Your Phone, the Mirror

I'm a sucker for the big picture, so this piece from Prospect grabbed my attention. In it, Jacob Mikanowski reviews three books that wrestle with the transformation happening in our always-on, hyper-connect world, and connects it to a history of the self.

"All the world's an app:"

The search for the origins of the modern self has been one of the great snipe hunts in the history of the humanities. For Jacob Burckhardt it began in the Italian Renaissance; for Norbert Elias in the court of Louis XIV; for Harold Bloom it all started with Shakespeare. But the point is the same—for a long time the self was one way, and then it was another. As Lionel Trilling put it in Sincerity and Authenticity, “in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, something like a mutation in human nature took place.” Medieval people defined themselves as members of groups, and then, suddenly, they became Renaissance “individuals.” The change registers in poetry, in painting, in philosophy. You can hear it in Hamlet’s soliloquies and see it in Italian portraiture—starting around 1500, when these people look at you, they hold something back. They live inside their heads.

But do we anymore?

The irony of course is that we spend more time staring at screens than ever, lost in the promise of further connection.

Recently at the IdeaFestival, an artist debuted a mapping app. When asked for directions the software would deliberately route its users the long way around Louisville, past the Ohio river, around 19th century homes, and into off-the-map eateries before reaching the desired destination. It's that willingness to be productively lost that I think about about when I think about the IdeaFestival, because for humans, answers out of context do not know that things that they know. "Rote innovation" is a contradiction.

The great thing about IdeaFestival is that it offers different contexts for the questions that have always occupied us. If your concern is leadership, the actor or an improvisational comic might have something of use for you. The professor of evolutionary biology might suggest something interesting about the nature of altruism, as University of Louisville Professor Lee Dugatkin did in 2008. Goals matter as leader. Does the knowledge that many thousands of other planets circle other suns - some like our own yellow dwarf, and in orbits that suggest the presence of water on the surface of those worlds - change anything? Is there life elsewhere? The answer, whether yes OR no, ought to re-orient our thinking about the important things.

Our most intimate app has produced sentient, "I-am-here" creatures able to hold out many possible worlds for examination. It's been 3.5 billion years in the making, and, as Mikanowski says in Prospect, has always "required silence to access and space to experience." So if the game of comparison with your Facebook friends leaves you weary, or if the thrill of that next virtual connection is oddly deflating, perhaps, to suggest one response to his expansive review of the books that purport to describe us to ourselves in these crowded days, it's because our devices hold before us mirrors, not windows.

You might like the spoken word video embedded here. I thought at first it might perhaps be a bit overly sentimental until I realized it has amassed 40 million views. I got over my objections.

Stay curious. And keep an eye on this page for more 2014 speakers announcements, coming soon!


Philippe Petit on Creativity: "The Perfect Crime"

Dubbed "the artistic crime of the century," Philippe Petit's smuggling of the equipment needed to string a wire between the two World Trade Towers in 1974, and the long walk in a high place that followed, electrified the world.

Many years later, in one of the more memorable IdeaFestival presentations, Petit eletrified the festival audience, talking about his life, problem solving, fear, how to make mistakes, the art of misdirection and, in the question and answer that followed, posted here, revealing details of a life singularly led.

Here are a few of the quotes from the talk that found their way to Twitter in 2010.

  • 'We should have courses in intuition in university because it is a great force.'
  • 'When I wire walk, I link two things with my wire that could possibly have been enemies and for a time are at peace.' - Brad Bigelow
  • 'It's a joy to solve a problem. When you have a problem, don't look for solution, look at the problem. The answer is behind its face.' - Ellen McGirt
  • 'Fear is a lack of knowledge.' - Ellen McGirt
  • 'A ladder is two posts that has a festival of holes - think space, not rungs.' - Ellen McGirt
  • 'We should not let fear fade the song of our soul.'
  • 'We are born with the impossible in us.'

Reflecting a little more on Petit's forthcoming book, Creativity: The Perfect Crime, the "criminal" part of originality, I believe, may be its departure from strict human reason and logic, which can only take the would-be creative so far. Having been to many, many festival presentations, that departure is critically important to the kind of change any of us get, that in some sense creative outcomes, whether they be in the sciences, in the arts or in economic development, depend the willingness to entertain "the impossible in us." Yes, of course there are impossibilities. But sadly, too many of us settle for the certainties; the rules, as is often the case, are self-imposed.

Live a little bit longer with that idea of yours. If it's truly original, no one knows that now.

Stay curious.

You can read a little more about Petit in this NPR piece. His book, Creativity: The Perfect Crime, will be available May 15.


First, Ride: Debbie Millman Finds Her Cowgirl

Why do we stop experimenting early on?

Why do we walk away from the passions and the possibilities that might provide us meaning and income later in life?

Those thoughts from Jonathan Fields form the subtext of this fantastic video with IdeaFestival 2014 speaker Debbie Millman, who talks at length about her life choices and struggle with fear and self-doubt.

She says she "experimented all through childhood," trying on various characters like cowgirls. She loved "doing lots of different things," and it was in college that she realized that design could be a career. She graduated college with skills in design layout "and paste-up," and goes on to describe her post-college years as a decade-long time of decision. But, she says, she was "afraid to write, to paint," to create "things that didn't have a commercial value," and consciously chose a path that would provide her with security.

The first summer post-college, "I made every choice... based on fear."

Listening to Millman and Fields discuss the hold that fear can have on creative expression and meaningful work, I was reminded that creative, accomplished people, whether they work as entrepreneurs or in the arts, never eliminate fear. They just cultivate a skepticism about their own insecurities, the better to get on with it.

Jonathan Fields, coincidentally, is the author of the "Uncertainty," a book about how self doubt can cripple, so the conversation he and Millman hold is full of hard won wisdom.

Catch Debbie Millman and the other terrific people at IdeaFestival 2014 - many more speaker announcements are coming very soon! Festival passes are on sale now.

Stay curious


"Positively Inhibited" Means "Yes," In Time

Looking for the right idea is a little like that promising first date. There's potential, but you also know from past experience that it pays to be choosy.

On the Edge of Chaos: Where Creativity Flourishes:

'While many people cite disinhibition as a crucial element of creativity — and it is — positive inhibition is even more important, [Dr. Robert Bilder, a psychiatry and psychology professor at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior] said. 'The ability to inhibit the first thing that comes to mind in order to get to the higher hanging fruit in the cognitive tree is one of the cornerstones of creative achievement....' The first idea is not usually the most novel one; pushing past the easy answer and reaching for a better one is a mark of creativity.

Have a great weekend.


h/t @cc_chapman

Full Video: Ariel Waldman's Hacker's Guide to the Galaxy

At the heart of something good there should be a kernel of something undefinable. And if you can define it, or claim to be able to define it, then in a sense you have missed the point. John Peel

This is perhaps my favorite quote from IdeaFestival 2013 because it goes to the beating heart of discovery: it will always be the work of amateurs, individuals for whom the "something good" is never complete.

While Ariel Waldman spoke at length of her love of space, the loosely drawn inner connections from her work with Science Hack Day also resonated with me because every discovery springs from an openness to experience, a willingness and capacity to feel things anew. It's what the IdeaFestival is all about. This is what I wrote last year, live-blogging her talk:

Segueing into Science Hack Day, an event for which she is probably more well known, she says that its mission is to regain a bit of the old excitement, of sheer possibility. The people who show up at one of those events are amateurs. They don't HAVE to know where their idea or project is going. She describes several hacks - building a wind tunnel to test a series of letters that will make a new typeface; or a lamp that lights up each time an asteroid passes the Earth; or a mask that would simulate synesthesia, aptly named, given the creepy image she display, 'syneseizure;' or a cocktail made with DNA. On the latter she issues a warning - 'it tastes disgusting.'

What if, she continues, one could listen to mapped sounds of high energy particle collisions? And in fact, she points out, one such instrument has been created, 'particle wind chimes.' There's more: given license to roam freely, to make new and maybe unorthodox connections, the creator of the particle wind chimes may have created something with real diagnostic potential in the hands of physicists. Formerly abstract concepts have been made available to the senses of researchers.

Find some time today to watch the video, which includes a terrific Q&A with MIT Technology Review editor Jason Pontin. You won't be disappointed.

Stay curious.


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