Quotes of the Week

Paul Kennedy, professor of history at Yale, opens his review of Mark Mazower’s  new book, Governing the World: The History of an Idea in the Financial Times today, with the following reflection:

“When thinking about the peculiarities of our human condition and the international political order, I have often imagined that I have to describe such things to a puzzled group of visitors from another planet.

This is a rather useful exercise in itself, since it forces us to explain many phenomena, large and small, that we usually take for granted. It is fairly easy to explain to the visiting Martians why we think formal education and clean-water utilities are important, why we preserve parks in our major cities, why we take summer holidays. But when it comes to explaining and justifying our national and, especially, our international organisation of the Earth’s res publica, I begin to falter. For how is it possible to defend the curious division of 7bn human beings (all naturally equal to the outside observer) into 193 separate political units, each with a government, a flag, a national anthem and national prejudices? How to justify the sad fact that some of these states fight against each other; raise trade barriers against each other; deny access to individuals whom they call “foreigners”? Surely there is a better way of organising the world than this?”

Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education at Harvard and best known for his theory on “multiple intelligences”, writes in the New York Times on “Reinventing Ethics”:

“[human] beings and citizens in complex, modern democratic societies regularly confront situations in which traditional morality provides little if any guidance.  Moreover, tenable views of “good” and “bad” that arose in the last few centuries are being radically challenged, most notably by the societal shifts spurred by digital media. If we are to have  actions and solutions adequate to our era, we will need to create and experiment with fresh approaches to identifying the right course of action…

I call on members of a professional community to create common spaces in which they can reflect on ethical conundra of our era. For the first time in human history, it is not essential that participants occupy the same physical space. Virtual common spaces can allow all who have interest and knowledge in the area to weigh in — whether the topic is the protection of sources by journalists, the determination of which intellectual property can legitimately be downloaded and which not, whether studies of the creation of a deadly new strain of virus should be published. Indeed, in the last decade, in professions ranging from journalism and law to medicine and science, such spaces have been created and, in some case, have been ably curated.

Still, by themselves “virtual agoras” are limited; they can be hijacked, trivialized, or ignored. And so I recommend the reinvigoration of the role of “trustees” — individuals afforded the privilege of maintaining the standards of an institution or profession.”

Albert-László Barabási, director of the Center for Complex Network Research (aka BarabasiLab) at Northeastern University, and author of Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do is the latest in the EDGE Conversations on Thinking in Network Terms:

“We always lived in a connected world, except we were not so much aware of it. We were aware of it down the line, that we’re not independent from our environment, that we’re not independent of the people around us. We are not independent of the many economic and other forces. But for decades we never perceived connectedness as being quantifiable, as being something that we can describe, that we can measure, that we have ways of quantifying the process. That has changed drastically in the last decade, at many, many different levels.”

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