Can the Internet save the Enlightenment? The annual Simonyi lecture

Yesterday lunchtime, quite by accident, I saw that at 5pm that afternoon at the [tag]Oxford[/tag] Playhouse was the annual Charles [tag]Simonyi[/tag] Lecture, to be given by Nobel-prize winning scientist Sir Harry [tag]Kroto[/tag], on the subject of: “Can the Internet save the [tag]Enlightenment[/tag]?”

So I changed my route home to go via the Playhouse and buy a ticket. I bought it and turned up at 5pm to see what one of the world’s top scientists had to say about the Internet, and why he thought the Enlightenment – by which I correctly assumed he meant the nature of religion-free search for truths – was under threat.

If you are thinking, I’ve never heard of the Simonyi lectures, you’re in good company, nor had I. A very quick explanation: [tag]Charles Simonyi[/tag] was a very early recruit to Microsoft, he basically designed Word and Excel and was the company chief software architect for a few years. As a result, he is a very, very rich man. He was also in the audience. Mr Simonyi gave some huge sum of money to Oxford University in 1995 to cover a new position – a Chair for the Public Understanding of Science.

The chair since then and still now is [tag]Richard Dawkins[/tag], who wrote the Selfish Gene back in the 1970s and it basically the foremost evolution expert in the world. Partly as a result he is possibly the most famous atheist we have on the planet at the moment. He was also there.

Sir Harry KrotoIn 1999, Dawkins set up an annual lecture, given in Oxford. There’s been a wide range of speakers over the years from a science philospher to an astronomer, an ecologist, a neuropsychologist and so on.

This year it was the turn of Sir Harry Kroto – who, I have to confess I have never heard of either. He is a chemist and won the Nobel Prize in 1996 for discovering a new formation of carbon, commonly called “Buckyballs”. Right, so that’s the background.

I was surprised to find how many pepole turned up to the lecture, especially considering it was on a Friday at 5pm and cost £3.50. It struck me that there were alot of very bright people there – one of the wonderful things about Oxford. I also noticed that Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman was in the foyer. I’m sure I should have recognised many more people but I didn’t.

I also recorded the lecture in order to post it here for resource purposes – for some strange reason Dawkins doesn’t do this, I’m at a loss why not – just stick a mini-disc recorder on the PA system and upload it as an MP3.

Sadly, I don’t think the MP3 will be of much use because of Harry Kroto’s strange lecture style. Everything he said went up on a large screen – his script. He also read extensively from quotes, which was clear from looking at the screen, but if you are just listening it will be very confusing. I have to say as well that even if I had filmed the lecture, it would still have been difficult to follow.

Listen to Richard Dawkins’ intro [download here]

Listen to Harry Kroto’s lecture [download here]

Listen to questions to Kroto after the lecture [download here]

My first thought as the lecture began and Harry Kroto leapt about following his own internal connecting logic was that the lecture was going to be incredible – a fast-paced, highly intelligent launch into a genius’ mind. Then when the leaps became too continuous, I thought it was going to end up almost incomprehensible, only making sense to people that followed Sir Harry’s own thought processes. In the end though I ended up disappointed with what I felt was an overall lack of clarity and coherence. It was very much like the experience everyone has when they first get onto the Internet – amazed at the sheer quantity of information, you find yourself clicking on links, leaping off on tangents and eventually find yourself, three hours later, completely incapable of remembering a single thing you had read.

So why am I bothering to blog about the lecture if I found it so disappointing?

Because, discussing it afterwards, I discovered that the style of the lecture had, almost by accident, caused my brain to run off in all sorts of interesting directions it never had before. By far in a way the most significant thought, for me anyway, was that despite the lecture’s title and despite Harry Kroto clearly being extremely intelligent, he seemed to have a very basic grasp of the Internet.

So, incredibly, did Richard Dawkins. They both spoke of the Internet in the kind of almost naive awe and wonder that demonstrates that people are very far behind was is now possible with the Net. I’m not criticising them, both of them are no doubt several orders of magnitude more intelligent that I am – but I felt inspired to do something that would enable these people to grasp the Net. And inspired to try to get them using the tools that they can then put to great use.

Sir Harry has already started making use of the Net. He is part of an interesting site called The Vega Science Trust, found at, where, among other things, there are a series of interviews with Nobel-prize winning scientists, clips from which Sir Harry played during the lecture.

But the amazement with which he spoke of blogs and how there was actually some intelligent debate going on there was surprising to me. I really thought that scientists of all people would be more conversant with the Net.

It also worried me that no one in the lecture hall appeared to understand how the Internet was governed. I know I’m unusual in that this has become my speciality, but for people to have no idea of how this Net things works – especially at a time when very big, very fundamental decisions are being made about how the Net will function in the future – is deeply troubling to me. I am going to have to devise ways, very, very soon to get people to learn about and understand how important it is that the Net structures are set up correctly.

The worrying rise of dogma

Sir Harry’s basic lecture thread was that there is a worrying rise in religious dogma that is seeking to control societies – to the detriment of the wonderful science-based realities and truths that we have been building over the past 200 years. I happen to agree with his concerns, even though Jeremy Paxman accused him of being “paranoid” in questions at the end. The answer to this creeping cancer lies in the Internet, Sir Harry argued, since it will allow for the larger silent majority to organise and share information.

Where he really failed however was in providing a method or philosophy by which rational thinking can be used to defeat the emotive religious arguments that strike a chord with something deep inside many people. If he want to give a big lecture on the topic, I wanted something to rally around. He offered nothing.

But this did have the peculiar impact on me of causing me to try to think of ways of doing things that enable rationality and intelligence to defeat the forces of fear and control. I realised I am in a position to do two things. One, I can seek at every opportunity to educate people about how the Internet works and is working. Only if the foundation is solid can the buildings built on top of it ever hope to survive a future onslaught. Tied in with this, I think I may have to be a little more polemical in my Internet journalism so that people are at least considering the bigger, wider topics while stuck in the day-to-day political battles.

The second thing is – and I have to give it more thought as to how exactly to do it – I have a brilliant plan for self-regulation of content on the Internet. The scariest element of what Sir Harry senses is a betrayal of the Enlightenment, at least from my perspective as a journalist, is the increasingly aggressive, utterly biased and often knowingly inaccurate press outlets. The epitome is, of course, Fox News in the US. But, as the media senses that it no longer has control of basic facts (they leak out too fast and too easily thanks to the Internet) they are increasingly fighting off the competition by appealing to people’s prejudices, and, in some cases, by giving favourable reviews of powerful figures in order to get access to exclusive information.

Grand idea

I have started thinking about and devising a method by which inaccurate information on the Net can be flagged up for the normal user, thereby providing an impetus for people to be accurate and responsive. A trusted source would end up with more visitors. That may sound naive but that was also the accusation levelled at Wikipedia amid claims that it would never work. The truth is if you give people the power, they will defeat any attempts at control by sheer numbers.

Imagine visiting a news website for the first time and it automatically being flagged red, meaning proven, consistent and even methodical inaccuracy and bias. You will look elsewhere. If such a rating system could be built, it would then be pulled into search engines – so long as it was easily, readily and freely accessible. So then when you search for news, the news story with the highest accuracy rating comes top of listings. Suddenly you enter a world where accuracy becomes financially viable, even desirable. Now *that* would be a revolution.

  1. A good starting point might be simply a blog post with a list of links pointing to explanations of how the Internet is governed and what the current issues are.

    SMART target and all that. Thanks for posting the MP3s.

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