wisdom of clouds III

Ideas The thesis: the world is cloudier

proposition 1: there are more people, objects and ideas

subproposition 1.3  there are more ideas

There are more ideas?  What a ludicrous proposition. 

For one thing, it’s impossible to test. Actually, it’s impossible to think. What is an idea? What’s an idea part, what’s an idea whole? How many “ideas” exist in Pirates of the Caribbean? How many ideas are there in the average email or telephone conversation? How would we count them even if we could identity them. It’s a completely jello-y problem, fraught with difficulty, and several times on the train back from Cambridge, I found myself thinking, "it’s a very bad idea to say that there are more ideas.How would we know?”

Intuitively, the idea holds some appeal. There appears to be absolutely and proportionally more art, music and film in the world. Books continue grow in number. The corporation is now committed to innovation as Job 1 and this makes it a fountain of ideation.  The internet is yet another fountain. Intuitively, it looks like there are more ideas. I found one hard number, and it was encouraging. International copyright applications from developing countries rose from 680 in 1997 to 5,359 in 2002.

Let’s begin. (I must ask the philosophically squeamish to look away. I would like to think that what follows is rough carpentry, crudely executed but not ill formed. But I know that no one with philosophical training will share this opinion.) Let’s begin by saying that by “idea” we mean an assertion that posits something technically intelligible and socially admissible. So, “Green ideas sleep sleep” fails the first test. “Green ideas sleep furiously” satisfies the first test (it’s intelligible) but fails the second (it’s not admissible). “Boston is wasted on the Bostonians” satisfied both. We might not “see” what it means but we recognize it as an assertion on which further scrutiny would probably not be wasted. (I realize my idea of “idea” begs many questions, but bear with me.)

It is not unusual for someone on the blogosphere to tell us “my car wouldn’t start this morning.” This is technically intelligible, socially admissible, but trivial. It might be true. It might be false. We don’t care. So by “idea” we mean an assertion that posits something technically intelligible, social admissible, and provocative of an interest in contestation. By this definition, “Raiders suck,” “Lost is a good TV show,” or “Dennis Kucinich is wrong for president,” are all ideas we care about.

Actually, we are looking not for any contestation; we are looking for rich contestation. “Raiders suck” invites “Forty-niners suck” (or “Bite me”) and that’s the end of the “conversation.” “Dennis Kucinich is wrong for president” can be answered with “bite me” but something more thoughtful is not inappropriate. Indeed, the relatively mild tone of the assertion calls for something more thoughtful. I’m not saying “Raiders suck” is not an idea. I am saying “Dennis Kucinich is wrong for president” is, for our purposes, more idea-ish. Ideas that invite detailed explication and rebuttal so qualify.

There’s one last condition. (Thank you for bearing with me this far. You qualify for hardship, if not danger, pay. Mrs. Burton will give you a voucher as you leave.) Ideas can be provocative without being illuminating. Chances are, ideas that merely provoke a reaction are more likely to confirm old ideas than introduce us to new ones.

Anna Nicole Smith embodied America. She embodied its bounty as well as its overabundance; its exploitability, and its propensity to exploit. She embodied, also, its litigiousness, its enterprise, its universal offer of the chance to remake oneself (Gatsby did it one way, Anna Nicole Smith did it another).

This is Tunku Varadarajan suggesting that some of the properties of a celebrity might be thought of as properties of the U.S. This is illuminating because it helps me see something I could not otherwise see: that Smith’s tragedy is an American story or that America is in some respects Smith-ish. (I understand that that this idea is strictly speaking a metaphor, an idea expressly designed to be illuminating. I mean to include also statements of fact, things like “the average American house went from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,400 square feet in 2004” which illuminates both culture and commerce.)

Ok, so, by “idea” we mean an assertion that posits something technically intelligible, social admissible, provocative of an interest in contestation, and possessed of real candle power (illumination).  Again, I know I’ve made lots of perilous assumptions, but, hey, as long as it gets us over the ravine of ignorance, even a rickety bridge will do.  (I will ask readers to move in single file.  And, Steve, no swaying!) 

Ok, now we have an idea of what we mean in this case  by "idea."  But can we say there are more of these ideas?   A sensible man would go forth and begin counting "ideas" in public discourse.  But I am not a sensible man.  I am an anthropologist.  We do things the hard way.  In the famous words of Animal House and Ghost Busters, when the world needs a futile gesture, we’re the ones you call.  (Note to self: update movie references.)

I think we can know that there are more ideas without counting them because we know something about the nature of discourse on the internet.  We know that the act of blogging (to take merely one of the new idea fountains) requires that the blogger articulate what is probably otherwise inchoate.  To commit something to a blog, we are required to think it through to a new state of explicitness.  Here, before the idea has actually hit the airwaves, it is more idea-ish than it was before, even it is not quite sufficiently idea-ish to meet our definition.  But it is more explicit and this invites contestation, which is to say, our clear idea forces new clarity in the minds of the reader.  Acts of contestation, the back and forth of debate, idea-ates the ideas even more, not just for the participants but for lookers on. 

The world before and after the internet is a little like America before and after urbanization.  If I am a farmer working the fields, chances are the ideas in my head inchoate and not very idea-ish.  It’s only when I sit down to dinner with my family, or go to the diner in town, that there is even opportunity for articulation or contestation.  And chances are these domains, family and diner, are filled with people sufficiently like me that I am rarely required to roll my arguments out in very much detail.  (In the phrase of yesterday’s post, for my great great Scottish grandfather, "ay, football" spoke volumes and may well have exhausted the conversational work of an evening.)

It is when I move to the city, and find myself surrounded by lots of strange strangers, that I feel a new necessity to think out what I believe.  And when called upon to present these ideas to strangers, I am obliged to unearth and to state the assumptions on which they, the ideas, rest.  This rarely happened in the field or the diner.  And unearthing assumptions means that I can now see what I think in a way I never did before.  Now my ideas are more idea-ish and more likely to become new, different and more ideas in my head.  Once exposed to public scrutiny where they are likely to renew their generative effects in the heads of other people, as their responses will in mine. 

The internet is a new urbanization.  It changes what we think and multiplies the ideas with which we think.  Come to that the internet actually makes for a globalization.  Ready access to sites like Wikipedia and about.com allow us to deepen our understanding of any one of idea and to cast the net in search of new ideas.  Even as we become ever more urban, I can be more global, traversing intellectual continents, sailing opinion seas that would otherwise have taken more substantial investments of time and energy.  The internet makes me a citizen of worlds outside my own, and this too must multiply the ideas at my disposal.  At the very least, it will renew the urbanization effect by which I am exposed to more difference and obliged to offer more explicitness.  Access to people and difference of opinion forces me to be more explicit.  Access to more intellectual resources empowers my internal hedgehog to cultivate what I do know and it empowers my internal fox to find out things I don’t know, in both cases multiplying the ideas I call my own.  (Mrs. Burton has cold compresses for anyone who is suffering the effects of runaway metaphor, urban hedgehogs and global foxes, and all that.)

This is an unduly complicated way of making the argument that there are more ideas, and Mrs. Burton is deeply sorry.  But we are now, perhaps, in a position to reflect on new ideas as a cause of the cloudiness of the contemporary world.  More ideas create more ideas.  But more ideas also create new techniques of idea management.  We have to get better at pattern recognition, and this take ability to jump assumptions with new agility.  In a modernist time, I guess we thought that the intellectual world might look like Fuller’s geodesic dome, ideas fitting together harmoniously, each bearing the weight of others, a keystone principle used not once, but over and over again. 

But that’s not what our intellectual world looks like at all.  It is much more like an great house from the Elizabethan period, a structure with medieval origins that has been added to and reworked often since.  This metaphor captures the rambling, run-on quality of our intellectual worlds, but not the fact that the physics actually changed from wing to wing and room to room.  To entertain some ideas, we must posit one set of assumptions.  But to entertain another set of ideas, we must abandon the first set and embrace an entirely different set.  Simply to think about Microsoft as a corporate culture I must "configure my head" with one set of assumptions.  To think about Apple, I must use another.  And both of these creatures occupy a world that is constrained by the rules of commerce.  When it comes to cultural creatures, (the music of the 1960s vs. the music of the 1990s, say) the space between assumption sets can be much larger.   

But of course there is a simpler way to make this argument.  Forget intellectual adventuring. Merely to think well about the internet takes a lot of assumption jumping.  Each of the innovations now in place (email, websites, search engines, social networks, internet appliance, virtual worlds), the first time we heard of them we were obliged to struggle.  What is this?  What do we need to think to grasp it?  What assumptions does it challenge?  What new assumptions does it require?  How does this new understanding fit with the other things we think we know?  Perhaps it changes much of what we think we know…if only we could see how.

We have more ideas, with more space between them, and we cannot accommodate these ideas, let alone think them, unless we are prepared to treat with, engage in, endure, and if such a thing is possible, cultivate cloudiness in new ways. 

Summing up the last three posts, then, cloudiness comes from the fact that we now have more people, more objects, and more ideas.  Comes from and responds to.  If cloudiness is the new structure of the contemporary world, it is also perhaps a good way to respond to same, if only we understood it better. 

References for this post (and the last two)

Anonymous.  2007. China’s GDP grows 10.7 percent in 2006.  People’s Daily Online. here.   

Berlin, Isaiah.  1953.  The Hedgehog and the Fox.  Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.

Ehrlich, Paul.  1968.  The Population Bomb. here

Granovetter, Mark. 1973. The Strength of Weak Ties.  American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 78.  Issue 6. May 1360-80.

Kelly, Kevin.  Help Wanted: How many objects. here

Surowiecki, James.  2004.  The Wisdom of Crowds.  New York:

Vanderbilt, Tom.  2005.  Self-Storage Nation.  Americans are storing more stuff than ever.  Slate. July 18, 2005. here

Varadarajan, Tunku. 2007. Anna Nicole Smith. Wall Street Journal. February 13, 2007. (with a hat tip to the Arts and Letters Daily here for the find)

Withers, Rachel.  2001.  Michael Landy: Break Down.  ArtForum.  May 2001. see the abstract here

FedEx package count is here

The eBay count comes from adding up the categories on the eBay overview here
(Thanks to Adam Dresner for the idea.  See his comment on Kelly’s post.)

The Wal-Mart sku count is here

The “grocery store” sku count for 1974 and 1997 is from the 25th Anniversary Review of U.P.C. Impact.  All other stats from the very interesting article by Vanderbilt in Slate.

10 thoughts on “wisdom of clouds III

  1. Graham Hill


    Really. You must stop smoking that wacky-backy!

    Perhaps you should have consulted a Dictionary rather than any number of abstract philosophers.

    Dictionary.com suggests than an idea is “any conception existing in the mind as a result of mental understanding, awareness, or activity”

    By a simple process of deduction, if there are more people, there will be more ideas. They may be the same ideas, but that is not the proposition, just that there are more ideas.

    Graham Hill

  2. Anonymous

    You seem to be confusing “idea” with opinion. Seems like an unstated part of your opening argument that you mean more ideas to equal more new ideas. If so, you’ve got to figure out a way to differentiate between ideas and opinions. Because people might have lots of different opinions, but they’re rarely new. I suggest adding to your definition something about originality or innovation.

  3. Bud Caddell

    Grant, (sorry I had to post here, I couldn’t find a contact form, I’m sure for good reason)

    As an avid reader of your blog, I wanted to drop a line and tell you how valuable I find it. I work primarily on the web, and have been doing so for almost a decade. When I worked for smaller agencies, I rarely had time to breath, let alone do some deep thinking. Now that I’m slightly more important (just slightly) and I can dedicate myself to expanding my understanding of social interaction online, I feel the quality of my work and the ultimately its value has risen sharply. Your blog continually spurs new ideas and insights for me, please keep up the good work.

    I’m even beginning my own blog to communicate what I’ve learned to my company as a whole, and to outside readers. When I was putting together a list of my favorite blogs for others to read, yours came up first! Of course, I’d love a link back, but this message is honestly meant to convey my appreciation. With my own blog I’m definitely not going to reinvent the wheel, but I hope I can educate someone like you have me.

  4. M E-L

    Your definition of “ideas” runs into the subjectivity problem. Who knows but that farmer in the field is not a philosopher? Or that the hyper-connected blogger is not in fact mindlessly parroting?

    I would argue that what you’re getting at is this:

    A) There are more *conversations* than there were before.

    B) There are more *stories* than there were before.

    Looking forward to the rest of this series.

  5. andrew a a

    Ideas, or more specifically original ideas, come from taking two or more existing pieces of information and connecting them in a new and original way to make an “idea”. So as we have millions more pieces of information bombarding our minds it follows that the numbers of connections we are making must be greater (allowing for the processing power of the brain) and therefore the number of ideas that “ping” into existence must be exponentially larger. Against this we have to deduct the effects of attention-span-deficiency, dumbing down, and sheer lack of time to do anything with these new ideas (how many cures for cancer, or replacements for petrol, or scores for great symphonies have withered and died because the originator was exhausted by his day job?).

    This has been a very interesting set of posts.

  6. Carol Gee

    Interesting ideas, Grant. Thanks for an excellent series. Rather than adding something more, which the above comments do in great ways, I’d like to “boil down” how it is for me this way: I am drawn to creativity/ideas/syntheses from relatively trustworthy folks. I tend to have a hard time admiring so-called ideas from those I suspect of having basic character defects. They come off to me as “spin,” self-serving, aggressive or inauthentic. And, since I tend towards becoming over-inundated with trivia, I choose not to clutter my brain with such stuff. But some ideas are over-arching and join disparate people together in thinking about certain bizzare current events.
    That seems to be part of the Anna Nicole Smith drama, and it presents a different challenge to me. I am worlds apart from what was her world. Traditionally celebrity news has not been of great interest to me. But I can, as a former psychotherapist, easily understand certain ideas/elements of the common humanity of her tragic story: a baby without a mom, a mother/daughter estrangement, unknown paternity, an inadequate overlapping public justice system, drugs, being thin/fat, media’s distortion of “deciders’ behavior,” etc.
    You’ve got me to thinking, once again.

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  8. steve

    I’m very sympathetic to trying to get a handle on increasing diversity and complexity. Trying to count ideas in general is pretty ambitious; lately, I’ve been thinking a bit about counting entrepreneurial opportunities, which is also fraught with peril.

    The combinatorial element stressed by Andrew a a above must be part of any explanation of increasing the number of ideas. The vast majority of these combinations, however, will not pass the intelligibility, social admissability, rich contestability, and illumination tests Grant lays out. I assume we have automatic filters that cause us to ignore unintelligible and inadmissable combinations, so we end up having to allocate scarce attention to screen ideas for contestability and illumination and then to think about the ones that get through the screen.

    The proposal to add originality as a criterion for idea-hood has some conceptual problems. First is the old Seinfeld rerun problem: “If you haven’t seen it before, it’s new to you.” In truth, there’s no way to prove that any combination of thoughts hasn’t been in some individual’s head somewhere in the world over any given time period. How widespread does something have to be before we can say that repeating it is “unoriginal?” And what is the relevant community or network for that assertion? The second problem is that if we’re talking about metaphors and such as ideas, each slightly new expression changes the meaning a bit, so that everything that is not a literal word-for-word copy is original.

    But this originality issue is fruitful because it suggests that being hit with more ideas is as much a matter of greater exposure to ideas that have already been articulated as it is a matter of generating more new-to-the-world ideas.

  9. jens

    hi grant,

    the wisdom of clouds leaves me a little bit cloudy… that does not matter, because for some reason i do not want to follow your thoughts sentence by sentence this time. – still, we talked about cloudiness before and i was referring to myself as “cloudy around the fringes but pretty clear in the center”.
    looking at the way that i – and also quite some of my extremely well earning friends – make money nowadays, one can also see that individuals have an increasing number of sources of income nowadays. and i am not talking about one steady job and the rest comes as return from financial investments. – i am talking about the diplomat who actively runs a gallery for contemp art, i am talking about the fortune 100 manager who actively runs two restaurants, i am talking about the real estate developer who actively runs a high end furniture design boutique, the dentist who activelly runs a restaurant and a design store, the investment banker who has a serious second income from his earnings as one of the hottest party dj in town, the fiction author who is a management consultant and a well paid interior designer of bars…. and so on and so on.

    i would call this “economies of fringes”

  10. sörge

    serne puk salvago tel pronat prikator des spint. ul femui de pro o prome sinifit pu http://www.artlout.com. sefle sarit pure tali i taunis.
    thank you – sorry i can read but i dont can speak english.

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