Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Looking Anew at What We Know

I've been on planes with some time to catch up on my magazines. Two pieces I read, along with a walk in Cambridge, Mass, really got me thinking.

George Soros, "My Philanthropy," The New York Review of Books, June 23, 2011.

The financier and philanthropist discusses his inspiration and joy in philanthropy. The motivation for keeping the Open Society Foundations open after he dies, the role of risk taking, and how his thinking about rationality, markets, and human nature shape his "conceptual frame," which he calls reflexivity. There's a lot to consider in how Soros is wrestling with imperfections and market theory and the nature of human resistance to hard news, in thinking about philanthropy and the future of good. I was particularly taken by what I see as parallel reasoning about what Soros argues are limits of reason when applied to human nature (as compared to nature) and what I see as the complementary roles that passion and pragmatism play in defining our individual giving and the overall shape, contours and directions of the business of giving.

Adam Gopnik, "What I Learned When I Learned to Draw"(Subscription required) The New Yorker, June 27, 2011

My favorite observation in this article by Gopnik, a masterful writer and a terrible sketch artist (by his own admission) is this:
"Why was I so unable to do something so painfully simple? Whatever sense of professional competence we feel in adult life is less the sum of accomplishment than the absence of impossibility: it's really our relief at no longer having to do things we were never any good at doing in the first place -- relief at never again having to dissect a frog or memorize the periodic table."
Boy, that sure hit home. Almost as much as Gopnik's wry comments on how his expertise as an art history critic was challenged once he started trying to see like an artist.

After I was done reading I went for a walk. I was staying in Cambridge's Kendall Square, near MIT, in between my plane flights. If you've been there lately you know the stretch of Main Street near the T stop is now home to several fancy labs on cancer research, DNA and other genetic wonders. The names on the buildings are familiar to anyone in philanthropy (or any reader of The New Yorker who made Jane Mayer's 2010 article on the Koch brothers one of the most circulated stories around).

What is striking about the buildings is their glass facades with enormous, beautiful and engaging art displays about science. The Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research is all about bringing together biologists and engineers - but it is the larger than life petri dish art in its windows that grabs the attention of passers by. If these 5 foot in diameter photos were somewhere else, you might imagine they were jellyfish or sunrises or simply abstract art. Because they are in the windows of a science lab the passer by immediately senses there is more to this art then beauty. It's striking to me how many layers of "language" there are in each of these circles - artistic, scientific, engineered, photographic. This little photo below doesn't do justice to how striking these images are.

(Image from - Photo by Pat Greenhouse for the Boston Globe)
Turns out the whole building gives art its due - right down to the cool, tile floors.

Across the street from the Koch Institute is the Broad Institute, an independent nonprofit affiliated with both MIT and Harvard. The lobby of this building is dominated by an interactive display of data on DNA. The display can be touched, poked, read, questioned, and stared at by those on the sidewalk. Both buildings use art and architecture to influence how the science inside gets done and how the public outside gets to "see" a little bit of the data, knowledge, and work as it happens.

Together, these articles, the buildings, the public data displays and the deliberate cross-expertise struggles depicted by Gopnik, pondered by Soros, and displayed on Main Street in Cambridge left me feeling unusually optimistic.

Earlier in the week I'd read that the world's great coral reefs could be dead by 2050. This horrified me. We are on track to kill off a major structural element of ocean and planetary health. In a time frame that is completely touchable - 2050 is no abstraction, it's around the corner. Usually this kind of news sends me into a trough of despair. Which, it had.

But something about the way we seem to be simultaneously reinventing how we learn - the patterns we seek, the ways we mix science and art - something about the mix of articles I read on the plane and the wonders that are on display all around us also made me think, "there's hope yet."

I found myself lifted out of the usual, oversimplified horror stories about how the web is making us stupid and our schools are failing our kids to wonder if maybe we are in the midst of a necessary renaissance in how we think. While scientists do their work in new ways in expensive endowed institutes our children are also learning many new disciplines that mix information in graphic and data form across many platforms. They are looking for patterns we'd never think to look for and asking new questions of new data.

So here's my uplifting hypothesis from all this reading and walking: Maybe we've reached pervasive mobile cognitive connectivity at precisely the same moment that our old practices have pushed the planet to its near limits - so that we now, when we need to, we can both think different and act different.

Now I'm rambling. If you've read this far, thanks for sticking with me as I ponder a few good reads and a lovely summer evening.

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