Not a good decade for thinking

Sushi and sake
A fabulous decade for eating and drinking, though

The atomization of culture—its loss of logical or even aesthetic coherence—has made serious intellectual work much more difficult than it was twenty years ago. Significant new ideas are scarce. We understand that systems of meaning, which used to be the vehicle for thought, are no longer credible.

We are only beginning, tentatively, to develop alternative ways of thinking. These acknowledge both nebulosity (which undercuts conceptual systems) and pattern (which makes accurate thought possible).

I wrote the following in January, 2014, as a casual rant, and posted it in a private forum. It alluded to ideas about atomization that I only began publishing here in 2016. Now, in early 2017, those may seem obvious features of your Facebook feed—rather than recondite theories which I developed, haltingly, years ago. As I am still making slow progress in polishing text for publication: here is the rant.

Raw. Perhaps the style suits the subject…

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My girlfriend asked me over dinner: “So, where is the most exciting thinking happening now?”

That was a puzzler. After I stalled by saying “In my head, mostly,” and we traded various jokes about arrogance and narcissism, I had to admit that I couldn’t think of any. (We had both drunk rather a lot of sake, which is still affecting me, or I wouldn’t post something like this.)

“Maybe this isn’t a good time for thinking,” I said.

Which seemed accurate to her; but we agreed it was odd.

There are, of course, good and bad places and times for thinking. Athens in 450 BC was a famously good time. England in 700 CE was not.

The Manhattan Project was a good place and time to think—about atomic bombs, at least.

I was at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab through the 1980s. It was self-consciously similar to the Manhattan Project. Public expectations for AI were at an all-time high.1 We had unlimited funding from the Department of Defense. The lab selected ferociously smart students and staff. (In 1982, there were 2000 applicants for each available position as a graduate student.) Human-level computer intelligence was just around the corner.


That was a failed Manhattan Project. We had brilliant, fascinating, innovative theories, all of which were utterly wrong. It seemed like a fabulous place to think, but the intellectual culture was subtly broken, and we were all fooling ourselves.

Still, the 1980s overall were an exciting time. Molecular biology was taking off. My best friend was doing something important with molecular genetics at Harvard. (I can’t remember what.) I did a bunch of graduate-level coursework in that stuff, ’cuz it was so cool.

Also, the whole French post-structuralist thing was happening, which (like AI) was mostly flashy theories about nothing, but it felt like fireworks at the time.

So mostly that was a failure, but molecular biology was real. On the other hand… biology turned into “normal science” (i.e. routine crank-turning). Hard to be excited about it now.2

So what was the last exciting thing to happen in the world of ideas? Evopsych was exciting for about six months ten or fifteen years ago. But once you’d got your head around its few key ideas, the rest was obvious deductions. Verifying the details has become normal science again.

Some of us here are thirsty for “insight porn”… and there’s little to be had. Maybe it’s only sold under the counter and I’m too naive to find it. Or maybe I’m old and jaded; or my brain has rotted and I wouldn’t recognize an insight if it bit me in the hippocampus.

“So if you went back to MIT, would you find no interesting conversations there?” my girlfriend asked.

I don’t know—I haven’t hung around a university in twenty years. But I figure if anything was happening—other than normal science—I’d hear about it eventually. And I ain’t hearing nothin’.

So maybe you will humor me (since I’m drunk) and will allow, for the sake of the argument, that this is not a good decade for thinking.

Why not?

Well, I have a theory.

It’s a weak inference from a broader story about what is happening in our general global culture. I really truly intend to write that up properly Any Day Now.3

The theory starts from the fact that we are in the post-systems era. That isn’t my idea, it’s standard-issue 1980s French stuff—one of the few things they actually got right.

The problem is, mostly the only model we have for scarily smart people to express insights is to build conceptual systems. But those don’t work no more.

The not-really-all-that-smart people haven’t noticed that yet, and are still building systems, which is lame. (We can roll our eyes at anyone who comes up with a conceptual system. Nothing needs to actually be said, because that’s just so 20th century.)

So what do the scarily smart people do? They trade absurdly erudite jokes about nothing on twitter and complain about the scarcity of insight porn. (Not mentioning any names here. You know who you are.)

Then what?

Well, according to my theory (which looks distressingly like a conceptual system…) the next stage in cultural evolution is disposable assemblages. To quote myself:4

Finding or creating a consistent, coherent, universal culture, society, or self is NOT our task; that is the doomed dream of modernism.

Our new spiritual task is to devise diverse watercraft for sailing the turbulent seas of meaning. Not great -isms, but elegant windjammers.

Ships that sail the seas of meaning must be: collaborative; creative; improvised; intimate; disposable; beautiful; and spiritual.

Less poetically, meaningness-crafts are fluid, shared structures that organize meanings in ways that foreground whatever matters most.

This is what we are not yet good at. It’s a new requirement.

Until we learn how to build such craft, the present will remain… a lousy time for thinking.

  1. 1.Since I wrote this, the late-eighties AI hype wave has been surpassed by a new late-twenty-teens AI hype wave.
  2. 2.I wrote this shortly before I learned about CRISPR, which may end old age, sickness, and death. That could be quite interesting.
  3. 3.Hold your breath! Definitely. Any day now.
  4. 4.This was in a series of tweets in 2013.