Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Embracing the Strangeness

I enjoy watching many of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks that are available at www.TED.com ... unfortunately, I don't always have enough free time to listen to all the good ones, particularly those longer than ten minutes or so in length. But because I was off yesterday, recovering from the frantic activity of the weekend (see yesterday's post), I had some extra time to sit on the deck and listen to this fascinating TED Talk from Maria Bezaitis - The Surprising Need for Strangeness. Here's what the summary says of the talk:

"In our digital world, social relations have become mediated by data. Without even realizing it, we’re barricading ourselves against strangeness -- people and ideas that don't fit the patterns of who we already know, what we already like and where we’ve already been. A call for technology to deliver us to what and who we need, even if it’s unfamiliar."

Ms Bezaitis, a principal engineer at Intel, begins her talk with the admonition we all heard from our parents when we were children: Don't talk to strangers. This is good advice for a child, who needs to learn that some strangers can be a threat and need to be avoided. But it's less good advice for adults, because when we don't talk to strangers, we don't learn the things from or about them that we need to know, and from which we might benefit. Ms Bezaitis calls these things strangeness, and discusses the importance of learning to embrace the strangeness as a way of cooperating and moving forward.

Having been a strange fellow for many years, I like this concept.

But in all seriousness, Ms Bezaitis has an excellent point that is reflected in what passes for socio-political intercourse* nowadays. Many of us live in our self-contained bubbles of information that reinforce our preconceived ideas and convince us that the others are not just wrong, but completely bereft of any ideas or thoughts worth paying attention to. Consider the book by conservative icon Ann Coulter - How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must) ... her thesis is that a liberal (however you define the term) has absolutely nothing worthwhile to say, and not only can be but should be ignored. 

But this is not how we move forward. This is not how we learn. We learn not by ignoring the strangeness, but by pondering it and mining it for the nuggets of worthwhile information that might lurk there. The loudest and most rigid hyperconservatives and the loudest and most strident liberals are two sides of the same coin, each living in their own informational echo chambers and failing to consider that - just possibly - the other side actually has something important (or, at least, plausible) to say.

Of course, this doesn't mean that all strangeness is created equal. There are those purveyors of strangeness whose ideas are so far beyond the pale that they deserve not just to be ignored, but to be condemned. Consider the GOP candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia who compares Planned Parenthood to the Ku Klux Klan, claiming that “Planned Parenthood has been far more lethal to black lives than the KKK ever was. And the Democrat[ic] Party and their black civil rights allies are partners in this genocide ... The Democrat[ic] Party has created an unholy alliance between certain, so-called civil rights leaders and Planned Parenthood, which has killed unborn black babies by the tens of millions.”

The problem isn't that this individuals ideas are so reprehensible, but that there are plenty of people who will take him seriously. People who embrace his strangeness without thinking for themselves about whether or not there's any sense to it.

Take a few minutes (eight of them, to be exact) and listen to Ms Bezaitis' talk about strangeness. And then remember Bilbo's First Rule: 

Never let anyone else do your thinking for you.

Because not all strangeness is created equal.

Have a good day. Embrace the strangeness, learn from it what you can, and make informed decisions. If we don't, we'll never move forward.

More thoughts coming.


* No, Mike, not that kind of intercourse ... calm down.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

An inportant idea, Bilbo! We pass up opportunities for growth by isolating ourselves from other modes of thought. This can limit ourselves beyond compare.

In Thomas Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he discussed the paradigmatic stage -- where normal science is pursued, unil the paradigm no longer works quite well. Then it becomes imperative to be receptive to new ideas.

KathyA said...

Are you saying that I have to embrace the likes of Michelle Bachmann?

Bilbo said...

Angel - thanks for the comment!

Kathy - well, perhaps "embrace" is too strong a word in this case. How about, "hold at arms length"?

Mike said...

The Republicans have taken strangeness to a new level.

And how can you mention intercourse and Ann Coulter in the same paragraph?

Bilbo said...

Mike - look at it as a form of birth control.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

Thinking of Nancy Pelosi is a form of birth control. Thinking of her in a bikini is a definite embracing of strangeness.

Kristen Drittsekkdatter said...

Don't embrace any strangeness coming out of the deep south or parts of the mountain states.