Why didn’t I know? Why hadn’t I seen it before? What is it, anyway? Not surprisingly, it’s another gem of a website of which I was oblivious. Let me tell you how I came across it and what it comprises.
Went shopping with Marilyn (wife) and Felicity (soon-to-be-married daughter) and while they were busy in dress shops, wandered into a bookshop. As happens so serendipidously in such places (along with libraries), a title caught my eye: What Are You Optimistic About? Yes, I know it’s a bit corny, but the cover included the names of some of the contributors, and thus when I spied Stephen Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond and Daniel Dennett, my appetite was well and truly whetted. As it was the softcover version (and on special), I bought it (along with Zero Break: An Illustrated Collection of Surf Writing 1770-2004, which was even cheaper!).
On perusing the Preface later that evening, I learned about Edge – no, not the guitarist from U2, but a website which aims “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves”. You see, the Editor of What Are You Optimistic About? is also the Publisher of Edge, and the book is the outcome for 2007 of the annual Edge Question.
OK, admittedly the aims sound rather pretentious and overblown, but it’s hard to argue with the quality of the contributors (hmm, maybe not that hard – there’s a strong imbalance towards the US). So, I’ve started to investigate it (it’s not something that can be done hurriedly), and so far so good.
One of the latest contributions is The Age of the Informavore: A Talk With Frank Schirrmacher. It’s captivating stuff: essentially, he examines “how technology, the Internet and the modern systems, has now apparently changed human behavior, the way humans express themselves, and the way humans think in real life.” His focus is (thankfully) more on the cognitive revolution than the technological revolution, and you can follow his presentation either on video or by reading the (slightly edited) transcript. And he’s not from the US:-)
Members of the Edge’s Reality Club then add their individual comments. Members include the above-mentioned Stephen Pinker, who asks whether technologies are enhancing or undermining accepted values such as objectivity, truth, soundness of argument, and so on. Other ‘commenters’ (or should that be ‘commentators’?) worth reading include Nick Bilton, who says: “The new generation, born connected, does not feel the need to consume all the information available at their fingertips. They consume what they want and then affect or change it, they add to it or negate it, they share it and then swiftly move along the path. They rely on their community, their swarm, to filter and share information and in turn they do the same; it’s a communism of content.”
And there’s more! Much more. Learn about the ‘third culture, check In the News (e.g. Are the Disciplinary Boundaries Permeable?), delve into the snippets and links in Beyond Edge. (wherein you’ll find a great discussion of the debates over Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution).
Anyway, back toWhat Are You Optimistic About?. Yes, I’m enjoying it, though it’s a book you browse from time to time, not read straight through. As one reviewer pithily noted, “the shining optimism would drive you crazy”. And I might just be tempted to delve into other titles in the series, What Is Your Dangerous Idea? and What We Believe But Cannot Prove (also annual Edge Questions).