Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society recently announced his goal to track his media consumption, testing his hypothesis that many of us overestimate the extent to which we’re exposed to diverse, unique, and new ideas. In fact, he posited, in his TED talk and elsewhere, that many of us are likely “imaginary cosmopolitans,” convinced we’re exposing ourselves to diverse streams of online and offline information when in fact we’re perpetually prey to the self-imposed “echo chambers” of our predilections and selection biases.
This may be true, writ large. It also corroborates the fact that entrepreneurs are often the translators, and the communicators of ideas across uncommon thresholds, not necessarily the purveyors of any true original. They are individuals who can stand at crossroads, straddle different disciplines and industries, and port ideas from one realm to the next. They connect the dots—people, and ideas—across boundaries. They disrupt a status quo.
Self-awareness and recognition of bias may be the first steps to broadening horizons, but few organizations are truly cross-functional, socially, as well as economically diverse.
Over Labor Day weekend I was privileged to attend the “30 Summit” in New York City, a formative platform for young Americans to come together around diverse sets of ideas. While the format –30 minute presentations from 30 Americans around the age of 30– has been labeled by some as “TED for young people,” the experience is fundamentally transformative not because of its elitism, but because of its democracy.
Its impassioned founders and organizers seek to cohere a diverse array of entrepreneurs, artists, practitioners, and activists. Following the guidance of Evan Baehr, a 2009 fellow, the 30 Summit provides “intellectual nutrition” to its attendees in the form of diversity. Preferences annulled, barriers torn down, these forums force us to “eat our vegetables,” namely to masticate, and digest intellectual notions that are atypical, and truly novel.
This year’s 30 Summit brought together malleable, creative young leaders at the outsets of careers, and exposed us to audacious perspectives that belied the putative social, economic, and intellectual “echo chambers” in which we often persist. Nuclear submarine officers discussed agricultural subsidies with Environmental Protection Agency PhDs; African American hip-hop wellness artists engaged in discourse with national leaders of Evangelical youth, while Harvard-trained professors were challenged by the fervent ideas of previously homeless and incarcerated, Oprah-touted visionaries; Harlem-raised activists and Teach for America administrators debated the merits of service, neuroscientists, members of Secretary Clinton’s Policy Planning Staff, and designers of Apple’s iPhone discussed engrams, social justice, and spoken word poetry.
If my modern echo chamber were the Platonic cave, the 30 Summit unbound my limbs and provided an awareness of shadows, and a distant if-yet-unattained reality of diversity.
At the 2005 Stanford graduation, Steve Jobs attributed the WYSIWYG interface and Macintosh desktop publishing typography to calligraphy courses he’d taken as a college drop out. His exposure to diverse ideas allowed him to straddle two uncommon worlds, and disrupt the status quo by bringing ideas across an uncharted intellectual intersection. His diversity, not his specialization, enabled some of his greatest creativity.
In the same way, diversity today can be the harbinger of true innovation. We must be cognizant of the “intellectual nutrition,” on which we feed, and wary of “echo chambers.” Forums like the “30 Summit” are unique, and offer veritable avenues toward novel innovation and change by audaciously bringing together extreme intellectual diversity.
For me, 30 Summit was antithetical to an echo chamber. It was neuroscience meets Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), and the collision of ideas created fireworks. Intellectual freedom is the awareness of biases, and the courage to step beyond. Forums for intellectual nutrition, such as 30 Summit, can be just the multivitamin many of us crave.