Year-End Top-Ten List, 2003

My friends and I always used to do year-end top-ten lists of our favorite records of the year. Thinking back through 2003, I decided to archive my favorite ideas of the year. Not that I was let down by music this year, on the contrary, I heard plenty of good records in the ’03 (e.g., Aesop Rock, Kinski, Cex, Prefuse 73, Radiohead, Ilya, Interpol, Mogwai, Tomahawk, Deadsy, Why?, The Blood Brothers, The Mars Volta, Atmosphere, The Roots, etc.), but I thought this would be more interesting.

Ideas that kept my mind moving in 2003 (in no particular order):

1. Douglas Hofstadter’s concept of analogy as the core of cognition:
Why does the trip home always seem shorter than the journey there? Why does time seem to pass faster as we get older? Douglas Hofstadter tackles these questions and many others with grace and humor. His idea is that analogy-making is not a product of human reasoning, but rather the very core of it.

2. Brian Massumi’s pondering of the habits of matter:
We’ve all walked or driven somewhere, gotten there without incident, and then were unable to remember exactly how we did it (e.g., “Did I stop at that last stop sign?”). Brian Massumi uses the example of walking to his office, cross breeds this “autopilot” idea with Per Bak’s concept of self-organized criticality (i.e., if you pile up grains of sand, they will eventually come to rest in a certain configuration, a critical state that they will have reached quasi-independently), and wonders whether or not the behavior of matter could be considered habitual.

3. Jaron Lanier’s “Legacy of Bits” theory of semantics:
In a video on, Jaron Lanier recently put forth an interesting view of semantics based on Claude Shannon’s information theory (which draws heavily from the theory of thermodynamics). It involves a power law distribution of measurable bits and their contexts, with the legacy of these measurable bits being what we normally think of as semantics.

4. Steven Johnson’s proposal of emergent models for media content:
In his book Emergence, Steven Johnson uproots the free-content-with-advertising model of mass media and proposes an opt-in, information-exchange model. Using the example of Amazon’s email alerts regarding new books of interest (based on individual purchase histories), Steven envisions a world of media without ads on every available space, but rather a more open exchange of information between companies and consumers. No more blanket advertising aimed scattershot at everyone. The only ads you see are the ones based on your interests. It’s not a flawless model (there are obvious privacy issues), but it’s better than what we have.

5. James Howard Kunstler and the new “public” space:
This one is as agitating as it is intellectually stimulating, but as Brian Eno says, “History is changed by people who get pissed off.” In an interview with Mark Hurst in his Good Experience newsletter, Jim Kunstler explains the success of Starbucks this way: “Starbucks provides something very simple, in short supply: agreeable public space. They provide a nice place for you to hang out, and you pay an excessive to ridiculously high price for their coffee product, for occupying space in their business. You pay $3.50 for their stupid coffee concoction, but you stay at their table for an hour and a half. There are so few places that Americans can go, especially real public space, not a mall, so little real public space, that if you put in this artificial substitute, it’s wildly successful. Starbucks is selling a public gathering place. Coffee is the enabling mechanism.”

6. Howard Bloom’s conception of transubstantiation:
In his “Jack the Pelican presents” lecture (his first public appearance in fifteen years), Howard Bloom explains transubstantiation (i.e., things moving between the spiritual realm and the material world) in a most cogent and elegant manner. He explains a dream invention that he’s had since he was a boy and how a computer company has set out to make it, saying that one of his lifelong dreams will be a reality by next spring (the spiritual to the material). Also, he mentions the fact that our brains are different when different inventions exist. That is, we have different thoughts and dreams after certain ideas and innovations exist in our world (the material to the spiritual).

7. Kenneth Burke’s designation of literature as “equipment for living”:
Richard Rorty explains this idea best in his essay “The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture.” In short, it’s the idea that, as Rorty puts it, “As Harold Bloom [not to be confused with the aforementioned Howard Bloom] has recently reminded us, the point of reading a great many books is to become aware of a great number of alternative purposes, and the point of that is to become an autonomous self. Autonomy, in this un-Kantian and distinctively Bloomian sense, is pretty much the same thing as Heideggerian authenticity.” All waxing philosophic aside, reading books is just plain good for you.

8. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis:
The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states quite simply that language does not describe reality; it creates it. Rorty (again) extends this idea saying that we should do our best to use language to create the world that we want to live in. This is, as a matter of course, easier said than said.

9. The Strength of Weak Ties:
In 1973, Mark Granovetter published an article that illuminated the importance of acquaintances (vs. that of close friendships). The loose connections one has (i.e., weak ties) tend to be much more fruitful for information exchange than those of closer connections. Your close friends probably have about the same information that you have, but your more-distant acquaintances are more likely to have something different for you. And, as Jay Ogilvy says, “If it’s not different, it’s not information.”

10. The Physical Symbol Systems Hypothesis:
Once upon a time, Herbert Simon and Alan Newell proposed a computational model of human cognition. It basically stated that cognitively, we’re not much more than symbol manipulators. I’m not much for the basic premise, but I do like thinking of this idea in conjunction with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, Granovetter’s weak ties, and Kate Hayles’ ideas about the materiality of language. Where does the code end and the “real world” begin?

Fun stuff to ponder.

Granovetter, M. (1973). “The Strength of Weak Ties.” American Journal of Sociology, 78, 1360-1380.
Hofstadter, D. R. (2000). Analogy as the core of cognition. In J. Gleick (Ed.), The Best American Science Writing 2000 (pp. 116-144). New York: Harper Collins.
Hurst, M. (May 22, 2003). Interview: James Howard Kunstler. Retrieved from Good Experience.
Lanier, J. (July 27, 2001). A Day in the Country. Retrieved from Edge.
Massumi, B. (2002). Parables for the virtual: Movement, affect, sensation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Newell, A., & Simon, H. A. (1963). Human problem solving. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Rorty, R. (November 2, 2000). The Decline of Redemptive Truth and the Rise of a Literary Culture. Retrieved from Richard Rorty’s Homepage.

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