this concept came from the sense that knowledge across individuals, between generations, somehow does not adequately self-perpetuate.
we do have select scientific breakthroughs, there is technological advancement, books are written and films made. but these occurrences are concentrated in small, localised hubs over long time horizons that we can ill afford. we have a planet full of seven point six billion humans who contain genuine multitudes, yet because of the vagaries of birth, geography, limited resources or sheer lack of an idea where to start, so much promise remains untapped.
cerebration.tv collates bright thinking on big ideas, with no intermediaries, that we can partake in, and contribute to, in the form of meaningful innovation. the sources pooled here range from essays, novels, to YouTube videos and podcasts. treat it like an encyclopaedia of baseline knowledge, and varied approaches to considered thinking, that should appear in the the earliest years, and then placed on the shelf for reference, to make room for a lifetime's worth of originality, tinkering and collective enrichment.
is this a big vision? maybe. idealistic? a touch. hopeful? utterly.
(the diatribe that I wrote late one night a few years back, which led to the formation of cerebration.tv)
The Da Vinci Ode
What is the enduring appeal of Leonardo Da Vinci? As another biography emerges, this time from prolific biographer Walter Isaacson, it's fascinating that the perennial myth of the polymath continues to draw us in. The profligacy of Da Vinci - his work in art, optics, engineering and material science - is remarkable. But what does it mean when a society continues to revere a man that lived hundreds of years ago, in a manner as if little still had been discovered about him? Year on year books and papers continue to run on Shakespeare, the Greek philosophers, 20th century artists, Benjamin Franklin. New revelations are sometimes made. But how much do these increments of knowledge benefit society as a whole?
At a fundamental level, each generation reinforces its core values by reiterating those that have stood the test of time, mainly through culture, and renews itself, by updating some of the older software, typically of the ethical kind i.e. the abolition of slavery. From Da Vinci we aspire to innovation, creativity, un-bounded imagination; Shakespeare shows us the complexity of humanity and the tragi-comedy of daily existence; Ben Franklin represents leadership, integrity, strength. These are noble and useful concepts, and the perpetuation of these can be that much more effective when they are delivered through inspiring mediums. This history-worship could also be explained by the truism that only time tells if the message was worthy, so it is hard in our own time, to propagate enough contemporary heroes in mainstream culture. Actually, hang on, we do this more than ever. Celebrity culture, the rise of individualism, founder-fetish, these are all versions of contemporary myth-making. So why Da Vinci still?
When we re-vivify the past it can act like an open wound: the more it is exposed, the more outsize its impact, and potential to become fatal, thereby threatening the rest of the body. This is what happens when genuine originality of thought and experimentation leaves the room as tradition swells uncontrollably. The material body as a proxy for power structures is an important motif that first appears in medieval jurisprudence and theological writing. It then evolves into the concept of the 'body-politic', with the state represented as a living, breathing entity made up of multitudinous individuals, and the crowned monarch as the head. In the Renaissance period and into the seventeenth century, as medical science progressed, the concept of a political state as vulnerable to disease through corruption and self-interest, and in need of purges, began to proliferate. Over-reach of the monarch was the predominant concern in England for example, leading to the English Civil War. But this anxiety of a state over-stuffed with power, metastasising, is as relevant as ever but with an important qualifier: power is certainly a concern, but even more threatening to progress is its inevitable stagnation. And the state is not simply the governance structures that are in place, it is also applies to media, technology and science. When you can go into a bookshop, looking for a copy of Jane Eyre, and see at least ten different versions, from different publishers, you can assume that the gout is spreading. Not only is the past continuously re-printed, but small bite-size snack versions of actually impactful works are re-packed and released into the ecosystem too; there is a glut of information, but it's not materially different than what came before, and the yet we continue to hit reprint. And in a further twist, the learnings that they enclose seem to capture fewer and fewer people, at an ever quickening rate. Kurzweil's Law of Accelerating Returns paints a future of exponential growth. For now however, the Law of Diminishing Returns appears to be the current trend in mainstream 'consumer' behaviour. But let's get back to Leo.
Does a biography brought out now replace a work that was undertaken three years ago? Maybe. Is a novel that appeared three hundred years ago, that has stood the test of time, need to be reduced to an ever expanding variation of aesthetically pleasing book covers? What we choose to replace or maintain, and how we do it, is deeply politic. I recall many a university seminar having the sense that a great over-reach was occurring, when one attempted to decipher what the author 'truly' had in mind. Critical theory books outweigh original texts by orders of magnitude. This suggests that talking, more precisely publishing about texts is more important, or profitable, than the texts themselves. Put it another way, we're plumping for the wrapping over the gift itself. This is essentially the tale of Echo updated for the modern age - the same stories told, never to be heard, but the machine keeps going, printing, whipping up molecular level differences that over time form a calcifying plaque on society. In the pursuit of headline worthy innovation, Da Vinci is fed into the machine, and out comes a book, and perhaps the odd exhibition. But if our society truly cared about the values that this individual represented, then why do we not go further? Why do we not see civic assimilations of these great minds into daily life - where are the modern lyceums, coffee-houses, accessible labs, open access artists' studios, dedicated to nurturing mini-Franklins, Rabindranath Tagores, Marie Curies, Georgia O'Keeffe's? This selectivism, which propagates certain cultural and intellectual icons via profitable pocket size formats, reflects a society that is habituated to consume but not innovate within their own lives. As Nabokov said when analysing Kafka's Metamorphosis, 'many a Dick and a Jane grow up like Gregor, unaware that they too have wings and can fly.' Yes we have modern ideas and debates, and some exceptional thinking, but there must be a reason we call out information over-load but not wisdom-overload. Ptolemy I built the library of Alexandria, we made malls and shopping centres.
Books and the ideas they contain are tightly woven into our social fabric, and for good reason. But the vast quantity of material both new and re-packaged makes the terrain excessively hard to navigate. Knowing what to read, and how to read it, is not getting easier which seems counter-intuitive. For a society that is built on the shoulders of those gone before, the intellectual capital accrued should surely carry across generations too. Renewal is one thing, cyclical amnesia is another.
One of the most persistent refrains of people, when asked what they would like to do more of, is read. Why? It's quite bizarre really. Books, as a proxy for knowledge and wisdom, like money, have an objective, understood value, which goes across many cultures. So if people feel they aren't reading enough, is the solution to make more books? Time cannot be made to stand still, as the 'busy' plague consumes us, so let's think how we can bring the lessons and epiphanies contained in these illustrious minds and pages to life. The exchange of ideas, be it in books or considered, open dialogue, possess a transcendent quality, help edge us towards a grander vision of the human project. So let's build better structures of engagement and understanding, that compound over time. First things first, let get back to basics and pool together the great and good. Consider this a cool, younger sibling of Alexandria, with several hundreds of years of progress in between then and now.
People are multi-variate.
No knowledge is beyond reach, unless you put it there.
Start with fundamental and source texts, not extrapolations or opinions.
Everyone has a stake in the future of our planet.