On revolutionary ideas

Revolutionary ideas always are masked as a return to older ideas or appeal to common sense only because they can’t be expressed without the intellectual groundwork that makes them seem inevitable once fully comprehended.

This is because teaching (as opposed to more concrete forms of communication) is a kind of augmented independent discovery. If someone can be told something & understand it, it was trivial. For serious ideas, the learner redisovers them.

The role of the teacher is to create an artificial mental/rhetorical environment where the rediscovery of the principle is much more likely, and repeatedly lead the horse to water — because non-trivial ideas cannot be unambiguously expressed.

This means that, in a very real way, to become popular, revolutionary ideas can no longer be revolutionary: the prerequisites for finding them obvious must be floating around in the environment.

Someone with a mental one wit landscape that diverges sufficiently from the monoculture will have unique insights simply because they are building on combinations of ideas unavailable to their peers.

We call these people geniuses, but their genius can be engineered through cosmopolitanism.

The common pattern that they aren’t appreciated in their own time is not because of some scientific telos but because geniuses are by definition out of step with their environment, and we can often find figures that are in step with ours.

(In other words, not only are geniuses not appreciated in their own time, but it’s exceedingly unlikely for them ever to be appreciated, unless the future mainstream happens to coincide with their own mental landscape enough for them to be understood)

One way to counteract this: if you have an idea, make it possible to explain the foundations of the idea in as accessible a way as possible.

You still run into the Periodic Table problem where cultural bigotry discourages people who could understand from bothering — because your references and foundations are part of the outgroup’s signals and thus it mustn’t be admitted that they have value.

Written by

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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