The Idea Room. That incubator where good, bad, stupid, useless and paradigm shifting ideas are hatched is a mental location you use your personal GPS to explore. Most of fledglings that are born in the Idea Room are flightless, limited, and short lived creatures. Only a few survive and not only to fly but to soar and take us along for the ride. Evolution culls the unfit animal and the unfit idea.
I take a stroll through this room in this essay.
Most of my working life I’ve been in one corner or another of the Idea Room. As an academic, writer, journalist, playwright, and lawyer. I have worked alongside others in this space, exchanged ideas, plans, theories and concepts, and studied the multitude of cubicles inside that room—it is vast, diverse, with patches as hostile as Venus. The Idea Room is a mental construct, a space where you can imagine, create, criticize, challenge and invent. Inside this room the scientific process is designed to produce better and more useful explanations about reality than ones based on intuition and superstition.It exists as an abstraction but has real consequences in the way we view reality. Our modern world of science, philosophy and art was birthed in the Idea Room. Like the formation of stars from gas and dust, new ideas pop into existence through the gravity of free thought and old ideas exploded like a supernova. Or did the ideas gathered from the dust and gas of intuition and superstition only appear to explode when in reality they have cycled back into play?
This essay looks inside the modern Idea Room, audits the players and takes inventory.
Depending what window you are looking through, you see crackpots, con artists, hucksters, revolutionaries, intellectuals, dreamers, mad people, true believers, conservatives, liberals, communists, fascists, and many more. They play and share ideas with others, they play with ideas on their own. The ideas are sharp, dull, wrong, bogus, half-baked, regressive, delusional, as well as innovative, creative, disruptive, imaginative, worldview shifting, disproving old theories, proving new theories, fine-tuning technologically progress. All of this is happening pretty much at the same time inside the Idea Room. If the space hadn’t opened for such a room, you wouldn’t be reading this on a digital screen right now, nor would you have most objects or computer programs that you take for granted.
Mostly the best Idea Room started during the Enlightenment in the West. For our long history, people had ideas based on intuitions and superstitions. But building that room by cleaning out the infrastructure of superstitions, myths, fables and just so stories has taken centuries and remains incomplete. If your gut feeling is the earth is flat, was created in six days, and the sun revolves around the earth, you will take a dim view of an Idea Room where people are allowed to attack your beliefs with ideas they claim show your ideas are false and baseless.
The keys to the Idea Room have a long history of being strictly controlled by a handful of power authorities who supported a view of the world formed by intuition and superstition. Entry into the Idea Room was by invitation only. Going inside without permission carried a high price. Ask Giordano Bruno whose cosmological theories that challenged the official view of the cosmos—dangerous ideas in the 16th century—resulted in him being dragged out of the Idea Room and burnt at the stake. It didn’t matter that Church’s dogma about the cosmos was a bad explanation about the nature of cosmos. There are many cases like his. If you believe Giordano Bruno’s fate is lost in the fog in the past—think again. Modern cases of Giordano Bruno are a constant feature in 2016.
The battle over how to construct an Idea Room, what goes on inside, which gets in and what gets out defines the current political landscape everywhere. Donald Trump would tear down the American Idea Room by his plan to gut the First Amendment. No one is asking if Trump or someone who shares his views believes that the President ought to be above criticism, and what that would mean.
Every election should have the media asking candidates: Do you need a pass to work inside the Idea Room? And if so, how does that work? Or what happens to someone independently setting up a private, unmonitored Idea Room—(think Darwin or Einstein)—do you get arrested, tried and convicted for violating national security? I would be pleased to learn of where history has shown profoundly world-shifting ideas occurred inside a Government Idea Room. Yes, I am aware of the Manhattan Project and the Bletchley Park Project. The atomic bomb and the enigma machine were one-off assignments. The government gathered from many Idea Rooms the best of scientific minds to develop a technological solution in a military setting. Once their narrow mission was accomplished the projects were closed down.
The problem is you can’t divide criticism and problem solving by limiting the use of the room to solving technical issues about bomb making and code breaking. The best idea people have is a mindset that challenges and criticizes theories, policies, procedures, regulations, and processes. This mindset is constantly probing for vulnerabilities and weaknesses. If you are a dictator, you will likely be insecure that someone might make your policy look foolish. That is why the ‘national security’ reason is often invoked—it is to prevent such a challenge, and threaten people in a national Idea Room to remember that thinkers are liable to be punished even if they are right. That’s pretty much what happened to Bruno. Open a news website, you don’t have to look around a great deal to find a story about some poor Idea Room occupant being dragged outside, humiliated, tried, and sentenced. Everyone understands how that system works.
BBC Photo: http://goo.gl/FZWt2J Mob of Mumtaz Qadri mourners.
Not all the blame can be placed at the doorstep of over-reaching state officials; a mass of true believers can deliver a message to shutdown part of an Idea Room. In 2011 a Pakistani national, Mumtaz Qadri, shot and killed Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer who had argued for reform of blasphemy laws. Five years later, Qadri was hanged for his crime, and thousands of demonstrators took to the streets to protest his execution. The enemies of constructing space for all ideas in an Idea Room are large numbers of people who defend their beliefs against any challenge. Variations of mob of the righteous as political pressure to curtail what is allowed in the Idea Room may be found in many countries from the Middle East, Southeast Asia, to Africa. It makes easy work for dictators who have their own reasons to patrol and monitor the Idea Room for offenders of the ‘righteous way.’
There is a threat to return to a time when intuition and superstition were the prevailing foundations of knowledge. In the Idea Room no one’s ideas are above challenge or arguments based on the irrational and superstitious beliefs refuted with the tools of logic, coherence, and testing. A big family name or high rank means nothing. That is how the scientific revolution overturned the old, worn ideas held by notable authorities. The idea junkyard is full of discarded, abandoned and dumped ideas based on superstition that failed when tested. If you are a dictator you don’t want to run the risk of your ideas ending up with all of the attraction of a five-day-old dead fish.
The time comes when a society has to choose to follow respect and obedience to authority as the roadmap to whatever desired goal the authority sets for the society, or to take the independent and curious route where every idea is tentative, its truthfulness detached from its author or its legion of proponents. In the unregulated Idea Room, no idea is preferred or given an untouchable status. There is, of course, a price to be paid. The currency is criticism, chaos, uncertainty and conflict. For the totalitarian brigade and their righteous allies, whose members value order and stability and harmony, the Western Idea Room is the definition of hell—undisciplined, disorderly, and unruly with the promise of eternal argument and disagreement.
Dangerous ideas that challenge superstition have always been labeled as blasphemy, a capital crime historically (though it remains in a number of Middle-Eastern countries). We sit in front of our computer reading ideas that are a lengthy prison or death sentence for those in parts of the world. Officials in some of these places who advocate reducing the scope of blasphemy laws are murdered.
The prosperity and success of a society depends on such a safe space where ideas can be explored. We need to keep in mind that all of us have a distorted view of the nature of this space. We look through different windows. And we see different things in the room. We argue what we see is reality and true and what others see is wrong and false. That we are confused is understandable. The most available and convenient windows are the easy ones—TV, movies, newspapers, and social media.
We stare through the windows every day.
We look inside at the idea makers, the thinkers, intellectuals, clowns, and charismatic carnival barkers. What we focus on by looking through these windows is what attracts a mass audience. Ideas are only as good as their ability to sell something in the marketplace of emotional desires and needs. We ‘buy’ ideas like we ‘buy’ cars, computers, shoes, and soap—it appeals to us on an emotional level. That’s why ideas don’t have to be true. They can be wildly wrong but they can still find a happy home because masses of people believe it expresses how they feel.
The more outrageous a comedian, the more people laugh. Call it window opening by trolling with shock, anger, hatred, bitterness and prejudice. Why people want to spend time looking through that window can be addressed elsewhere. For our purposes, we can assume whatever the reasons, they are persuaded to focus attention. They are stimulated, satisfied and energized from their experience. Donald Trump is doing his best to monopolize that window.
The point is: a lot of people get stuck at the performance-art window. They become convinced, assisted by media propaganda that this is the main window to witness the Idea Room in action—Romper Room for adults. That’s what kind of shit that goes on inside my enemies’ Idea Room—what a Dumbo, how stupid, how crazy for anyone to go along with that ______. Fill in the blank for ‘that’. Fox News has manufactured an Idea Room and has millions of people tuning in to have their ideas confirmed. Of course, Fox isn’t alone; cable TV, talk radio, blogs, LINE and chatroom communities have created a multiverse of Idea Rooms to explain the Meaning of Life. You don’t have to be a dictator to think if you were in charge, you’d clean up things and set some rules of conduct and rules of thinking for the room members. You write a bunch of restrictions, rules, and guidelines—whatever you want to call them to tone down the crazy ones, the one’s who are brutal, mean, vulgar, stupid or annoying. We look down on states with blasphemy laws and we have sizeable populations of citizens wishing to enact similar laws. Once you go down that path, you are on the low road to repression, and free expression isn’t value or allowed.
The hard problem for authoritarian governments is the nature of what goes inside the Idea Room is a possible threat to their legitimacy, authority, reputation, dignity and honor—all the symbols that are most threatened when those in one corner of the IPR get wound up and start challenging and criticizing government policies, spending, priorities, not to mention thievery, incompetence, and thug-like behavior. Such governments rely on the support of and draw their legitimacy from a sizeable population of citizens with an authoritarian mindset, one that can be measured. The problem is the rise of the authoritarians worldwide as a political force and the Ideas Room is targeted for criminalization.
The reason it is a hard problem is that inside the room are a diverse group of individual thinkers, artists, musicians, gamers, film makers, writers, academics, pundits—the creative thinkers brigade—who cohere into sub-cultures, ones that bridge others in different creative communities, sharing ideas, methods, and criticizing each other’s work. The problem is getting consensus on one big idea—that people are protected in this space when they challenge convention, the wisdom or truth of ideas and beliefs—that such questioning while may be not a good thing for peace and quite, it is a necessary evil. Why evil? Because that is how most people feel when they agree to allow space for their enemy to challenge their ideas.
In return, we gain something of value—a new, more useful way of processing thought, evolving our understanding of the world and each other, and figuring out new ways of co-operating. Scientists, artists, and academics use the Idea Room to bounce ideas off the wall. John Maynard Keynes said of Isaac Newton that he was “the last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians.” Genius has always been a mixed bag. You can’t separate the nuts from the party mix. That’s why tolerance is essential, freedom of expression is necessary, or the ideas disappear. Without a healthy, free and vibrant Ideas Room, we are doomed. With it, dictators are doomed. The righteous true believers are doomed. That’s why their alliance has to be understood for what it truly is—a carefully controlled room dedicated to reverence and worship.
The dilemma of our time is we as a species are perched on an unstable balancing beam. We can keep the space in that room open and free, or we can close it down. That choice will define what happens to all of us. Next time you peek through a window in the Idea Room, remember the window you are looking is only one among many; and what you may see on your screen may make you angry and unsettled. But that’s what happens when the ideas you are invested in are given rough treatment, slapped around, made fun of, not given respect or dignity. We have to toughen up. We can do that by investing in the process and the not the ideas that come and go allowing the process to fine-tune with AI systems, and once our best ideas are thought by intelligent machines, we can’t begin to imagine what will happen inside the digital Idea Room.