[#14] Kindred Spirits: Meeting Carl Pabo
By Piet Hut
This weekend I flew out to San Francisco, to meet Carl Pabo. We have only met a few times since we first met 12 years ago, but we are clearly kindred spirits. We both want to radically change the way our society deals with knowledge, and after a few decades of exploration, we each are in the process of building up an organization that aims at doing just that. The difference is that Carl, after 15 years of preparation, is now ready to spring into action, whereas I still feel a need for more reflection on the main reasons for the current atmosphere of inaction, in the light of the glaring problems that are facing us and our world.
How to make the world a better place? This is the question that drives both of us. Carl's approach has been to give up his tenured professorship at MIT, and to spend a decade writing a book, Thought++: Plans for a Human Future in which he analyzes the state of the world and the main pathways, as he sees them, to improve the conditions under which we live. Starting next year, he will open a new institute, the Better World Institute for Thought & Policy, to explore and apply his main ideas.
My approach has also been to write a few book manuscripts and publish various articles, and most recently, these blog posts. At some point, still not fully ready to publish my books, I decided that, together with friends and colleagues, opening a new institute might be more effective than only publishing books, and this led to the birth of YHouse. While ultimately YHouse is also aimed at providing real insight and advice for action, our main goal is to reach a much better understanding of the mindset that is currently preventing action. The many obstacles in the world around us that lead to inaction, and continuation of the status quo, are rooted in a mindset that fails to recognize the urgency of the problems facing us today, from social-economic ones to the ongoing destruction of our environment.
Carl and I talked about a thought experiment. If we could use a time machine to teleport *any* thoughtful person from the past, say from more than a century ago, to the present, that person would be stunned, in two very different ways. First, he or she would be totally amazed at seeing how we now have the ability to cure many diseases, to feed the poor, to abolish hunger, and to let machines do much of our hard labor. Our power would seem magical, almost god-like. But second, that person would be even more astonished upon the realization that we are not making serious use of that ability -- that we are still engaging in ever more destructive wars, and that a large fraction of the population does not have access to our miraculous powers that can so easily be used for the benefit of all humankind.
What is the solution? Given that we have the knowledge to prevent hunger, disease, natural disasters, and war, what prevents us from integrating our knowledge to come up with workable solutions? I mentioned that a core problem was a lack of trust, between people, organizations, and countries. How to create win-win situations, in which people and groups don't withdraw into defensive stances? This is one of the main topics of YHouse, in its quest to gain a deeper understanding of awareness.
We talked about universities, as our foremost centers of learning. They would seem like the first place to look for blueprints for solutions. After all, they are less bound to the next quarter's profit, the way companies are. And they are politically independent. In fact, tenured professors in principle are free to follow their own line of research, as long as there is still significant overlap with the department in which they are employed. One of the main problems, as Carl sees it, is that the current university setup is in fact actively hindering, if not sabotaging, any deep analysis of problems that cover several different disciplines. Having carved up knowledge in tiny chunks of sub-disciplines, the system is rewarding measurable excellence in each tiny field as the one currency upon which to make tenure decisions.
This lazy and safe way to measure 'excellence' makes it easy for deans and provosts to come to a consensus on who deserves promotions. To make it worse, many scientists and scholars are all too eager to keep their blinders on, under a kind of self-imposed censorship that makes them look askance at a rare colleague who doesn't buy into this game of pursuing narrow and localized excellence. And so the academic train rolls on over the tracks laid out in front of it, with little or no appreciation of all the other accomplishments that any person may have in completely different areas, far removed from his or her first area of expertise. There seems to be no room at all for embracing as a whole the truly complex questions facing us now.
So what is the solution? Is there one? Carl and I are betting on the establishment of small centers of learning of a completely different plumage. In the same way that in business startups can be far more lean and agile than big established companies, we want to provide alternatives to the established categories of universities and research centers and think tanks. In the case of YHouse, we already have more than a year of experience in highly successful outreach programs, combining original high-level academic research with broadly popular presentations and dialogues, a mix to which we are planning to add activities related to art, design, and technology as well. In Carl's case, his Better World Institute for Thought & Policy will start up early next year in Boston, and I'm very much looking forward to seeing what shape it will take. Stay tuned!
Piet Hut is President of YHouse, Professor of Astrophysics and Head of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and one of the founders of YHouse.