20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2011
I suppose the link in this compendium of essays by members of the Edge Foundation is "big ideas", but the substance is not what it should be. The first essay manages to make the exciting concept of memes dull. Brian Arthur's essay on the evolution of technology does a creditable job with the familiar idea of increasing returns (e.g. the more users you have, for an operating system or social network, the more likely you are to attract additional users). Once Arthur tries to move beyond this idea, his concept is vacuous: no implications, no empirical hypothesis, nothing to make you see the world in a different way. I would recommend Jared Diamond's essay if you are not familiar with his book on societal collapse, and also the Christakis discussion of his work on social contagion, although it gains little from the way he leads up to it. Dutton's essay is worth reading for its biographical anecdotes, discussion of animal art, and possibly for its references (note that, contrary to Dutton, Ellen Dissanayake has had several prestigious academic jobs, although apparently not a permanent position - I would love to read more about HER life). Eno's article should be skipped, noting that his discussion of the importance of metaphor is neither original nor well written. Brand's essay meanders and could also be skipped. I did not get much out of the internet essays, but those readers who enjoy reading philosophy might like them very much.
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Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Civilizations, Art, Networks, Reputation, and the Online Revolution Edited by John Brockman
“Culture” is a thought-provoking book of scientific essays brought to you by The Edge. The Edge is an organization that presents original ideas by today's leading thinkers from a wide spectrum of scientific fields. For this second volume, scholars from various fields explore new ways of thinking about culture. This interesting 307-page book includes the following seventeen chapters/essays: 1. The Evolution of Culture, 2. Why Do Some Societies Make Disastrous Decisions?, 3. Art and Human Reality, 4. A Big Theory of Culture, 5. We Are As Gods and Have to Get Good at It, 6. Turing’s Cathedral, 7. Time to Start Taking the Internet Seriously, 8. Indirect Reciprocity, Assessment Hardwiring, and Reputation, 9. Digital Maoism, 10. On Jaron Lanier’s “Digital Maoism” An Edge Conversation, 11, Social Networks Are Like the Eye, 12, The Next Renaissance, 13. Digital Power and Its Discontents, 14. Does Technology Evolve?, 15. Aristotle, 16. The Pancake People vs. the Godel-To-Google Net, and 17. The Age of the Informavore.
1. High-quality essays.
2. The fascinating topic of culture from various intellectual perspectives.
3. The four parallel levels of memetic selection in human culture.
4. Jared Diamond provides one of the best essays in the book. Causes for societal collapse. “First of all, a group may fail to anticipate a problem before the problem actually arrives. Second, when the problem arrives, the group may fail to perceive the problem. Then, after they perceive the problem, they may fail even to try to solve the problem. Finally, they may try to solve it but may fail in their attempts to do so.”
5. A Darwinian explanation explained in three factors: pleasure, universality, and spontaneity of the arts.
6. Provides a big theory about culture.
7. An interesting look at climate change and why China has the potential of taking the lead in this effort.
8. A fascinating narrative on Alan Turing’s vision of a digital world and John von Neuman’s proposal for it.
9. Some interesting observations of the internet. “The Internet today is, after all, a machine for reinforcing our prejudices. The wider the selection of information, the more finicky we can be about choosing just what we like and ignoring the rest.”
10. The impact of fairness and reciprocity. “There are many experiments that show that spontaneous impulses like the tendency for fairness or acts of sympathy or generosity play a huge role in human life.”
11. Jaron Lanier’s impactful essay, Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism serves as a centerpiece of discussions revolving around Wikipedia. Interesting exchanges including inputs from the cofounders of Wiki. “Wikipedia isn’t great because it’s like Britannica. Britannica is great at being authoritative, edited, expensive, and monolithic. Wikipedia is great at being free, brawling, universal, and instantaneous.”
12. Provocative statements. “We’re bad futurists, we humans. We’re bad at predicting what will be important and useful tomorrow. We think the telephone will be best used to bring opera to America’s living rooms. We set out nobly to make TV into an educational medium. We create functional hypertext to facilitate the sharing of draft physics papers.”
13. A look at social networks.
14. Practical examples provided. “This is the difference between ideology and norms. People see these images of supermodels, but they might be less influenced by them than by the actions and appearance of the people immediately around them.”
15. So what is the next renaissance? Find out. A good essay on the topic.
16. Internet freedom and global politics. Quite revealing as it applies today.
17. An interesting look at the knowledge web. Different ways of learning.
1. Not quite as polished as the more recent Edge books but always worth reading.
2. It doesn’t flow quite as well as I would like. Not as focused as it should be.
3. A little dated, some ideas presented here have been updated.
4. Spends too much time going over Wikipedia.
5. Limited coverage of culture in terms of variety and scope.
6. Not as enjoyable as I had hoped for.
7. I like Dr. Dennett as a philosopher but his writing style is dull.
In summary, the Edge series of provocative books are always worth reading. This book however wasn’t quite as enjoyable as subsequent books in the series. The essays didn’t flow together as well and leaves a lot of “culture” out. Good to average essays, read if you are interested in culture.
Further recommendations: “This Explains Everything”, “This Will Make You Smarter” and “This Will Change Everything” edited by the same author, John Brockman.
7 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on October 8, 2011
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
Culture is truly a cutting edge book. I have now read it for the third time. The title can be misleading and cause the reader to anticipate a more traditional approach to the concept of culture as a study or appraisal of existing institutions and/or social environments from an historical or empirical perspective. The essayists are the the best in their areas of expertise and offer the reader an analytical (scientific) paradigm to both evaluate and project the impact of state of the art technologies, in particular, and, intellectual revisionist thinking, generally, on the evolution of contemporary man as a phenomena of biological, and past, present and prospective environmental (including institutional) exposures.