Saturday, 17 November 2012

21st Century Enlightenment: Mass Online Discussion

Is 21st century enlightenment needed?

If the 18th Century (the scientific enlightenment) was a time when men put aside superstition focused instead on logic and science, why do we need enlightenment now?

Have we not pushed back the boundaries of science more rapidly in the 20th century than ever before?  Have we returned to an age of superstition and abandoned logic?

Yes, 21st century enlightenment is needed.  Here’s why.

Insight into the difference between the scientific enlightenment and the second half of the 20th Century comes when we start to study the individual scientists (or natural philosophers) of the scientific enlightenment.  They were polymaths and they were deeply observational.  These two features of their personalities were natural bedfellows.

In the second half of the 20th century our leading scientists and thinkers seemed to lose these two capacities. They became highly compartmentalised.  Their work often involved developing and extending the work of others.  It did not generally flow from their own observations or instincts.  The distance between their lives and their scientific work widened and few made regular links between the two.  Often the conclusions they had reached precluded them seeing the reality in front of them.  It could be said, perhaps, that not only did they reject the notion that ‘God does not play dice’ but they also lost the sense of why that statement might be believed. Some believed both that ‘God did play dice’ and that ‘God did not play dice’ in different areas of their lives.  Few struggled openly with the clash between observation and scientific analysis.

I believe that being deeply in touch with their own observational powers drives academically inclined people to become polymaths.

In order to understand large bodies of knowledge as a whole or to confidently analyse large complex systems, we need people who can think scientifically about their observations in many subjects.  We lack sufficient quantity and quality of these people and it is through nurturing these combinations of skills more effectively that society can become more enlightened.

What’s the catalyst of enlightenment?

The 18th century saw the development of relatively cheap, rapid and reliable postal services across Europe.  And so we had a sudden sharing of ideas.  People could write to others about their interests and respond to their enquiries with further explanations or deeper thinking. 

Writing about their ideas challenges the thinker to properly explain their logic and observations and when they do this they come to understand them more clearly and can think more deeply. The input of others can push the thinker on.  It becomes possible for natural polymaths to pursue their diverse interests in a constructivist way by questioning the experts, rather than by trying to assimilate deposited bodies of literature.

Of course letters were not the only way of communicating.  But the rise of the postal service in Europe added significantly to what was already possible and it explains why there was a rapid spurt in the rate of pan-European (in effect global) knowledge.  Without that mechanism enlightenment existed only in individuals or geographically proximate groups. 

I think enlightenment is contagious.  We are inspired by the examples of others.  Without those examples and insights many are unaware there is anything to aspire to.

Why is 21st century enlightenment an attainable goal?

The linked trends towards open sourcing and open online discussion make 21st century enlightenment a relevant and realistic goal. 

Through mass online discussion (forums, social networks, comments on articles and blogs and so on) people can rapidly acquire new skills and insights to become polymaths.  Mass online discussion gives each individual the right to express their views on any topic and through doing so they can begin to deepen their insights.  As others ask them questions their understanding of their subject grows.  When questioning other contributors the individual behaves instinctively and learns to ‘own their knowledge’ – developing and honing it to make it ever more authentic to them.  They are rarely acquiring a body of knowledge specified by someone else.

There is another essential feature of the process of communication through mass online discussion which must not be ignored and that is the process of ‘honing the character of individual’.  Mass online discussion is both a tool for personal development, along the lines of the Rudyard Kipling’s classic poem ‘If’, and a mechanism by which the character of the individual is exposed, sometimes in a painfully raw way. 

In ordinary life those around us can judge our reactions to comments about different topics by watching our body language.  We can avoid some topics and comfortably live with our ‘elephants in the room’.  Mass online discussion denudes us of these rights to a comfort zone.  I often describe the dynamics of discussion forums as being like attending a dinner party where everyone (including yourself) is suddenly rendered deeply autistic.  For some it is terrifying but for others it is liberating. It becomes obvious which of us can rapidly put aside all the ideas and conclusions we previously held dear and move on and which of use cannot:
“and lose and start again at  you beginnings, And never breathe a word about your loss”
How many of us have been challenged to the core our beings in forums and have had the chance to hone our skills in our certainty of our own perception:
“If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”
I could continue on this theme here but instead I will post the poem to the end of this document for you to ponder.

Multiple perspectives and contradictory conclusions

Too often in this world the insights which do not perfectly fit with the conclusions reached are lost.  Too often robust conclusions which contradict established scientific patterns crumble away.  When operating well mass online discussion is a powerful medium within which multiple contradictory perceptions can flourish and partial conclusions can be cherished and sustained.

A challenge to weak or self interested elites

Mass online discussion is a great threat to those hierarchies which are managed by force rather than by intellectual right. It has often been the case that those who hold positions of power are the only ones who have sufficient knowledge and insight to reform their own roles.  What happens when they choose not to?  What happens when they do not have sufficiently ability to see the need?  Mass online discussion is a tool which can help others become aware of the problem and a medium within which they can discuss possible ways forward.

As Israeli bombs pound Gaza tonight what are you doing about it?  I’m following the leads from the Facebook page of an Israeli man I’m linked to and I’m joining in the discussions, pointing out the patterns in Israel’s military behaviour, the links between the dates of elections and ‘defensive invasions’ and the online information which claims that the ‘defensive invasions’ of the past were in response to aggression which was deliberately provoked.  I have no hierarchical power and I claim none.  I move freely between discussions and as I go I find the my companions share my mindset which is one which cherishes the collective pursuit of truth.  My only resources are Google translate, what’s available on the internet and, tonight, a respect for Queen’s performance at Live Aid which is shared by my Middle Eastern discussion companions.


Mass online discussion is the most important tool for 21st Century enlightenment. 

'If' by Rudyard Kipling.  

IF you can keep your head when all about you 
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings 
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
' Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!