For the sake of conversation, let’s say the human brain is like an automobile, and there are three basic models: the Corvette, the Silverado, or the amphibious Max IV 6-wheeler ATV. You get to choose.
The Corvette is the sexiest, the social elite; as a mind, it’s the equivalent of, say, Carrie Fisher, easily one of the quickest and funniest people around, and at least in her heyday, she was that buff bod snuggling up to Jabba the Hutt. Lots of excitement, lots of fun.
The Silverado is the workhorse. Believe it or not, however, I can remember years in which the top US pickup truck was actually faster than a Corvette. Either way, this is the Stephen Hawking of minds, something that may not be all that sexy (well, maybe to C&W fans) but it hauls a lot of information a long way.
Which leaves the ATV. But note, I offered you possible solutions before considering the problem. If you’ve been reading here a while, you won’t be surprised that I think we’ve been asking the wrong questions. Because to my mind, the critical consideration is, which one of these will cover the most uncharted territory? Which is best for innovation? The Corvette is useless off-road. The Silverado is better, but as soon as you hit deep water or heavy vegetation, it is also worthless.
For 10,000 years of civilization, our ideas about education and intelligence have been very conservative. Stay on the known roads, don’t ask new questions. Intelligence was memory and quickly navigating the known. Even the Silverado, for all of Hawking’s scholarly contributions, is still designed for running the roads, only they’re also good for roads that few people go down. So the truck is valuable for building out new roads into charted areas, but not for plunging into the vast unknown wilderness. Continued below…
I have worked to establish functional definitions of liberal and conservative here. We have to get away from saying that one or the other is ‘correct’ and the other is ‘wrong.’ It’s like saying a hammer is correct, a saw is wrong. I keep returning to the hammer metaphor, because we have to escape this Whack-A-Mole dogmatism. Ideas and approaches are merely tools; there is no one solution for everything.
Our choice of automobiles is yet another metaphor for liberal and conservative. Conservative ideas stick to the known roads, or build out from the roads into territory that is fairly well understood, or at least predictable. Liberal, at both its best and its worst, is plunging off-road, looking at completely new ideas willy-nilly. For most of life, again, we need to be conservative, we need to do the same things we have been doing, and that people have done for centuries. If, however, we are to stay competitive on a constantly changing worldmap, if we wish to navigate a shifting landscape and move into an unknown universe, we also must keep our minds open. We must be innovative. It is not enough to assume that the shortest nor easiest path is the one that our parents took. Just because it worked in the past does not meant that it will continue to work, and continue to work as well, in a future where everyone else is upgrading.
Now, I need to admit that I came up with this metaphor to describe me. With all of my educational experiences, I might seem like one of those big-motor engines. The fact is, all through school I was around people who had minds like the Corvette or the Silverado, quick, powerful, and much more impressive than mine. I’m like the ATV, enough power to get the job done, but hardly among the best.
Or maybe it’s like I don’t even have wheels at all. Because really, I’m a hiker. The difference is, sometimes, that I’m a bit bolder – or more reckless, what’s the difference? – about where I go. I like to go off-road, I like to discover knew things and consider strange, new vistas. I like to question the accuracy of our maps and even go so far as to wonder if we might live in a non-Euclidean world.
Of course, we cannot all be doing this all the time. Living as a bachelor into my 50’s gave me a lot of excess time, a lot of luxury, a lot of time for wandering and wondering, and most people can’t afford that much free time. But as we head into the future, as information and complexity grow, those communities and nations that dedicate more people and more time to exploration and innovation will be those that outcompete the rest.
And so one of my points here is, for innovation the power of the supra-orbital motor is not nearly so important as the recklessness – the curiosity – of the driver. To explore the unknown we need a mindset, and a culture, that is unafraid of new ideas and new possibilities. Conservative is fine. In fact, as I point out repeatedly here, it’s absolutely essential.
But we need to get past this paranoid, fundamentalist, stick-your-fingers-in-your-ears-and-scream-nannie-nannie-boo-boo-I-can’t-hear-you conservatism.
And to do that, we would do well to intellectually soup up the ATVs.
Picture courtesy AMBwatches.com.