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Latest Mind and Matter column in the Wall Street
Journal, on `unlearning':
For adults, one of the most important lessons to learn in life
is the necessity of unlearning. We all think that we know certain
things to be true beyond doubt, but these things often turn out to
be false and, until we unlearn them, they get in the way of new
understanding. Among the scientific certainties I have had to
unlearn: that upbringing strongly shapes your personality; that
nurture is the opposite of nature; that dietary fat causes obesity
more than dietary carbohydrate; that carbon dioxide has been the
main driver of climate change in the past.
I came across a rather good word for this kind of
unlearning-"disenthrall"-in Mark Stevenson's book "An Optimist's
Tour of the Future," published just this week. Mr. Stevenson
borrows it from Abraham Lincoln, whose 1862 message to Congress
speaks of disenthralling ourselves of "the dogmas of the quiet
past" in order to "think anew."
Mr. Stevenson's disenthrallment comes in the course of a series
of sharp and fascinating interviews with technological innovators
and scientific visionaries. This disenthralls him of the pessimism
about the future and nostalgia about the past that he barely
realized he had and whose "fingers reach deep into [his] soul." It
eventually turns him into an optimist almost as ludicrously
sanguine about the 21st century as I am: "I steadfastly refuse to
believe that human society can't grow, improve and learn; that it
can't embrace change and remake the world better."
Along the way, Mr. Stevenson is struck by other examples of how
the way he thinks and reasons is "in thrall to a world that is
passing." The first of these bad habits is linear thinking about
the future. He cures this with the help of the inventor Ray
Kurzweil, who champions transhumanism, the idea of living forever
with the help of technology.
We expect to see changes coming gradually, but because things
like computing power or the cheapness of genome sequencing change
exponentially, technologies can go from impossible to cheap quite
suddenly and with little warning. Extrapolating often fails because
of diminishing returns; it also fails because of accelerating
The second mental "reboot," which Mr. Stevenson gets from
biotech entrepreneur Juan Henriquez, is that evolution is not over.
"Attempting to hold on to something 'essentially human' by trying
to fight against something that humans do best-evolve through
culture and technology-is a contradictory and ultimately futile
course of action." Our morals change as our technologies change,
and there is not much we can do to stop it.
I would put it slightly differently: We are always on a path,
never at a turning point (every generation narcissistically thinks
it stands at a turning point in history). There simply is no ideal
human social arrangement, and there won't ever be one. For me this
has been the biggest disenthrallment of all-the growing realization
of the ever-changing, chronically dynamic nature of the world.
"Nothing endures," said Heraclitus (supposedly), "but change."
The third of Mr. Stevenson's unlearnings, helped by the "radical
innovation" strategist John Seely Brown, is to escape from top-down
thinking. "Hierarchies are on the way out; networks are on the way
Here too I am with Mr. Stevenson. I am becoming a bit obsessed
with how misleading the word capitalism is to describe what is now
happening in the free-enterprise system. Facebook is an utterly
different form of business from Andrew Carnegie's U.S. Steel, not
least in needing far less capital.
And what comes next will be even more different as people use
the Internet to share and swap, and as corporations turn themselves
into fast-changing virtual networks of temporary collaboration
rather than centrally directed executors of fixed plans in fixed
How many other false nostrums still infect my brain,
unchallenged and unexamined, to obstruct the arrival of fresh
Update: It turns out Mark Stevenson is not the
first to link Lincoln's word `disenthrall' to the idea of
unlearning. Jack Uldrich
did the same a couple of years ago. Not that either Mark or I
claimed priority for him.