'Culture': Leading Scientists Explore the Social Purpose of Art

By Maria Popova

We've already ravished The Mind -- the first in a series of anthologies by Edge.org editor John Brockman, curating 15 years' worth of the most provocative thinking on major facets of science, culture, and intellectual life. On its trails comes Culture: Leading Scientists Explore Societies, Art, Power, and Technology -- a treasure chest of insight true to the promise of its title, featuring essays and interviews by and with (alas, all-male) icons such as Brian Eno, George Dyson, and Douglas Rushkoff, as well as Brain Pickings favorites like Denis Dutton, Stewart Brand, Clay Shirky, and Dan Dennett. From the origin and social purpose of art to how technology shapes civilization to the Internet as a force of democracy and despotism, the 17 pieces exude the kind of intellectual inquiry and cultural curiosity that give progress its wings.

Here's a modest sampling of the lavish cerebral feast you'll find between the book's covers.

In his 1997 meditation "A Big Theory of Culture", music icon and deep-thinker Brian Eno explores what constitutes cultural value and how it comes about:

Nearly all of art history is about trying to identify the source of value in cultural objects. Color theories and dimension theories, golden means, all those sort of ideas, assume that some objects are intrinsically more beautify and meaningful than others. New cultural thinking isn't like that. It says that we confer value on things. We create the value in things. It's the act of conferring that makes things valuable. Now this is very important, because so many, in fact all fundamentalist ideas, rest on the assumption that some things have intrinsic value and resonance and meaning. All pragmatists work from another assumption: No, it's us. It's us who make those meanings.

In "Art and Human Reality" (2009), the late and great Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton made an early case for provocative Darwinian theory of beauty:

[It] is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that it is supposed to replace a heavy post-structuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it.

In "Social Networks Are Like the Eye" (2008), Harvard physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis examines why networks form and how they operate:

The amazing thing about social networks, unlike other networks that are almost as interesting -- networks of neurons or genes or stars or computers or all kinds of other things one can imagine -- is that the nodes of a social network -- the entities, the components -- are themselves sentient, acting individuals who can respond to the network and actually form it themselves.

In "Turing's Cathedral" (2005), science historian George Dyson recalls his visit to the Google headquarters in the context of H. G. Wells's 1938 prophecy:

I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral -- not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built [...] The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual [...] Wells foresaw not only the distributed intelligence of the World Wide Web, but the inevitability that this intelligence would coalesce, and that power, as well as knowledge, would fall under its domain.

Thoughtfully curated to stimulate your keenest critical thinking -- like, for instance, the juxtaposition of Jaron Lanier's digital dystopianism and Clay Shirky's optimistic retort -- Culture is on par with The Mind as one of this year's most significant time-capsules of contemporary thought.

Images: Flickr Commons.

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This post also appears on Brain Pickings.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/09/culture-leading-scientists-explore-the-social-purpose-of-art/245082/