Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

29 FEBRUARY, 2012

Full Spectrum 2012: 10 Books on Sensemaking for the TED Bookstore

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A reading list for combinatorial creativity.

This week, I’m at TED, where I had the honor of curating a selection of books for the TED Bookstore around this year’s theme, Full Spectrum. Here are my picks, along with the original text that appears on the little cards in the bookstore, and my blurb about the selection:

I believe creativity is combinatorial — it’s our ability to take existing pieces of knowledge, information, insight, and ideas that we’ve gathered over the course of our lives, and recombine them into new ideas. Curation – the purposeful filtration of information – is what fills our mental pool of resources with the most meaningful building blocks of creativity possible. In a way, it’s a sensemaking mechanism for the world, allowing us to see not only why different pieces matter but also how they relate to one another and might fit together. Gathered here are 10 curated books on the loose theme of sensemaking, from a visual history of the timeline to a biography of information to a handmade exploration of Indian mythology.

THE INFORMATION

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick:

Flowing from tonal languages to early communication technology to self-replicating memes, science writer James Gleick delivers an astonishing 360-degree view of the vast and opportune playground for us modern ‘creatures of the information,’ to borrow vocabulary from Jorge Luis Borges. Gleick illustrates the central dogma of information theory through a riveting journey across African drum languages, the story of the Morse code, the history of the French optical telegraph, and a number of other fascinating facets of humanity’s infinite quest to transmit what matters with ever-greater efficiency. But what makes the book most compelling to us is that, unlike some of his more defeatist contemporaries, Gleick roots his core argument in a certain faith in humanity, in our moral and intellectual capacity for elevation, making the evolution and flood of information an occasion to celebrate new opportunities and expand our limits, rather than to despair and disengage.

Take a closer look here.

PEOPLE

People by Blexbolex:

Each charmingly matte and papery double-page spread by beloved French illustrator Blexbolex features a full-bleed illustrated vignette that captures the human condition in its diversity, richness, and paradoxes. From mothers and fathers to dancers and warriors to hypnotists and genies, Blexbolex’s signature softly textured, pastel-colored, minimalist illustrations are paired in a way that gives you pause and, over the course of the book, reveals his subtle yet thought-provoking visual moral commentary on the relationships between the characters depicted in each pairing.

Peek inside the beautiful spreads here.

CARTOGRAPHIES OF TIME

Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton:

This lavish collection of illustrated timelines traces the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present, featuring everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain. From literature to art history to technology, it offers a fascinating and dimensional lens on what it means to peer from a single moment of time outward into all other moments that came before and will come after, and inward into our own palpable yet subjective perception of permanence and its opposite.

Take a closer look here.

344 QUESTIONS

344 Questions by Stefan G. Bucher:

This delightful and light-hearted pocket-sized compendium of flowcharts and lists illustrated in designer Stefan G. Bucher’s unmistakable style will help you figure out life’s big answers. Besides Bucher’s own questions, the tiny but potent handbook features contributions from 36 beloved cross-disciplinary creators, including TEDsters Stefan Sagmeister, Marian Bantjes, and Jakob Trollbäck.

Take closer look at these illustrated gems here.

THIS WILL MAKE YOU SMARTER

This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking, edited by John Brockman:

Every year for more than a decade, intellectual conductor and Edge.org editor John Brockman has been asking the era’s greatest thinkers a single annual question, designed to illuminate some important aspect of how we understand the world. In 2011, with the help of psycholinguist Steven Pinker and legendary behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman, he asked: “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” The answers, featuring a wealth of influential scientists, authors, and TEDsters, are gathered in this formidable anthology of short essays by 151 of our time’s biggest thinkers on subjects as diverse as the power of networks, cognitive humility, the paradoxes of daydreaming, information flow, collective intelligence, and a dizzying, mind-expanding range in between. But what makes the book — and Brockman’s general approach – most exceptional is that it’s an invitation to cross-pollinate disciplines and intellectual comfort zones as we strive to better understand ourselves and the complex world we inhabit.

Read some of the answers here.

WATERLIFE

Waterlife* by Rambharos Jha:

For the past 16 years, independent Indian publisher Tara Books has been giving voice to marginalized art and literature through a commune of artists, writers, and designers collaborating on remarkable handmade books. Screen-printed by local artisans with traditional Indian dyes, Waterlife explores the marine wonderland through Mithila art, a form of folk painting from Bihar in eastern India.

*Waterlife isn’t out until April, but we were able to arrange for a “world premiere” at TED — thanks, Jenn.

Peek inside Tara Books’ other remarkable handmade books here, here, and here.

NOTATIONS 21

Notations 21 by Theresa Sauer:

Inspired by John Cage’s iconic 1968 Notations and originally released for its 50th anniversary, this ambitious tome reveals how 165 composers and musicians around the world are experiencing, communicating and reconceiving music visually by reinventing notation. From acclaimed musicians like Karlheinz Stockhausen, Earle Brown, Halim El-Dabh, Joan La Barbara, and Yuji Takahashi to emerging global talent, this magnificent tome examines how both the technology and the expectations of this unique synesthetic language have changed over the past half-century.

Peek inside here.

YOU ARE HERE

You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination by Katharine Harmon:

This beautiful and meditative compendium of maps and musings on maps explores, in the broadest possible terms, the human condition though 50 full-color and 50 black-and-white cartographic illustrations, ranging from a humorous diplomatic atlas of Europe and Asia to a canine view of the world to hand-drawn maps of shelters along the Appalachian Trail. A selection of diverse essays contextualize the maps within the larger conceptual narrative exploring humanity’s compulsion to map and chart its place in the universe.

Peek inside here.

THE ART OF MEDICINE

The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination by Julie Anderson, Emm Barnes, and Emma Shackleton:

This lavish volume offers a remarkable and unprecedented visual journey into our collective corporal curiosity with a selection of rare paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, artifacts, manuscripts, manuals and digital art culled from London’s formidable Wellcome Collection. These magnificent ephemera span cultures and eras as diverse as Ancient Persia and Renaissance Europe to paint a powerful, visceral portrait of our civilization’s evolving ideas about health, illness, and the body.

Peek inside here.

SHAPES FOR SOUNDS

Shapes for sounds by Timothy Donaldson:

This beautiful tome explores one of the most important technologies ever invented – the alphabet – through a fascinating journey into “why alphabets look like they do, what has happened to them since printing was invented, why they won’t ever change, and how it might have been.” Though full of stunning illustrations and typography — like 26 gorgeous illustrated charts that trace the evolution of spoken languages into written alphabets —this is no mere eye candy. Donaldson, a typographer, graphic designer and teacher, digs deep into the cultural anthropology of how letters were crystallized from sounds, scripts invented, words formed, and linguistic conventions indoctrinated.

Peek inside here.

For more TED-related literary stimulation, don’t forget this “Full Spectrum” reading list of 7 books by this year’s speakers.

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28 FEBRUARY, 2012

Wired for Culture: How Language Enabled “Visual Theft,” Sparked Innovation, and Helped Us Evolve

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Why remix culture and collaborative creativity are an evolutionary advantage.

Much has been said about what makes us human and what it means to be human. Language, which we’ve previously seen co-evolved with music to separate us from our primal ancestors, is not only one of the defining differentiators of our species, but also a key to our evolutionary success, responsible for the hallmarks of humanity, from art to technology to morality. So argues evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel in Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind — a fascinating new addition to these 5 essential books on language, tracing 80,000 years of evolutionary history to explore how and why we developed a mind hard-wired for culture.

Our cultural inheritance is something we take for granted today, but its invention forever altered the course of evolution and our world. This is because knowledge could accumulate as good ideas were retained, combined, and improved upon, and others were discarded. And, being able to jump from mind to mind granted the elements of culture a pace of change that stood in relation to genetical evolution something like an animal’s behavior does to the more leisurely movement of a plant.

[…]

Having culture means we are the only species that acquires the rules of its daily living from the accumulated knowledge of our ancestors rather than from the genes they pass to us. Our cultures and not our genes supply the solutions we use to survive and prosper in the society of our birth; they provide the instructions for what we eat, how we live, the gods we believe in, the tools we make and use, the language we speak, the people we cooperate with and marry, and whom we fight or even kill in a war.”

But how did “culture” develop, exactly? Language, says Pagel, was instrumental in enabling social learning — our ability to acquire evolutionarily beneficial new behaviors by watching and imitating others, which in turn accelerated our species on a trajectory of what anthropologists call “cumulative cultural evolution,” a bustling of ideas successively building and improving on others. (How’s that for bio-anthropological evidence that everything is indeed a remix?) It enabled what Pagel calls “visual theft” — the practice of stealing the best ideas of others without having to invest the energy and time they did in developing those.

It might seem, then, that protecting our ideas would have been the best evolutionary strategy. Yet that’s not what happened — instead, we embraced this “theft,” a cornerstone of remix culture, and propelled ourselves into a collaboratively crafted future of exponential innovation. Pagel explains:

Social learning is really visual theft, and in a species that has it, it would become positively advantageous for you to hide your best ideas from others, lest they steal them. This not only would bring cumulative cultural adaptation to a halt, but our societies might have collapsed as we strained under the weight of suspicion and rancor.

So, beginning about 200,000 years ago, our fledgling species, newly equipped with the capacity for social learning had to confront two options for managing the conflicts of interest social learning would bring. One is that these new human societies could have fragmented into small family groups so that the benefits of any knowledge would flow only to one’s relatives. Had we adopted this solution we might still be living like the Neanderthals, and the world might not be so different from the way it was 40,000 years ago, when our species first entered Europe. This is because these smaller family groups would have produced fewer ideas to copy and they would have been more vulnerable to chance and bad luck.

The other option was for our species to acquire a system of cooperation that could make our knowledge available to other members of our tribe or society even though they might be people we are not closely related to — in short, to work out the rules that made it possible for us to share goods and ideas cooperatively. Taking this option would mean that a vastly greater fund of accumulated wisdom and talent would become available than any one individual or even family could ever hope to produce. That is the option we followed, and our cultural survival vehicles that we traveled around the the world in were the result.”

“Steal like an artist” might then become “Steal like an early Homo sapiens,” and, as Pagel suggests, it is precisely this “theft” that enabled the origination of art itself.

Sample Wired for Culture with Pagel’s excellent talk from TEDGlobal 2011:

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28 FEBRUARY, 2012

Vintage Posters from the Golden Age of Travel, 1910-1959

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Motoring in Germany, hunting in the USSR, beaching in Portugal, and other adventures.

Mid-century graphic design gave us such treasures as Saul Bass, the WPA, and science ads like we haven’t seen since. From the Boston Public Library’s Print Collection comes this stunning collection of vintage travel posters from the Golden Age of Travel, when railways stretched across America and Europe, swanky ocean liners brought elegance to international waters, and the roads swelled with automobiles. Armed with these vibrant visual ephemera, travel agents and ticket salesmen ushered in a new era of excitement about the adventures of travel, channeled through the language of design.

'Australia. Great Barrier Reef, Queensland,' Gert Sellheim, 1930-1939

'Orient Calls,' Mune Satomi, 1936

'Palestine Line,' T. Trepkowski, 1935

'Hunting in the USSR,' 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Italy,' Michahelles, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'La Syrie et le Liban,' Dabo, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Visit Palestine,' Franz Krausz, 1930-1939 (approximate)

'Tasmania. The anglers' paradise,' 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Come and see Netherland India,' 1910-1959 (approximate)

'No rain in Portugal but tourists pour in,' Nuno Costa, 1954)

'Cote d'Azur,' Pierre Fix-Masseau, 1988)

'Klosters. Graubnden, Schweiz,' J. C. Müller, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Japan,' Mune Satomi, 1937

'Varmland, Sweden. An unspoiled mecca for tourists,' Beckman, 1936

'Alaska via Canadian Pacific, Taku Glacier,' Greenwood, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'By train for seaside holidays! Take a Kodak,' Gert Sellheim, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Motoring in Germany,' Ludwig Hohlwein, 1910-1959 (approximate)

'Where the deer and the antelope play. National Parks,' Dorothy Waugh, 1930-1939 (approximate)

'The adventures of today are the memories of tomorrow National Parks,' Dorothy Waugh, 1930-1939 (approximate)

'Eat more fruit. Put pep in your step' (Victorian Railways) by Dibdin and Brown, 1910-1959 (approximate)

For more delicious vintage design from the Golden Age of Travel, dig into 20th Century Travel: 100 Years Of Globe-Trotting Ads.

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