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Visualizing Enlightenment-Era Social Networks

Why Mark Zuckerberg has nothing on Voltaire.

Social networking isn’t really a modern phenomenon. Long before there was Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, there was the Republic of Letters — a vast and intricate network of intellectuals, linking the finest “philosophes” of the Enlightenment across national borders and language barriers. This self-defined community of writers, scholars, philosophers and other thinkers included greats like Voltaire, Leibniz, Rousseau, Linnaeus, Franklin, Newton, Diderot and many others we’ve come to see as linchpins of cultural history.

Mapping the Republic of Letters is a fascinating project by a team of students and professors at Stanford, visualizing the famous intellectual correspondence of the Enlightenment, how they traveled, and how the network evolved over time — an inspired cross-pollination of humanitarian scholarship and computer science. (An important larger trend thoughtfully examined in this New York Times article.)

The project pulls data from the Electronic Enlightenment database, an archive of more than 55,000 letters and documents exchanged between 6,400 correspondents, and maps the geographic origin and destination of the correspondence — something we’ve come to take for granted in the age of real-time GPS tracking, but an incredibly ambitious task for 300-year-old letters.

They were able to create and to foster public opinion, critical thinking, something that was going on in one city or country would soon be known and discussed elsewhere. So there was a sort of freedom of information that was created thanks to these networks.” ~ Dan Edelstein

For more on the Republic of Letters, its cultural legacy and the networking model it provided, we highly recommend Dena Goodman’s The Republic of Letters : A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment — a book controversial for its feminist undertones but nonetheless fascinating in its bold reframing of the Enlightenment not as a set of ideas that gave rise to “masculine self-governance” but as a rhetoric that borrowed heavily from female thought.

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Denis Dutton’s Provocative Darwinian Theory of Beauty

Why the cultural conditioning of your eye has nothing on the evolutionary biology of it.

What, exactly, is beauty? This question has been occupying the minds of philosophers, anthropologists, neuroscientists, art critics and ordinary people alike for centuries of human history. And while many may subscribe to the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” theory, this, it turns out, may not be the case. Arts & Letters Daily editor and philosopher Denis Dutton counters this adage by presenting a provocative Darwinian theory of beauty in his excellent TED talk, animated by Andrew Park of The RSA — it’s the smartest thing you’ll watch this week, likely this month, and possibly this year.

Dutton argues:

I have no doubt whatsoever that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment.

Dutton debunks the commonly accepted academic explanation of beauty as something in the “culturally conditioned” eye of the beholder by demonstrating that beauty, or aesthetic appreciation, in fact travels across cultures rather easily, hinting at some deeper, universal underpinning of what we find beautiful. To explain this, Dutton reverse-engineers our present aesthetic taste by constructing a fascinating Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic expression and aesthetic taste

For us moderns, virtuoso technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies, to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance. But still, one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: The beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.

So is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No! It’s deep in our minds, it’s a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.

For a deeper dive into Dutton’s work and insights, be sure to grab his brilliant 2008 book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. The New Yorker, in reviewing the book, aptly noted that Dutton has done for art what Steven Pinker has for language, philosophy and religion in offering a compelling Darwinian explanation. Sample it with this hour-long but very much worthwhile talk by Dutton, part of the Authors @ Google series.


Seaswarm: MIT’s Fleet of Oil Spill Cleaning Robots

Geeks for the Gulf, or what paper towels have to do with nanotechnology.

The Deepwater Horizon oil spill is easily the biggest environmental disaster of our time, bespeaking not only our capacity to do harm but also our inability to intercept the very harm we’ve inflicted. Since April 20, close to 200 million barrels of crude oil gushed into the Gulf, devastating the region’s ecosystem and economy. The world’s leading scientists, engineers and innovators failed to respond efficiently, offering no fix for nearly three months. Even though the leak was finally stopped on July 15, only 3% of the spill has been removed from the ocean and the remainder poses serious ecological risks, with no viable cleanup solution to date.

Enter seaswarm — a potentially gamechanging fleet of low-cost oil absorbing robots from MIT’s SENSEable City Lab.

The small, inexpensive, self-organizing skimmer operates autonomously and rolls out over the surface of the ocean, much like a paper towel soaking up the spill. It uses a breakthrough nanotechnology developed at MIT to separate the oil from the water and process it on-site. The nanofabric can be reused, enabling a constant cleanup process as the fleet of robots communicate and propel themselves across the ocean collecting oil.

The units are powered by solar cells and use a touch of biomimicry to mimic swarm behavior via GPS, ensuring even distribution across the spill site.

According to MIT, 5000* seaswarm robots operating continuously for a month will be enough to clean up the Deepwater Horizon spill. And as far as we’re concerned, a promise of this magnitude coming from the world’s most reputable innovation hub should be sending governments and philanthropists alike running for their checkbooks to make this happen, stat.


*UPDATE: The article originally stated 500, not 5000. We’ve fixed the typo thanks to commenter Helio Centric below, who kindly (!) pointed it out.


Razzle Dazzle: The Fabrication of Fame

Parasites, heroes, and what our primal desires have to do with Frank Sinatra.

What, exactly, is fame? That’s precisely what The Museum of Moving Image explores in Razzle Dazzle — a fascinating new six-part video essay about how Hollywood has portrayed the various facets of fame, from heroism to infamy and everything in between.

This series about the individual’s primal desire to be loved and feared. To be known, period, by strangers. To be recognized and appreciated, whether for cultural importance, athletic skill, artistic excellence, or God-given natural endowments. It’s about the difference between success and celebrity, and how the two words have become interchangeable.”

The first chapter lays the groundwork for how Hollywood fits into the larger context of modern image culture, with subsequent chapters focusing on specific archetypes that dominate the media landscape — the Hero, the Parasite, the Fraud, the Maverick.

The media are the supercharged electrical currents that fame and infamy plug into.”

The series explores the craftsmanship of celebrity and the caveats of fame. (Which, as Frank Sinatra snarkily and brilliantly pointed out to young George Michael in 1990, may not be so bad after all.)

What BBC’s excellent The Century of the Self did for our understanding of consumerism, Razzle Dazzle does for our understanding of celebrity. And the parallels between the two – between what we’re conditioned to buy and what we’re conditioned to buy into – reveal remarkably similar mechanisms of manipulation.

We also highly recommend The Story of Hollywood: An Illustrated History — a lavish visual record of Hollywood’s collective rise to fame, featuring more than 800 rare vintage images from private collections and government archives. It explores the very mechanisms of glamour manufacturing and the various currencies of fame in a way that pulls you into the smoke and mirrors and arms you with powerful reality goggles, but leaves it up to you to decide whether or not to use them.



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