Top critical review
Few Standouts and Dull
on January 16, 2015
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.