How People Make Ideas Powerful

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What makes an idea powerful? This was a question posed to Marxist geographer David Harvey among others at a recent panel at the London School of Economics. Before launching into the unasked question of why Marx is not covered all that much at the world’s leading schools of economics, he did give a couple of insights. The first is that powerful ideas can and perhaps should be a material force in history. Second, a powerful idea reveals something that you didn’t see before. And finally, that to effect change in the world, regardless of the idea, you also have to transform social relations. This last point is I think the most important and one that was not really discussed all that much.

I was recently trying to figure out why it was that I can’t seem to “take it easy” on a run when I’m supposed to. For some reason I always feel the need to push myself and do something better than I did on the pervious run. I need a more efficient heartrate, a better split time here or there, a better average pace, faster cadence, etc. There is always something to improve and the little Polar device on my wrist records the data I then use it to push myself. I ran tonight for the first time after a month off for the flu and to mend a painful kneecap. And rather than take it easy, I had to seek a certain level of competence.

Part of this obsession with performance is an imagined social pressure. I share my data and want other runners to see how well I think I am doing. I don’t want to appear slow or lazy. I have sort of imagined this club where I need to post certain numbers to be accepted. This is foolish since no such club exists and runners are some of the most open and accepting people I have ever met. That you are running is the thing – not the numbers you post. However, most of this drive is because I am still trying to figure out this body of mine. I was never an athlete and I am just learning about my own limits and capabilities. The numbers do give me a clue as to my relative level of competence in running. They give me a steady stream of data to tweak and improve. No matter what pace others are running, I can always improve my own. It is just me and the numbers and improving my perfomance is my prime motivation.

So what measures competence in ideas? These are trickier. In science some ideas simply work better than others. If yours happens to work the best, the designation of theory might be yours to own. There are objective measures in science to determine this, but no theory exists without a great deal of smart people to confirm them and disseminate the knowledge on behalf of the person who thought the thing up. Science progresses not just from numbers and facts, but in so far as these numbers and facts work through communities of scholars at the right time and place. Just ask Galileo or Bruno about time and place. Who you know is important.

Science and art connect in this social dimension. I have for years fancied myself something of a writer, but unlike the numbers I can improve on a run to improve my performance, art is a far less an objective sort of arena to test one’s competence. I do know many people who had a certain knack for their art who then decided to work very hard at their craft, go to school to become experts, and moved into the world to perform with other musicians and continue to work. Some have done so in the presence of the right people at the right time and have made a career of it now performing with musicians whose music they were playing in high school cover bands. Others are no less competent, but have not found that lightning in a bottle. The point is that there are songs and books sitting on hard drives all over the world that many people will never hear or read. These are pieces that may be just as good or better than the stuff that gets great commercial success. For these ideas to live on in the collective memory of society and have a powerful and lasting impact, the right people at the right time must confer some degree of approval, or those ideas will be lost.

There are two points to all of this. The first is that I am far more comfortable with numbers my body generates that I can manipulate in order to achive competence in running. Working on this with absolutely no requirement for public opinion or approval is an utter joy to me. But this is also why I am something of a coward. I abhor the thought of the public scutinizing my writing with the prospect that I do indeed stink at it after all. I don’t quite have the fortitude to work that out just now. But with that said, it is a fear that I can resolve now that I have named it. It now has an objective reality that I can investigate and change much like I will change my efforts to improve my running numbers when I hit the pavement this weekend.

The second point is that given the social nature of ideas, it is important not only to tell people when they have thought of something good, we must put them into contact with the people who can spread those ideas and enlarge them. This is not only a moral good to build the competence of the creator, but it gives all good ideas a fighting change to take on that material reality and change something in our societies and cultures for the better. The great intangible effect of a solid university education is the network of people you join who can help move your ideas to places where they will flourish. People matter to ideas and the power they can wield. Good ideas deserve to live on in our social conscience rather than gather dust on shelves and in hard drives no one will ever see.

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