Cultural Factors in the Hunt for Genius

12 Oct

Here’s the main point of my previous post on The MacArthur Fellows Program: It is strongly biased by the social network in which it is situated. The simplest thing it can do to blunt that bias and thereby name more interesting and challenging classes of fellows is to stop giving awards to people on staff at elite institutions. Those institutions are too deeply rooted in the past to serve the future well.

First, while the search for genius, as conducted by the MacArthur Fellows Program for example, is conceptualized as a search for attributes of individuals, even an essence, that’s not how it works out in fact and in our world. If our world were culturally uniform and static, then, yes, the search for genius might properly be conceptualized as a search for essence. But that’s only because every individual would be surrounded by the same culture and thus the possibilities for a ‘fit’ between individual capabilities and accomplishments would be the same for all.

But that’s not the world we live in. In the first place, it is not culturally uniform. Culture varies by class, geographical region, and by ethnicity and religion. In such a world a search for genius will almost inevitably be biased by the interests and understanding for those conducting the search. In such a world the ONLY way to escape bias is to recognize the problem and take explicit steps to correct for it.

Just what those steps would be, I don’t know. Two obvious suggestions: 1) Make sure the selection process includes people from all sectors of society. 2) Conceive each class of awardees as a sampling of the cultural space.

And in the second place, our world is not culturally static. It’s changing rapidly for various reasons. Globalization is driving workforce changes that affect educational requirements and skillset distribution and needs. Computer technology has changed the media world and is itself making many jobs obsolete while creating new classes of jobs. Ideas in every sphere are changing and new expressive forms are emerging in the arts. And globalization is moving large numbers of people from one country to another.

In that kind of situation, which is the situation we face, it is all but impossible to have an unbiased genius hunt. I argued in my prervious post on the MacArthur Fellows Program, that their search is in fact very biased and that that bias is evident in the number of fellows who are on staff at elite educational and research institutions. While those institutions are pumping out some of the ideas and technology that’s driving change, they are themselves conservative. How could these conservative institutions thus be a force for change?

That’s a very interesting question. For one thing, much of the change takes place outside those institutions. The colleges and universities train people who then go out into the world and do all sorts of things. Some of the best and brightest leave before graduation (e.g. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerman). And the ideas of course do not stay within those institutions. They too go out into the world where people who aren’t so conservative take them up.

We’ve got to consider the fact that the young people who enter these institutions for education are not yet mature. The radical innovator of 22 or 26 or 31 is just a bright quirky kid at 17. Not all bright quirky 17-year olds mature into intellectual or artistic rebels. And some of those rebels might actually get jobs in one of those institutions and so be in a position to be discovered by the MacArthur talent safari.

So, things aren’t at all simple in this world of ours.

But not all the creative rebels make it into one of these elite schools. Take my friend Zeal. When he graduated from high school he opened a men’s haberdashery. At some point he went into the army, came out, and continued on in retail. From there he spent time traveling world doing barter deals. But for the last 15 years or so he’s been pursuing his vision of World Island, a world resource center and “a permanent world’s fair for a world that’s permanently fair”, as he likes to say.

There’s no quick and easy way to sum up that vision. Think of it as a combination of the best features of the United Nations, Disney World, a kid’s rumpus room, the trading floor at the Chicago Board of Trade, Dick Macksey’s library, and the Japanese exhibit at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. While Zeal has imagined siting World Island at various places, the most extensive plans were made for Governors Island in New York Harbor (a précis is available HERE). A couple years ago he spent a month in Sierra Leone to see whether or not World Island could be sited there. He’s now got a team in Greece that’s interested in the project.

In the course of this work Zeal has put together an extensive network of people, some closely involved with the project, but most only loosely and tangentially involved. Aside from Zeal himself, how many MacArthur caliber people are in that network and how many of them are on staff at the institutions favored by the MacArthur genius hunters? Having been closely involved with the World Island project for a half dozen years I’d guess that between ten and a hundred people in the World Island network are of MacArthur quality, but many or most of those will not be in MacArthur-favored institutions.

The MacArthur Fellows program is strongly biased by the cultural commitments of the social network in which it is situated. Any such program is going to be culturally biased. Why not bias it toward the future?

Remember, when the dinosaurs ruled the earth mammals were pitiful little creatures who had to live off their leavings. Sixty-five million years ago an asteroid struck the earth, changing living conditions worldwide. The dinosaurs died out and the mammals came to thrive.

Is the current regime of world-wide cultural ferment the social analog to that asteroid of old?


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