The Age of Enlightenment
One of my favourite periods in history is the 18th Century Age of Enlightenment, a great outpouring of intellectual and scientific achievement. My heroes include vanguard philosophers, mathematicians and scientists who challenged norms, received wisdom and at times wilful ignorance. Bacon, Descartes, Spinoza and Hobbes as forerunners, Francis Hutcheson, Adam Smith and David Hume, Newton, Diderot, Leibniz, Locke, Kant and Montesquieu and other influential thinkers across Scotland, England, France, Germany, Russia and Poland.
Enlightenment thinking was characterised by deep, multi-dimensional and cross discipline inquiry. It was also socially radical. Paradoxically 21st century thinking at times lacks intellectual depth and breadth and rewards and encourages superficiality. This is framed in a world of 24-hour news, ‘rush to publish’ and ‘fresh is best’. Should we revisit and re-apply the disciplines of the 18th century polymath?
The Digital Revolution has brought many benefits and profound societal changes. As we endlessly skim the web seeking ‘information rewards’ I fear we are in danger of losing aspects of cognitive function such as the ability to read and think deeply. Our brains are being re-wired by the very machines and technological channels that we mistakenly believe we control.
The War Against Superficiality
Nick Carr (formerly the executive editor of the Harvard Business review, and blogger), the author of “The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google” famously posed the question “Is Google making us stupid?” Over-reliance on “search memory”, the neurological bombardment of constant digital stimuli and exponential demands of multi-tasking appear to be making us ‘flighty’ and shallow.
Is the web’s business model built on the art of distraction? Velocity counts, the paradigm demands constant skimming, link hopping, and attention hogging. Web commercialisation and click revenues from advertising demand constant motion. A consumer ‘at rest’ decays in value. Velocity through the digital mire may reward the AdSense gods, but does little for our comprehension, except service (and indeed reinforce it) with trifling input. In the future there may be goal oriented or blinkered search that will prevent our meandering, but for now self-discipline and an ability to evaluate and consume quality content is a personal constraint.
As I ‘retreat to value’ and campaign for the reading of the printed word, I hear screams of ‘Luddite’ echoing across the digital expanse. And true, the oral tradition of Socrates wrestled with the written tradition of Plato, a concern largely unfounded. Gutenberg’s printing press led to a surge in intellectual expansion, and the ‘web tamed’ offers equal reward. The tools we use however become part of us, and we become part of them. Nietzsche reminds us (describing his typewriter):
The Writing ball is a thing like me: made of iron
Yet easily twisted on journeys.
Patience and tact are required in abundance,
As well as fine fingers, to use us.
Indeed the marvellous plasticity of the brain conspires in our undoing. “What fires together, wires together” is a truism of the construction and reinforcement of neural circuitry. The brain adapts, and seems to be adapting to the attention deficient world of the web, and not necessarily to our benefit. Our ability to comprehend and subsequently assess complex topics appears to be in decline. The speed at which information can be consumed is increasingly a determining factor in its perceived quality and importance.
Seneca said: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere” and a balance is to be struck in the mind of a 21st century thinker. The volume of information we may consume or the disciplines we may explore is vast, yet we should be remain boldly curious!
Deep Thinking, Collective Intelligence
The commercial world is no sanctuary of intellectual hedonism, nor indeed should we wish it to be. As I approach research I do however do it with reverence for my 18th Century ‘mentors’. I am sure Open Innovation would have resonated with their egalitarian ideals, Social Networking Analysis with their sociological curiosity, Pattern Based Strategy with their drive to predict the unpredictable and make sense of trends.
Substance comes with deep thought, contemplation, originality and innovation. What a yardstick it is to aspire to the heights of the vanguard of the Age of Enlightenment.