Tag Archives: Burt

Ideas and Intellectuals

Not long ago, seated for lunch in a meeting of academics, I participated in a discussion about the future of the university. The subject of what it takes to be an intellectual came up. Imagine my surprise when one of the scholars at the table contended that academics were the only people who could lay claim to that title. Having spent twenty years of my life at the Office of Technology Assessment, engaging in what I had always thought to be intellectual pursuits, I was truly taken aback! I asked, But what about Erasmus? What about experiential learning? My colleague looked at me, somewhat disdainfully, from across the table, a wry smile on his face. And I experienced what I imagined Arnold Toynbee might have felt, in the face of his critics.

I asked: But what about Erasmus? What about experiential learning? My colleague looked at me, somewhat disdainfully, from across the table, a wry smile on his face.

Ironically, many of today’s scholars are seeking to flesh out a number of theoretical propositions by conducting empirical experiments that are aimed to provide them a better grasp of what constitutes experience, and how it affects not only behavior, but also their own, specific realms of inquiry. In my previous blog, I mentioned the work of Joshua Epstein, who uses computational technologies to model artificial communities. Equally relevant, especially in the context of the recent discussion of the nature of cooperation, is the volume, edited by Herbert Gintis, Samuel Bowles, Robert T. Boyd, and Ernst Fehr, entitled Moral Sentiments and Material Interests: The Foundation of Cooperation in Everyday Life (MIT, 2005). Going somewhat further than Brian Skyrms’ narrative in The Stag Hunt, the editors, together with a diverse collection of authors, claim that the inclination to cooperate, and to act equitably, is inherent in mankind, and reinforced through the evolutionary process. Their arguments are based not only on the logic of game theory; as well, they build on a variety of human-based experiments. In another mode, Martin Nowak, Professor of Biology and Mathematics at Harvard University, has used mathematical models to formally account for cooperative behavior, using an array of cases that rival Toynbee’s history, ranging, for example, from a study of cancer cells to more generalized types of human behavior. Beautifully written, so as to be accessible to the lay reader, Nowak’s book, Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life is an absolute tour de force. Most appealing to me, as a professor in the Communication, Culture and Technology Program, obsessed by networks in whatever their form, is the author’s claim that the thing that evolves in any networked organism or organizational entity is information itself.

Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (2005)

Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (2005)

So I ask myself, do ideas and intellectuals evolve in much the same way that cooperation and language do? Are they the result of interactions? Ron Burt, who I mentioned in an earlier post, would — I believe –respond affirmatively to such a claim. In his recent book, Brokerage and Closure (2005), Burt talks about what is it that characterizes good ideas. According to Burt, people are likely to have good ideas to the extent that they reach out and engage in multiple directions, thereby incorporating a variety of new — and as importantly — diverse perspectives. In contrast, according to Burt, people who limit their conversations to the narrow set of members in their own group, or — as I might add, to their own disciplines — are unlikely to go very far. In Burt’s characterization, they might as well be in an echo chamber, where ideas are endlessly recycled. Under these circumstances — that is to say, when surrounded by poor ideas — few intellectuals can survive.

As Burt suggests, the answer has to do with crossing boundaries — organizational as well as disciplinary.

According to my understanding, the goal of universities, as well as intellectuals, is to generate good ideas. Doing this will require taking on new challenges, some of which — compared to our traditional way of doing things — may appear risky. The question is how do we break out of our traditional ways of doing things without sacrificing that which is best about them? As Burt suggests, the answer has to do with crossing boundaries — organizational as well as disciplinary. As a recent convert to blogging, I would suggest that this is a good place to start.

It’s Raining, It’s Pouring

Last night there were no frogs. It was raining. I lay awake listening to the sounds of rain on the roof, more like the monotone tap, tap, tap of a snare drum rather than the plucking of a cello string. As the rain’s intensity increased, the individual taps appeared to merge together — or should I say emerge, in somewhat of a phase transition — culminating in the thunderous boom of the kettle drum and the clashing clang of the cymbal, just as the lightning struck. Wide awake and idling the early morning hours away, I began wondering: Are the heavens a complex, networked system, and — if so — what constitutes its parts? How do they communicate with one another? What type of signals do they use? How does change in the weather system come about? There was no possibility of falling asleep after that! Too many books, too many theories, too many questions, I thought.

In the morning it was still raining. Based on nature’s signals, many of which I had noted yesterday, I might have anticipated that this would be the case. As I learned from my husband Brock, a seasoned environmentalist, if you want to know how the weather will unfold, pay attention, as other species do, to a number of signals. Specifically, when at our cottage at the Lake, you might look for a shift in the ambience of the air — in particular, sudden changes in the temperature, the direction of the breeze, as well as the level of humidity. For example, a sudden drop in the air temperature, accompanied by a rising breeze from the west, indicates that a cool front, most likely preceded by a storm, is on its way. However, while this information is helpful for planning a daily itinerary, it does not explain how nature and its subsidiary parts — a complex system — know when and how to react. For sure, this is a subject of future inquiry.

On a more personal level, I might also note how we adapt to changes in the weather here in the relatively isolated woods at Lake Hawthorne. For children, this is never a problem. They simply change their venue of play. For example, as children, we took advantage of the rain, especially during the hurricane season in 1954, to create an entire waterway in our back yard, with an elaborate bridge and canal system that extended more than fifty yards. Then, we would build little boats and watch them float from one end of the tributary to the other. Today, as adults, we often “hole up,” and take a “rain sleep,” much like the man “who went to bed with a cold in his head and didn’t get up ’till morning.” There being little chance of sleep this morning, however, my husband and I decided instead to snuggle under our comforter, and spend the day listening to The Learning Company’s tapes on the History of Rome.

700 Augustus Denarius Reverse. Roman SoldiersCall it serendipity, but I am struck at how, given my growing interest in social structure and complexity, everything that I attend to now appears to be on this subject. Consider, for example, the Learning Company lecture we heard describing the unique nature of the rise of the Roman Republic. The lecturer, Professor Garrett G. Fagan, from Pennsylvania State University, identified the way in which the Roman Republic employed a network strategy to consolidate its confederation. According to Fagan, the Romans sent many of their centurions, together with citizens of varying statuses, to strategic places throughout the peninsula, which served as intelligence nodes in an every growing and, more complex, network of governance structures. As the professor notes, this unique, networked organizational structure constituted a successful innovative strategy that allowed the Romans not only to effectively adapt to their changing environment but also to undergo their own phase transition with the evolution and establishment of an even more complex set of arrangements — the Roman Empire. Equally exciting to me, this strategy was totally in keeping with the advice of Ron Burt, one of today’s leading management experts, and author of Brokerage and Closure (2005). Burt advises businesses to do just as the Romans did: Establish links across major holes in the social structure in order to maximize innovation and control information flows.

At four o’clock in the afternoon, just as the tapes were about to end, the rain stopped. Suddenly there was silence: No frogs plinking, no birds chirping, no dogs barking, no children laughing. A momentary relief from “thinking thoroughly.” I grasped the opportunity, and fell asleep.