Why You Need to Learn From the 18th Century

Socrates (or Sokrat in his starring movie role) challenged the conventional wisdom of his time with what we now call the Socratic method.

But asking questions and engaging his audience to answer them ultimately got him killed.

The leaders of Athens were angry because Socrates seemingly forced the questioned to follow through to a logical (or at least different) solution. These solutions often seemed so simple that they were taken as ridicule by the ruling class — or worse, as a challenge. The Socratic method proved to be a “disruption” to the Athenian way of life.

Logic and simplicity. Challenging conventional wisdom. Think about that and hold the thought.

We live in a world where this morning’s disruption quickly becomes this afternoon’s conventional wisdom, and we blindly follow the Pied Piper… not realizing the simple answer might be only a question or discussion away.

We sit in meetings wringing our hands over Amazon’s “digital disruptive power,” raising the flags of Digital First as our battle cries, while Bezos goes and opens book stores and buys Whole Foods. What are we to do?

The (un)conference movement and STREAM that grew out of it, is, in my opinion, the evolved Socratic answer.

(Full confession: WPP, the company I work for, stages STREAM with multiple sponsors and participants.) But first, back to history.

For centuries after the hemlock incident, logic and simplicity of thought leading to solutions were suppressed by those who controlled conventional wisdom… mostly religious authority, primarily the Church, and despotic rulers who took their authority from the same.

And then came the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason, centered in Europe. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, thinkers in England, France, and elsewhere pushed against authority, and towards what History.com calls, “rational change.”

Everything was questioned, and questions–passionately argued and debated–were good.

It was a time where science, philosophy, literature, religion and even politics collided as part and parcel of one big discussion on the state of humankind. The era’s open-ended conclusions still reverberate today… although I can only wonder what we might achieve if we followed those methods today… Human rights? Climate change? Open minds.

John Locke, one of the great philosophers of the time (although let’s face, it who wasn’t…at least in their own minds?) and one of my favorites put it best. As Neville Salvetti writes in The Reason for the Heresy Behind Modern Bibles:

“Locke argued that human nature was mutable and that knowledge was gained through accumulated experience rather than by accessing some sort of outside truth.”

So my bet is that Digital First would not fly for Locke… more like People First, of which a digital solution might be an outcome.

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant summed up the era’s motto in his 1784 essay “What Is Enlightenment?”: “Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!”

In other words, don’t get caught in the trap of this morning’s conventional wisdom. Or put another way, go to the Amazon bookstore, or even Warby Parker, and ask yourself what your experience was? It’s not brick-and-mortar versus digital. It’s use your own reason… you get the idea.

The beauty and lesson of it all is that there was no monolithic approach. History.com continues:

“There was no single, unified Enlightenment. Instead, it is possible to speak of the French Enlightenment, the Scottish Enlightenment and the English, German, Swiss or American Enlightenment. Individual Enlightenment thinkers often had very different approaches. Locke differed from Hume, Rousseau from Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson from Frederick the Great. Their differences and disagreements, though, emerged out of the common Enlightenment themes of rational questioning and belief in progress through dialogue.”

Different approaches, huge differences, major disagreements… but dialogue through questioning drove progress.

And in our world where the unprecedented ability to search and discover knowledge is more and more clouded by “fake news” and spurious information, it’s interesting to note that in those days some called Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary, “a chaos of clear ideas.”

And that:

“Foremost among these was the notion that everything in the universe could be rationally demystified and cataloged. The signature publication of the period was Diderot’s “Encyclopédie” (1751-77), which brought together leading authors to produce an ambitious compilation of human knowledge.”

Think about the intent of the internet, before it became a direct sales engine and a platform for annoying advertising. (Not all of the advertising is annoying…not killing my golden goose!)

And of course, as we still struggle with gender equality, and recoil in disgust at some of the revelations of the past few weeks around men of so-called power, its informative to recall the Salon Movement that sprang up during this time, where women who had been denied education (even among the upper class), brilliantly turned the tables on male dominated discussion. A student’s paper from the women’s college Mount Holyoke sums it up nicely:

“A main purpose of the salons of Paris for the salonnières during the Enlightenment was to “satisfy the self-determined educational needs of the women who started them” (Goodman, 42). For the salonnières, the salon was a socially acceptable substitute for the formal education denied to them. Most parents at this time saw no reason in educating their daughters and even if they did, there were no institutions in which to do so.”

For many, the rise of digital social networks is the current evolution—a direct line from Socrates, to the Enlightenment, to Facebook.

Frankly, little could be more wrong.

As Andrian Kreye observed in an article in The Edge article, Salon Culture: Network of Ideas:

“In Europe and America, digital media always leads to new cul-de-sacs and roundabouts of communication. Social networks claim to be not only the successors of salons, they evoke the ominous metaphysical principle of the Weltgeist (global mind), while they actually reduce the principle of intellectual eruptions in salons to a de-intellectualized white noise.”

And there you have it.

Unlike Socrates or the thinkers of the Enlightenment, we are creating and living in ever more shrinking echo chambers. Shrinking, because our ideas grow smaller and smaller.

Back in November 2013, long before we became obsessed with fake news and Russian hacking, the Harvard Business Review published Decision Making: Beyond the Echo Chamber:

“Since we’ve become so attached to social media, we are less and less required to interact with people who disagree with us. Technology allows us to reach across state lines (and even oceans) to find people who share our beliefs and values. Until social media designers can address the fact that these platforms allow the increasing polarization of users into small, tight-knit communities, stopping the proliferation of misinformation will continue to be a challenge.”

All of which brings me back to STREAM. This year, I experienced challenging, enlightening thinking with an incredibly diverse group of people, representing everything from art and science to media and content, with producers, agencies and clients from start-ups to behemoths. We included music, food, line-dancing and drones… with a few bottles of wine thrown in for good measure.

STREAM is a forum for discussion, not a presentation stage. It is an egalitarian gathering.

No talking heads making the conference rounds. No specially curated parties for the elite. No wearing of multiple credentials to show off status. No holding front row seats or special lines for the power brokers.

The rules are simple. You show up, choose a time slot on the whiteboard, and write in your topic. Your discussion space is outdoors, with a circle of chairs and hay bales. People come if they are interested in the topic and if they know you are a credible facilitator. Meals are all served family style, and you sit with whomever interests you. Title and rank are not observed.

PowerPoint is frowned upon, because STREAM is not about presentations. And if you suck the air out of conversations? It’s fairly guaranteed you won’t be invited back. Listening is as important as participating.

STREAM is alive. It’s living, flowing, clean and clear, a continuous debate and discussion of ideas.

I was privileged to lead a session on, “Shattering Conventional Wisdom” (Password: SableDavid1). The questions and thoughts generated are still reverberating in my head.

I attended one session about driving innovation in companies, and quickly learned that even so-called innovative companies get bogged down. The chain of fear of rejection often goes bottom to top and back again:

‘I’m afraid to bring you ideas because you will shoot me down.’

‘I’m afraid to bring them to my boss’…and the boss is worried about the legal department.

We leave good thinking to fester instead.

We talked about brainstorming as unfettered idea creation. Is it effective in an age where we have so much data, or are we seduced by the data and losing serendipity of thinking?

Another session about music had Poo Bear, Jared Gutstadt and T Bone, talking about Bob Dylan… not just sharing ideas, but sharing songs live, channeled in a multi-generational song fest.

Movies were screened by new and exciting directors and producers. We got a taste of VICE’s newest content endeavors as they continue to defy digital pigeonholing.

Facebook, Snap Inc., and Twitter were all debated and dissected. AI was put through the wringer.

The one place where you could you use PowerPoint was at Ignite. Your topic, your 15 slides which are pre-programmed to flip in 4 minutes, and then the gong. The topics, chosen by the participants, covered the spectrum from the personal challenge and sheer exhilaration of climbing a mountain to the still-growing danger of STDs, to the future of education, to gender equality.

We also heard the leader of one “high tech” company explain why he doesn’t allow phones or computers in his meetings. And it has nothing to do with hacking or paranoia.

As I have written before, I’ve been a Streamer from the start. And on the tenth anniversary of this endeavor, I am proud and honored to still be participating.

Yet here is the challenge: we jump into the STREAM for two and a half days. We clear our minds, check our biases, lock up our egos, and then we go home…back to family, work, and the world.

How do we keep the flow going? How do we bottle the energy and the openness and apply it to all? How do make STREAM real?

And most importantly, how do we share it with others so that it becomes a full-on movement, and not just an event?

Frankly, I see hope. My team who joined me focused on absorbing what they saw, felt, and learned, and planned to bring it back to their colleagues.

And, I’m sharing, once again, with you.

As I sit here contemplating the lawyers who say no and my colleagues who fear I might say no, I’m visualizing the STREAM and I’m getting ready to jump back in.

And there you have it. We are caught between a world where we believe anything can be done and one where it’s hard to get anything done. Between too much news, fake news and my news vs. your news. Between global warming and global need. Huge personal wealth and crushing group poverty.

Maybe we need to bring a little more magic back into the world.


“Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.”
– Socrates


If we abdicate wonder, we might lose it all.

And wonder is looking at our world in all its glory together as one…science, philosophy, music, art, politics, religion, all with a deep respect for the people who live in it.

So stream on.

What do you think?


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