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!