Intellectual History is a relatively new field and it is a tricky one. How does one trace the effects of ideas over time? It is easy to assert, for example, that the Catholic Church helped to create what we now call Europe. And Kenneth Clark does a great job in elaborating that argument in his Civilisation series. But what made the Catholic Church such a force? Do we have corollary institutions today? And why did the influence of the church decline? Is that a positive or negative or neutral phenomenon?
The questions are interesting on their own. But these types of questions are also important. As we zoom into the 21st century one aspect of our life style has grabbed attention. I do not refer to the vastly increased opportunities for learning. I refer to the question whether our life styles can be sustained. Are we — as a species — headed for disaster or nirvana? And most important, can we have an impact on which future our children will experience? If we believe that either disaster or nirvana is possible, and if we love our children, we need an answer to that second question. But to answer that question, we need a model to understand the dynamics of our societal development. We need to anticipate the intellectual history of the next generations.
Well, that is pretty hard to do given that we are only beginning to understand our own intellectual history. But this has not stopped very smart people from extrapolating out trends and drawing conclusions. The latest is a book by Diamandis and Kotler called “Abundance“. They argue that we need not worry so much. Technology is coming to our rescue. The future will be better than it appears now. Jon Gertner — who just wrote an interesting book about Bell Labs — reviews their effort for NYT. BTW, he quibbles but in the end agrees.
I enjoyed the review and recommend it. I also will download and read the first chapter from the Abundance website. I am reminded of Kenneth Clark’s main lesson from his Civilisation series. He said that the key ingredient for making the future possible is confidence in what we believe now. Without this sense of confidence, we narrow our perspectives and so, with great vigor we celebrate only momentary and fleeting triumphs — called incremental gains. With confidence, we reach for the stars. And you might see books like Abundance as important confidence building projects.
So what is it about our modern lives that gives confidence? And how do we transmit that confidence to our children? Diamandis and Kotler focus on confidence in innovation processes. And it is the prevailing view these days that we must have confidence in technology above all. I do not argue. To the contrary, I agree wholeheartedly with one facet of this —- faster shared learning is the key to our future. But implicit in what I will call “technology based future think” is the sense that we have less confidence in our ability to communicate about who we are than our ability to make things. Here is the idea — we will be saved by the things we can bring into existence with more and more clever use of the resources at hand rather than the friendships that we enjoy while doing it.
Isn’t that a bit odd? It is not if you consider that confidence in the saving power of friendship was not a predominant 20th century belief. To the contrary, the mythology of competition trumped the mythology of friendship. And we are the children of the learning that took place back then. So of course we need faster and faster innovation just to keep up with the pressing task of cleaning up the ever more dangerous mess that our sloppy relationships cause.
FOLLOW - Re-reading my post I bumped into this phrase in the first sentence - that intellectual history is about tracing effects of ideas over time. The search for cause and effect contrasts with the more ancient preoccupation with searching for and agreeing on ultimate truth. That old fashioned zeal for literal truth was a great confidence generator (think of the great cathedral building craze or the energy of Lenin’s revolution). It also set in motion the agenda for intellectual history. One might call it repeated exercises in domination. But via the enlightenment, we began to value method over conclusion. The west gained confidence in reason. Romanticism challenged this sense of confidence but did not supplant it. So we live still with the tension between the mythology of reason (think of Spock in Star Trek) and the mythology of rebellion (think of Bob Dylan). This tension is not resolved.
We should keep this in mind when we use words like “engagement” and “gaming” to describe optimal motivators. They attempt to shoehorn both values (reason and rebellion) into a single model. And it works to a certain extent. The limit is how well we share enthusiasm for the game that should be played. Without that shared enthusiasm, challenges to accepted models of thought seem like assaults on feelings that should be shared. Friendship suffers.
2d FOLLOW - At the end of his Civilisation series, Clark summed up his attitude about the future. Speaking back in 1969, he said that he was optimistic but not exactly joyful at the prospects before us (British understatement?). I was a bit puzzled when I first heard this. A future with less than optimal joy? Well, I think I understand a bit better now why we face this risk. Our agenda is crowded but not with tasks dedicated to the pursuit of shared joy.
3rd FOLLOW - Check out Fred Wilson today on relationship building in the VC world. It is a great example of the gaming mentality. Fred plays the game well, and wants to share learning. To mentor. But shared joy? Well … the post is more about how difficult the relationships are rather than how rewarding they are. I think this is pretty honest and just a bit sad. Why? As Fred says, this is not really the best game for young people to play. And yet they rush in where angels fear to tread.