Michael Knaapen

21 Big Ideas of the 21st Century, Volume 2

Filed By Michael Knaapen | October 07, 2013 10:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Apple, big ideas, Jon Stewart, Lawrence Lessig, music, Rachel Maddow, Stephen Colbert

Several weeks ago, I began a series of 21 great thinkers or ideas of the 21st Century to counteract the frequent and ill-founded charges that we live in the worst days of human civilization. This article continues that series with seven unique innovations in music, media, and the mind.

What big ideas have you come across lately, and does it make you more optimistic or pessimistic about the future? Do you agree with the pessimists and cynics and think the end is nigh, or are you more optimistic and see this is just the beginning - and why?

8.) DIY Music

Zoe Keating is a techno-classical musician with a cello and a laptop and badass hair who has dazzled audiences with her one-woman symphonies since 2003. Not only is the sound unique and the instrumentation innovative, but so are the means she uses to record, market, and transmit her music.

Keating is not signed to any record label, and yet her do-it-yourself approach has allowed her to earn a steady income and make a name for herself -- she has performed for a number of commercials and film soundtracks in addition to her records and live recitals. Keating's artistry and entrepreneurship both speak to a deep-seated urge to harmonize the new and the old, to balance authenticity with media, innovation and tradition.

She is not alone in this. While we are hardwired to distill the essence of something to its most authentic core (see Volume 1 about Paul Bloom and essentialism), we are also constantly developing technology and ways to use technology that enhance, build, and support communities (think of Etsy, Livingsocial, and, yes, even internet dating sites).

Perhaps not the first or only, Keating is nonetheless a standard-bearer of the buy/do/live local music industry (read her Labor Day op-ed in the Los Angeles Times to get the gist of this in her own words).

Movement leader, musician, DIY-er -- Zoe Keating is an example of how we can connect meaningfully and authentically in an ever more mediated world. Did I mention her music is amazing? Check out this clip of her performing "Escape Artist," one of her jazziest pieces. (Note: I do realize how tacky it looks to post this YouTube clip while she inveighs against it, but I can only hope you will be persuaded by her music and her message to do the right thing).

9.) Drift

drift_maddow.jpgRachel Maddow, the beloved liberal MSNBC commentator, is among the most erudite of TV personalities. Holding a doctorate in political science from Oxford, Maddow excels at explicating the "art of the possible," culling out the truly newsworthy from the monotonous hyperbole of the 24-hour news cycle. She possesses an almost superhuman ability to connect the seemingly disconnected happenings of world affairs into cohesive and soluble phenomena.

Maddow's greatest triumph on this front is the assertion she makes in her 2012 book, Drift, in which she argues that America has come to peace with perpetual war, and that little by little, through an all-too-human mix of malice and avarice and indifference, we have become a nation anesthetized to the violence we participate in throughout the world. We do this, she suggests, in a number of ways, not least of which is warring so constantly that we are never aware of the absence of soldiers from citizen life (one of the primary goals of the guard and reserve: to remind us that we are at war when our neighbors and coworkers are not among us).

When these soldiers are absent more than they are present, we are immunized from the hardship their absence should create. With an endless supply of what now passes for reasons to wage war, the United States needs Maddow's insight not just as historical analysis but as a warning, lest we continue or, worse, sink deeper into a rut of perpetual war. For this and many other insights, and for her exemplary journalistic integrity, Rachel Maddow reminds us that there is still some good left in the news.

The list continues after the jump.

10.) Government Reform

If you're thinking, "Government reform -- how is that new?" then you're probably not familiar with Lawrence Lessig. No one articulates the impossibly bad situation of America's democracy today with the clarity and accuracy of Lawrence Lessig. Neither can anyone rival his passion and leadership for reform, his hopefulness in the face of odds-on adversity.

Lessig is tireless in his attacks against the status quo of money over democracy. He cites the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case which reads in part, "The fact that a corporation, or any other speaker, is willing to spend money to try to persuade voters presupposes that the people have the ultimate influence over elected officials." (And yes, a Supreme Court decision can be that obtuse). Lessig agrees, but points out that while the ultimate say may go to the people, they are selecting an apple from a bushel picked by oligarchs.

His presentation style is titillating, with visual aids that keep pace with his every word like some kind of sentient interpreter rather than a slide show. Watch Lessig in a recent Ted Talk arguing for laws to restore the Congress to the people:

11.) Apple

Apple has planted a germ of change into nearly every industry on the planet with technology that, only a few short decades ago, was relegated to the daydreams of science fiction fans. The luxury of state-of-the-art hardware, sleek designs, and total convenience have changed the way we live our lives at almost every level, from how and when and where we listen to our music, to how and when and where we shop! In turn, Apple has affected how we are sold things and how music is presented to us. Thanks to the iPhone alone, you can order pizza, call to invite a friend over, and then watch a movie together all on the same device.

Apple's great success rests mostly on the Willy Wonka-esque Steve Jobs, the genius and entrepreneur with eyebrow-raising interpersonal skills and relentless drive who died in 2011. For a sample of the genius of Apple and its late, great leader, watch the unveiling of their most beloved product in a presentation famous in technology and business circles alike as one of the most brilliant sales demos of all time.

12.) Silver Screen

Cinema was born in the 20th Century but came into its own in the 21st. There have been many so-called "golden ages" of cinema before, but not since recent years have films been able to produce such believable, cohesive, and inspiring experiences.

Filmmakers like Steven Spielberg have brought the past to life in ways never before possible in films like Lincoln. James Cameron, among others, has created whole new worlds in films like Avatar. Innovative technology like MASSIVE, first deployed in Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, allow filmmakers to populate their imaginary worlds with roiling crowds. And bigger isn't always better; Notes On a Scandal, the 2006 psychological thriller, derives its Hitchcock-esque fear factor from spartan scenes, invasive camera angles, and freedom to let two acting titans, Judy Dench and Cate Blanchett, go at it.

Some naysayers point to declining attendance at cinemas and other financial factors in lamenting the imminent death of the art, but I say film is thriving! Gravity -- the Poseidon Adventure meets Apollo 13 -- opened last week to critical and audience acclaim for its balance of far-out special effects and intense focus on flesh-and-blood actors. Thanks to the high caliber of film created in this young century, I am confident this beloved American art will thrive for many, many years to come.

13.) Something Informative: A Comedy Tonight

The touchstone of the current media revolution -- a revolution against the 24/7 news cycle -- is trust. Who can you trust to tell you what's happening in the world?

People have generally split into two camps on this. The first camp seeks ideologically pure, politically vetted "news" produced to reinforce preexisting beliefs, a banquet of confirmation bias. The second seeks humor. A popular Facebook meme accurately claims, "I get my news from Comedy Central and my comedy from Fox News." The hilarious antics of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are more palatable, trustworthy, and humane than their competition in the "legitimate" news media.

But this trend may be more than a mere happenstance of virtuosic performances by Stewart and Colbert and others of their ilk. Perhaps the efforts of such partisan enterprises as Fox News -- whose "fair and balanced" motto could not be further from the truth -- have backfired and, rather than persuade audiences to drink the Kool-Aid, have driven an already cynical public into the arms of a new brand of newspeople. In the last century, the Walter Cronkite mold prevailed, and, in some cases, still stands as a testament to journalistic integrity. But perhaps, today's cynic wonders, that mold is no mold at all; maybe Uncle Walt was just Uncle Walt, a one-off man of peerless character, and maybe that's only one way to tell the story.

Seeing how easily the mold can be broken by unscrupulous moneyed interests capitalizing on people's fear, the cynic turns to likeminded folks: people of intelligence with a tendency to be skeptical and to laugh rather than cry at the pitiable state of things. This unique escapism-as-realism technique -- perhaps the same old "art imitating life" trope, but with a new infusion of self-awareness -- appeals to wide audiences and stakes out a new frontier in journalism, a place where we get facts and laughs without the crap. Not persuaded? Here are some totally random highlights of Jon Stewart:

14.) Monkey Do, Monkey Thinks He Does, Too

Mirror neurons were discovered by accident at the end of the last century, but our understanding of their relevance in our lives has only recently been fully appreciated.

In the late 1980s, scientists were mapping brain areas in monkeys, figuring out which neurons matched which functions. They discovered that a few neurons would fire when monkeys grabbed peanuts set out by scientists. With the monitors still running, a scientist grabbed a peanut and noticed that the same neurons fired in the monkey's brain. Scientists slowly but surely developed this theory of "action understanding" to explain the phenomenon: the same brain area responsible for an action is also responsible for understanding the action in the sense that it activates whether the monkey performs the action itself or sees another monkey perform it.

Years later, they discovered a similar but more complex system of mirror neurons in humans. The most significant research with humans involved facial expressions and fMRI. Using brain scanners, researchers discovered that complex brain activity patterns were involved in both the active imitation and passive viewing of emotional facial expressions. Mirror neurons, many scientists believe, may provide a physiological basis for empathy and may explain what makes humans so unique and so social. The science behind mirror neurons could affect politics, the arts, business, or medicine.

This short video from Nova on PBS provides a basic explanation and possible explanations of the origins of mirror neurons. Watch:

There you have it: round two of great ideas of the 21st Century! So the next time you're tempted to expound on the terrible times in which we live, whine about kids today, ask "What is the world coming to?", consider smiling at a stranger instead. When they smile back, remember that you are hardwired to make a difference in other people's lives. What kind of difference is entirely up to you.

Or take out your iPhone and play Angry Birds, but in any case, quit complaining.


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