The Social Language of Ideas

On Communicating Notions of Change

Edinburgh on the hill 1... by Today is a good day, with Creative Commons licenceBig ideas are tough going. They don’t occur to most people because abstracts are often unwelcome intrusions into practical, steady lives. The best ideas tend to flow into situations where rapid change is necessary, like business or medical science. Commerce is a hotbed of new ideas because profitability is never permanent – forcing change quite simply helps a company outpace the market. And medicine, tied closely to the business of drugs, patents and health management, also has the added burden of ethical concerns. Change must happen because it ensures profitability, saves lives, improves lives. That’s enough to get a lot of people thinking. But what about social problems that don’t seem as urgent? After the age of ideologies, how can big ideas make people think again?

Despite its promise to rectify social ills, Marxism failed because it couldn’t find a suitable form of government. Karl Marx’s profound insights into political economy became ruthless dogma in the hands of state communism, a beast that he and Friedrich Engels failed to envision when describing post-revolutionary governance in their Communist Manifesto. So we have capitalism, which is less an ideology than an assumption – a belief that the market works and everything in it will find a good and proper place, as long as governments don’t overly interfere.

Morning Meeting at the Fish Market, by Lucas Jans, with Creative Commons licenceThat might sound naïve, but we should never forget that the market isn’t a thing, much less a thing manipulated by all-powerful corporations or scheming individuals. Sure, there’s manipulation, but it’s of people. The market is a self-regulating social framework – a network of people interacting with other people. Paul Seabright describes it as the meeting place of strangers in pursuit of self-interest, which is not all that different from how I described the importance of familiar strangers to communities in a recent post. And even in its most negative manifestations, this market – our mega-community – can tell us something about the social language of ideas.

In the latest issue of the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell lauds the work of Nathan Myhrvold, an ex-Microsoft executive who now owns and runs Intellectual Ventures, which claims to be “built on the belief that combining capitalism and invention will benefit the world”. The company has an intriguing way of pursuing that belief – holding what could only be called power-brainstorming sessions, gathering in staff and clearly intelligent physicists, chemists and businessmen such as Myhrovld’s former boss and fellow company investor, Bill Gates.

This, Gladwell writes, should put to rest the belief that genius is solitary, that ideas come after a great deal of hard work – ideas are out there waiting to be found. In a sense that position compliments Gladwell’s argument in the Tipping Point, where he shows how key individuals, or those he calls Connectors, can quickly spread ideas into society. Think of Nathan Myhrvold as a super-Connector and you’ll see the sort of value that he and his brainstorming friends might have.

Change my World... by carf, with Creative Commons licenceRevolutionary communism, not incidentally, worked in much the same way, spreading ideas between cells, small groups of individuals linked by cadre-Connectors into huge networks for change. So if we want to address diffuse and difficult-to-grasp social issues, movements such as the Make Poverty History campaign might not be as effective as we like.

Regardless of how many large organisations are drawn together in the name of change, ideas for alleviating poverty, or myopic perceptions of poverty, won’t be easily communicated down to the great mass of society. The social language of ideas is most effectively spoken to small, committed and connected audiences, people who might drag one or two more into a group to share their local concerns and enthusiasm for change. Imagine that multiplied a hundred or a thousand times.

But, of course, there’s a catch. Intellectual Ventures, the object of Malcolm Gladwell’s praise, doesn’t invent much at all. What it does is patent detailed ideas. That might seem all well and good for the future, but as John Gapper points out at his Financial Times blog, Gladwell ignores the significance of the ever-present link between research and development in business. Very few good ideas ever make it into production because they simply aren’t practical.

The added kick here – and again relevant to how ideas about social change are difficult to articulate – is that Intellectual Ventures is buying up other people’s patents. Gapper points to a post written by Peter Lattman last year on the Wall Street Journal Law Blog, describing how the company has targeted ‘inventions’ abroad, especially at Asian universities.

No Idea Festival, by nariposa, with Creative Commons licenceSo Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that genius isn’t solitary is holding true in a perverse way. Not only are increasingly more people being drawn into a web of single-owner ideas, but other people who might have had exactly the same ideas, perhaps even earlier, will be legally excluded from using their thoughts to “benefit the world”.

From that perspective, Intellectual Ventures seems akin to Mao Zedong’s post-revolutionary communist party, grabbing at ideas laid out by Marx and Vladimir Lenin, forcing them into trite, self-reinforcing idioms, stifling social development. Until, that is, other people came along with better and more socially engaged ideas. So the problem is not how we create ideas, but how we develop them, how we learn to speak of their relevance to the world, how we shape them into true agents of change.

And we’ve still have a lot of careful talking to do.

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