Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lincoln's iPad

After spending a good part of the weekend at home, riveted to the television, as change in Egypt unfolds; and in constant contact with friends spread around the world without leaving the comfort of our couch thanks to the portability of an iPad, I felt as if there were no boundaries on where I could go, and what I could find, if the fancy so took me. What a great gift to be living in the 21st century, where such technological marvels bring the world into your immediate reach, no matter where you are -- or maybe not? What about the large majority of our fellow passengers on this planet who have no access to such devices, or even to internet "connectivity", and the liberalizing worldview that they enable? My colleague, and very good friend, Jean-Pierre Lehman, has just written about the orphans of globalization and the turmoil that seethes within those who feel left out. Where do you get your ideas from, if the boundaries on your imagination are close-up and rigid? How do you broaden your intellectual bandwidth in the face of such obstacles?

Both of my parents grew-up in circumstances which limited their formal educations to primary school. Yet, they were beneficiaries of living in New York City at a time when it was indisputably the cosmopolitan crossroads of the world; it was hard not to have your bandwidth widened, even if you didn't try. But, try they did: they were curious, ambitious, and they read constantly. Even without iPads, they were reasonably "well-informed." Our single-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn was strewn with magazines [Life, Saturday Evening Post, Reader's Digest, The National Geographic, even our next door neighbors' discarded Paris Match], encyclopedia's [The World Book], and compendiums of all sorts: van Loon's The Arts, J.R. Crossland's Modern [1938!] Marvels Encyclopedia, etc. We watched Omnibus and such iconoclastic giants as: Edward R. Murrow, Sid Caesar, and Steve Allen on television; all of which served admirably as "portals" to the outside world. On rainy weekends, my friends and I would play a board-game that took us around the world [similar to Around the World] in search of trade and adventure. In much the same spirit as John Markoff has written in What the Dormouse Said of how the counterculture of the sixties influenced the Silicon Valley generation who created the internet world, these varied sources were the iPads of my youth, that enlarged my sense of the world around us, and prepared us for an increasingly global future.

This morning, in The New York Times, Ted Widmer writes about Abraham Lincoln's stepmother [Sarah Bush Lincoln] and how she changed the future president's life by opening portals to the world outside for him. Joining the family when Lincoln was only nine years old, she brought with her a small collection of books --despite the fact that she, herself, was illiterate -- that would change Lincoln's life: Aesop's Fables, Robinson Crusoe, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and Sinbad the Sailor. Modest as this collection was, Widmer refers to it as "the iPads of the day," and that, as a result of being exposed to them, Sarah Bush was able to observe some years later that: "[the young Lincoln] cared little for clothes or food, but a great deal for ideas."

In my preoccupation with Idea Hunting, I could not fail to notice several things from these musings: 1. place matters! The world is not flat! My parents, and I, benefitted from living in New York City; other people are not as fortunate and their "portals" are not as available; 2. "Portals" are extremely important: curiosity drives idea-hunting, and curiosity needs to be stimulated by exposure to the world outside -- no matter what "outside" means; 3. There are many different types of iPads. Not literally, of course, as Apple owns the trademark on the term, but figuratively, there are many different ways of opening-up the world outside. The onus is on us as parents, citizens, colleagues, and "leaders," to make sure that there are always fewer [None is preferable] and more malleable constraints on idea-hunting.

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