Cesar Hidalgo on Academia & Culture

From a conversation with Cesar Hidalgo at Edge:

At the [MIT] Media Lab, the whole goal that I see is that I have to be creative and I’m free to be creative, and I’m not constrained to a subject category. I don’t need to be creative in chemistry, or I don’t need to be creative in physics, or I don’t need to be creative in policy. It’s not about a subject category, the criticism of: well that is not, from the subject, it’s not valid. What that creates is a group of people that have interaction between artists and technologies and designers and theoreticians and thinkers, and experimentalists, which all share a pursuit of freedom and of new ideas.

I find that it’s a little bit paradoxical because this idea of pursuing creative freedom is the oldest idea in academic. The idea of an academic is someone that is doing something that nobody told him or her to do, someone that is running with his ideas and trying to make them happen. There might be people that think that those ideas are not worth even pursuing, they don’t make sense. It might be that those ideas are not going to have applications in the next 200 years. Who knows? But it’s an academic who will go away with his/her ideas, or take them where he or she wants.

I would say that this is something that nowadays is a little bit lost in academia, because there are subject categories that constrain the departments much more heavily, in many cases. The Media Lab doesn’t have that problem. The Media Lab is a bit of the solution to that. We’re going to do something that has to be cool, it has to be interesting, it has to be important, but we don’t care in which subject it fits. [my emphasis]

The last paragraph reminds me of some of the commentary that Charlie Munger has made.

On his research into culture:

One thing that I’ve become very interested in the recent years is culture. Culture is something that has always been very slippery for science simply because, first of all, there are many definitions of culture. Anthropologists, economists, they all have different definitions of culture. Artists, they talk about culture, at least in the dictionary definition, as the maximum expression, sort of as the best thing. An anthropologist would talk about the whole range of expressions, and someone in the social sciences would talk about the norms that exist in a society, as their culture.

I’m more thinking about culture in terms of the anthropological definition, of the range of expressions. Whether they are the most beautiful painting that you’ve ever seen, or whether it’s Michael Jordan doing a slam-dunk. I find all of this to be cultural expressions. I became curious about measuring culture, about which type of cultures come from which type of places. Which countries export which type of culture, and which countries import which type of culture.

. . .

This is very important. You can think that it’s important in the sense that there are articles that have been arguing that culture is the number one export of the U.S. nowadays. If you add the movie industry plus the sport industry, plus video game industry, all of these cultural industries, they actually represent a relatively important part of the economy: the creative class. That’s one thing.

Read the full conversation here.

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