Taming The Wild Idea
Foragers distinguish between camp and the wild. In camp, things are safe and comfortable, and people should be pleasant. The wild, in contrast, is dangerous and uncontrolled. In camp, some of us must watch out for intrusions from wild, such as storms, wild animals, or hostile tribes.
Some of us must also periodically venture into the wild, to bring back food and other useful materials. But it is important that whatever we bring back be tamed before it gets here. Don’t bring back live dangerous animals, don’t leave poison berries around camp where people might think they are safe, and leave violent aggressive hunt habits out there in the wild. What happens in the wild, should stay in the wild.
Ideas and concepts can be dangerous and disruptive. Ideas influence the status and attractiveness of people and activities, and who is blamed and credited for what outcomes. For a society vulnerable to social disruption, ideas can be wild.
Today, most of the ideas and concepts that we come across have been tamed. They have long been integrated into our ways of thinking, and we have worked out attitudes and opinions to help us avoid being cut by their sharp edges.
But today we must also deal with a steady stream of new untamed ideas. Some of these are the side effect of ordinary people doing ordinary things. Others come from intellectual explorers, who purposely venture into the wild in search of new ideas. How do we tame such ideas?
We celebrate our intellectual explorers, both those who come back with useful ideas, and those whose useless ideas show off their impressive explorer abilities. But we are also wary of their trophies, just as foragers would be way of a hunter bringing a strange live animal into camp. We want people we trust and respect to tame those ideas before let them flow free in our camp of easily discussed ideas. Wild explorers, who may have “gone native”, can be useful in expeditions, but must remain under the control of more civilized explorers.
I think this helps us understand why universities, some of the most conservative institutions we have, are home to our most celebrated intellectuals. Academic institutions such as universities, academic journals, peer review, etc. seem far from ideal ways to encourage innovative ideas. But they seem like better ways to ensure outsiders that ideas have been safely tamed. The new ideas that academics endorse can be safely quoted and an applied with minimal risk of wild uncontrolled disruption. So when ideas originate among wild untamed academic-outsiders, we prefer to attribute them to the safe academic insiders who tame them.
When we are willing to risk being exposed to wild untamed ideas, we turn less to academics, and more to startup companies, passionate writers, activists, etc. And in our youth, many of us are eager for such exposure, to show that we are no longer children who must stay safely in camp – we are strong and brave enough to venture into the wild.
But when we get children of our own, and feel less a need to show off our derring-do, we prefer tamed idea sources. We prefer to hire kids who got their ideas from universities, not startups or activists. And most prefer their news to come from similarly tamed journalists. We applaud wild ideas, but prefer them tamed.