29 August 2008

10 ideas that changed the course of history

What we see, and act upon, is more a product of what is inside our heads rather than what’s out there. We think we see the real world but, actually, we see what we want to see. Often, we tune out big chunks of the environment; either because we are not comfortable with it, or because we are too fixated on something else.

All through history, we have shown a reluctance to accept new ideas or adopt new lifestyles. We have tended to stay with what we are comfortable with… even if it has caused us problems, limited our growth, or invited danger. Because, we believe, changing our view of the world opens us up to uncertainty and risk.

However, all has not been lost. There have been enlightening moments – even movements – in history which have ensured that we have evolved, and progressed, as the human race.

A couple of months ago, The Observer in the UK (now part of Guardian) published a series of interviews announcing what they felt were ideas that changed the course of history. The ideas were listed as
1. Plato’s Philosophy
2. Sun-centred (Copernican) Theory of the Universe
3. Cartesian Cogito
4. Theory of Universal Gravitation
5. Adam Smith’s Laissez-Faire Economics
6. Women’s Liberation
7. Marxist Analysis of Capitalism
8. Theory of the Unconscious
9. Theory of Relativity
10. World Wide Web.

An article on these ideas titled, Blue sky thinking: 10 ideas that changed the course of history, is available online on the Guardian website and makes interesting reading.

[Citation: Blue sky thinking: 10 ideas that changed the course of history – interviews by Ally Carnwath, Lucy Halfhead and Katie Toms, The Observer, 22 June 2008, article from the Guardian website.]

27 August 2008

Minority status

The issue of ‘background books’ that Umberto Eco raises in his book Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (see my earlier post ‘Travellers’) is not confined only to those who travel outside their countries. It is, rather, a notion – a concept, a view – that governs our attitudes and behaviour towards others, other situations and other things.

It is a notion that shapes, and is shaped by, convention. It is a notion that dictates what is thought to be true – in spite of emerging evidence to the contrary. It is a notion that hinders our ability, as perfectly normal human beings, to act rationally.

History is replete with examples of such notions impeding human progress: from Galileo being condemned for championing the Copernican model of the universe (which puts the Sun at the centre and the Earth in orbit around it), to Darwin’s theory of ‘natural selection’ being interpreted as anti-Christian, to modern-day feminists being ridiculed for challenging the subordinated role of women in our societies.

In each case, our background books have been overbearing, reducing new ideas and discoveries, which spring forth every now and then, to minority status.

26 August 2008

Melbourne is UNESCO City of Literature

Well, I’ll be damned! Last week – on 20 August 2008 – Melbourne (Australia) was declared UNESCO City of Literature.

The happy news was reported in an article, Melbourne hooks the books by Jason Steger, in Australian newspaper The Age, flaunting Melbourne’s rightful place as the second UNESCO City of Literature – the first being Edinburgh (Scotland) in 2004. [UNESCO’s website hasn’t been updated with the information on Melbourne yet.]

According to The Age, “The timing could hardly have been better had it appeared in the final chapters of a best-selling thriller. Three days before the opening of the Melbourne Writers Festival, UNESCO has named Melbourne as its second City of Literature.”

The newspaper went on to state that, “[Victoria’s] Arts Minister Lynne Kosky said the decision was confirmation of the value of a lot of people who have been working in the literature industry – writers and publishers and those who support writing and publishing.”

Furthermore, reported The Age, “Ms Kosky said there were not many places internationally, and nowhere in Australia, that had a comparable space for literature and ideas. Melbourne’s status as a City of Literature would have cultural and economic benefits for Melbourne and Victoria.”

Couldn’t India’s New Delhi or Kolkata or Chennai qualify just as easily as Melbourne or Edinburgh? What qualifies a city as a UNESCO City of Literature anyway?

According to UNESCO (as indicated on its website),

“The following list of criteria and characteristics serves as a guide for cities interested in joining the network as a City of Literature:
• Quality, quantity and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses;
• Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature in primary and secondary schools as well as universities;
• Urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role;
• Experience in hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature;
• Libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centres dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination of domestic and foreign literature;
• Active effort by the publishing sector to translate literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature;
• Active involvement of media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.”

Read The Age article on Melbourne, the second UNESCO City of Literature here.

Visit the UNESCO Culture Literature page here.

[Citation: Melbourne hooks the books by Jason Steger, The Age; UNESCO City of Literature webpage.]

25 August 2008


“We (in the sense of human beings) travel and explore the world, carrying with us some ‘background books’. These need not accompany us physically; the point is that we travel with preconceived notions of the world, derived from our cultural tradition. In a curious sense we travel knowing in advance what we are on the verge of discovery, because past reading has told us what we are supposed to discover. In other words, the influence of these background books is such that, irrespective of what travellers discover and see, they will interpret and explain everything in terms of these books.”

– Umberto Eco in Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (translated by William Weaver)