criticism. But, he points out that "we are still at the beginning of the beginning. We have just started to make a technological society. The technological changes in the next 20 years will dwarf those of the last 20 years. It will almost be like nothing at all has happened yet."

In the meantime Kelly is doing what he's been up to for decades, acting as a sensing and ruddering mechanism for the rest of us, finding his way through this new landscape.

—JB

 

DEEP PRAGMATISM

Conversation:
[8.30.13]
Topic:

Imagine the following scenario: You have two different tribes, your collectivist tribe over here—where everything's in common, and your individualist tribe over there. Imagine these tribes not only have different ways of cooperating, but they rally around different gods, different leaders, different holy texts that tell them how they should live—that you're not allowed to sing on Wednesdays in this group, and in this group over here, women are allowed to be herders, but in this group over there, they're not; different ways of life; different ways of organizing society. Imagine these societies existing separately, separated by a forest that burns down. The rains come, and then suddenly you have a nice lovely pasture, and both tribes move in.

Now the question is: How are they going to do this? We have different tribes that are cooperative in different ways. Are they going to be individualistic? Are they going to be collectivists? Are they going to pray to this god? Are they going to pray to that god? Are they going to be allowed to have assault weapons or not allowed to have assault weapons? That's the fundamental problem of the modern world—that basic morality solves the tragedy of the commons, but it doesn't solve what I call the "tragedy of common sense morality." Each moral tribe has its own sense of what's right or wrong—a sense of how people ought to get along with each other and treat each other—but the common senses of the different tribes are different. That's the fundamental and moral problem.

 

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