“Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” That may have been fine advice for the 20th century, but to survive in 2011 and beyond we need to step it up—a lot. We need to, say, embrace the concepts that many mental illnesses are just extremes of personality traits, that humans tend to accept credit for their successes but not blame for their failures, and that “wholes have properties not present in the parts,” as sociologist Nicholas Christakis of Harvard University writes on the online salon Edge (edge.org).
Christakis is one of scores of contributors to an annual exercise in which Edge, run by literary agent and author John Brockman, poses a question to scientists, technology gurus, philosophers, and other thinkers. Last year’s query was about how the Internet is changing the way we think, while 2008’s asked what the scholars had changed their mind about and why. This year’s: “What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” Technology scholar Douglas Rushkoff nominates the concept that technologies have an “embedded bias” rather than being blank slates from which any outcome can arise. Cars have an embedded bias toward suburban sprawl; guns, an embedded bias toward killing people. By adding this concept to our cognitive toolkit, Rushkoff argues, we will have a better chance of using technologies “consciously and purposefully” and of resisting that bias. The embedded bias of the keyboardless iPad, for example, is toward passive consumption rather than active creation. To resist, get the add-on keyboard.
The Edge project could have benefitted by enforcing its 1,000-word limit; if a concept needs that much explaining, it’s going to be more challenging to fit into our cognitive toolkit than a pool cue into carry-on luggage. But the best submissions underline something that should make us all uneasy. Many of the concepts that could make us smarter are well established and not particularly abstruse, but not widely known even among the educated. Humans are “capable of inventing wonders and still capable of forgetting what we’ve done and blundering stupidly on,” says classicist James O’Donnell of Georgetown University. “Our poor cognitive toolkits are always missing a screwdriver when we need it.”
Tech scholar Clay Shirky’s “screwdriver” is the Pareto distribution, in which “the richest or busiest or most connected participants in a system will account for much much more wealth, or activity, or connectedness than average.” The top 1 percent of a population owns 40 percent of the wealth; the top 2 percent of Twitter users send 60 percent of all tweets; medical care for the most expensive one fifth of patients accounts for four fifths of total spending. “These figures are always reported as shocking,” notes Shirky, as if anything but a nice bell curve were an aberration, but Pareto distributions pop up all over. Regarding them as anomalies “prevents us from thinking clearly about the world,” he argues, and from finding ways to, say, reduce income disparities.
Author Michael Shermer (The Mind of the Market) wishes we would understand that almost everything important in nature and society “happens from the bottom up, not the top down. Water is a bottom-up, self-organized emergent property of hydrogen and oxygen. Life is a bottom-up, self-organized emergent property of organic molecules.” Adding this to their cognitive toolkit might let religious conservatives recognize the reality of evolution, and let political liberals see that “too much top-down design can interfere with market efficiency.”
A strong anti-reductionism bent runs through the Edge essays. Christakis points out that just as the properties of graphite and diamonds are not the properties of the carbon atoms they’re made of, so “you could know everything about isolated neurons and not be able to say how memory works, or where desire originates.” Remember that next time you’re dazzled by a brain scan. And while you’re at it, recognize that randomness is as much a property of the universe as atoms are. By desperately seeking patterns and purpose where none exist, argues author Charles Seife (Proofiness), we blind ourselves to the fact that “many events are not fully predictable or explicable. Disasters happen randomly, to good people as well as to bad ones … Don’t be surprised when you’re outlived by the overweight, cigar-smoking, speed-fiend motorcyclist.” If this and a few other Edge suggestions became better known, it might not bring world peace and eternal prosperity, but it couldn’t hurt.
Sharon Begley is NEWSWEEK’s science editor and author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain: How a New Science Reveals Our Extraordinary Potential to Transform Ourselves.