James Burke says the darndest things


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BurkeAt Strata last week, science historian James Burke gave a brilliant keynote. Afterwards, we had a coffee break for members of the media, during which he expanded on some of the things he’d said on the main stage.

The topic of the Internet came up. I love the way he put this:

“I think the Internet raised the expectations of people who previously weren’t supposed to have expectations.”

On the subject of truth—a touchy subject for anyone who’s studied how often humans have revised what’s true—Burke said that in the past, there was only one truth, put there by the ruling class to ensure everyone behaved in the same way. But that’s changing. “The Internet makes all the truths available to everybody, and then we can work out what today’s truth is.” He cited the example of Galileo and the Catholic Church (“that’s Christians 2, lions 100.”)

Put another way, a single truth is a consequence of having no way to manage a diversity of opinion, which is something the Internet has given us in spades. After hearing Burke, it occurred to me that likes, retweets, and upvotes are ways of deciding what today’s truth might be.

When challenged on how a ruling elite might use the Internet to control society and do bad things, perhaps by co-opting some of these mechanisms, Burke simply smiled and said, “I believe the hacker always wins.” He also questioned what bad was: “‘Bad’ means ‘doing bad things to me.'”

At the core of much of his thinking was the switch we are making from scarcity to abundance. As a tribe, we need ways to communicate status—something that we’ve relied on throughout biological evolution. But in a world where everyone has what they need, we either get conspicuous consumption, or a shift to a culture where something else matters. One of our other keynote speakers, David McRaney, postulated that this might become another form of status: “See how well I am managing my abundance.”

Best coffee break ever.

(As a sidenote, David spent an hour or two with James and will soon publish the interview as a podcast. Both of them have fascinating, slightly subversive, minds. I can’t wait.)