If TED is about “Ideas Worth Spreading,” then the Economist’s Ideas Economy conference series is – as the title would suggest – about ideas worth monetizing. It’s the Economist, stupid! The venerable publication, a notorious late adopter, has realized that despite solid market standing it must reinvent itself to survive, both through a suite of new digital products and by branching out into the conference business. The focus on Innovation (as in “a commercialized original idea,” as the excellent moderator Vijay Vaitheeswaran defined it in his opening remarks) is a natural fit: The Economist has always stood for liberal economic policies and liberal social values – which is typically the kind of fabric that innovation thrives in.
The most recent event of the series (full disclosure: frog design was a sponsor) took place last week in New York: With the theme “Human Potential,” 250 business leaders, entrepreneurs, politicians, and academics discussed for two days how to foster and tap into the creativity and intellect of their employees, stakeholders, peers, and students. The cynic could object and ask “Do we indeed have potential?,” inferring that the term “potential” implies progress and betterment – but are we, humans, even good? And if so, can we get better?
According to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, the answer is a clear yes. He presented a “history of violence,” arguing that violence is on the decline, which, as he readily admitted, appears to be somewhat counter-intuitive, knowing that there has not been a single day without war in the history of mankind. Attribute this to a recording bias: The magnifying effect of mass media makes violence more visible than ever before. Yet, Pinker cited empirical studies showing that the amount of actions which cause physical harm has steadily decreased over the past centuries. Despite the many atrocities it saw, the 20th century was not the most violent century in terms of absolute numbers (compared to the total world population), and acts of terrorism, Pinker pointed out, can only be described as (statistically) “insignificant.” Clearly, Pinker commented, the US overreacted in response to the 9/11 attacks. Before you cheer about the rise of human enlightenment and moral reasoning, however, consider that the way violence is committed may have become more subliminal, and that, more pressingly, weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a few rogue individuals (or states) can arguably do more harm nowadays – that is, cause ‘ultimate violence’ – than ever before. Additionally, it remains difficult to project future trends based on historical data so that an overly optimistic, non-violent concept of human potential might be flawed because of a bias of retrospective. In fact, the Rational Optimist‘s great blind spot is that it cannot look into the “heart of darkness,” that it has no means to explain or forecast truly irrational behavior.
On top of that, it is, of course, particularly hard to assess the human potential when you are human. Is human potential limited to humans? Can humans really fully unleash their own potential or will it take artificial intelligence to do so? Were the attendees in New York able to realize human potential or rather its impediment? The conference, for the most part, stayed away from such provocations. Notwithstanding the occasional excursion into macro-economic or philosophical debate, most of the program was devoted to more pragmatic topics such as employee motivation, knowledge management, institutional and non-institutional learning, and creative thinking. Leer más “The Economist and the Human Potential”