When good ideas happen to bad people

schooliscoolI’ve often noticed that really novel, creative ideas are frequently voiced by people with the power to cause a strong negative reaction. An example? Oh, a certain rather prolific open source advocate who also publicly supports pedophilia and inappropriate dolphin relations. Coincidence? Maybe. Sometimes it just pans out like this. Other times it might be part of a marketing strategy to make certain ideas and concepts taboo.

While some ideas are associated with a particular person, other ideas are “branded” by their close affiliation with ideas, events or organizations who cause a strong negative reaction. An excellent example of this is the idea of cooperation and sharing. These concepts can go a long way in a permanent recession (which we seem to be in) by making resources go further, and even simulating the growth that is so desperately sought. They are also essential to building new systems—one of the big problems with our tech sector is that there was not enough cooperation to a lay a solid foundation for growth. Some people have made a lot of money, but too many companies have failed because the sector is disordered.

These ideas—cooperation and sharing—are most often flown under the banner of socialism and associated with historical political movements or public figures who may be regarded idealistically by enthusiastic adherents, but with trepidation and even horror by regular folk. This isn’t just ignorance as the initiates would claim. Some of the movements most associated with these ideas, such as Bolshevism, have an uncontested history of ruthless and bloody oppression. These movements have done themselves no favors in refusing to confront and renounce this history.

This was really brought home to me by a conversation I had a few years ago with a friend. We worked together in a bar, and he would often confide in me about his troubles. After listening for several weeks, I suggested that what he really needed was a community. With a look of horror on his face he said:

“Community? But that…that’s socialism!”

Some terms, and I believe socialism is one of them, should be permanently retired, along with their many associations, various idols, esoteric vocabularies, and historical baggage.

Other ideas have been locked down in a popular theory or concept. Some ideas you can’t hardly bring up without being referred to some thinker, usually dead or extremely old (the dead are so much more cooperative) who has apparently has had the “final word” on the subject. “Oh yeah, XXX talked about that,” your friend will say and no more can be said about your original ideas. If anything comes up touching these ideas, your friends will just refer the conversation back to their favorite thinker—and their mind slams shut.

The message: everything has already been said on this subject. Conditions are always changing, so a fixed snapshot taken at one particular point in time, though yielding many interesting observations, will always become less relevant.

If we want to move forward in solving the many problems the world faces, we’ll have to rethink old ideas and formulate new ones. The best way to do this is focusing on ideas, not people. One of the most effective online forums I ever participated in established this concept as a foundational principle. Once a person put an idea out there, it ceased to “belong” to them, but was rigorously interrogated simply as an idea. The person who put it out there was often asked questions to help unpack the idea, but if they became defensive the moderator would gently remind them that this forum was not about people. It was about discussing ideas. People knew this before they even put an idea out there. It was a very, very effective and safe way to challenge assumptions.

Ideas don’t really “belong” to us. If you have an idea, you can bet someone else across the world—or across the street—is having is the same one. The institutionalization of knowledge in our modern university system and the unfortunate practice of grafting laws designed to protect physical objects, inventions, works of art, and designs onto concepts and “intellectual property” has done a lot to chill progress and discovery in every area of human endeavor, and across art, science, literature and social organization. At the same time, you can’t stop progress any more than you can stop a river from flowing, and the tension is building. The dam will burst, sooner rather than later. It’s already happening.

Ideas change the world. Entrenched interests have a strong desire to lock them down and control them, because they are so heavily invested in the structures they support. But at the same time, these established industries—publishing, advertising, and entertainment—are now struggling because free thought, exchange and intellectual exploration are stifled. Everyone benefits when ideas can circulate and interact freely. Creativity flows, images that have the power to move people are created, and big problems are solved.

Consider G.H. Hardy, mathematics professor at Cambridge, who received a letter from a strange and destitute boy from the slums outside of Madras in India. Hardy tossed the letter in the trash because it was the third from this lunatic and it contained a series of number theory suppositions without proof that were obviously copies of the works of Euler. Hardy dug the letter out of the trash when he realized that the boy had very likely never even heard of Euler and the letter contained 22nd century mathematics that no one at Cambridge could even understand. Srinivasa Ramanujan, the lunatic Indian boy, actually recreated the entire history of Western mathematics by intuition and proceeded on to modular scalar functions that form the basis of string theory as well as physics that haven’t been discovered yet.

The Socratic ideal is a marketplace of ideas, where the best ideas win, and the people supporting them are merely architecture. Good ideas happen to all kinds of people. We owe it to the ideas to ignore the delivery system.

 

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