Since I read How the Scots Invented the Modern World and Everything in It by Arthur Herman a few years ago, I have been intrigued by the idea that small groups of people discussing, disputing and disagreeing can lead to a period of enlightenment as robust as the one that flourished in Scotland starting in the early 18th Century. Even though I consider the title of Herman’s book slightly over-reaching, I believe the ideas and inventions that came from Scotland during and after that period are remarkable.
In a time in which the Scottish population boasted a literacy level of 75% (to allow them to read the Bible), individuals met in taverns and in various societies to discuss important topics of their day. From these discussions, social, scientific, political, and philosophical ideas emerged that led to vast changes. Primarily in Edinburgh and Glasgow, the so-called Scottish Enlightenment resulted in advancements in areas that included law, architecture, medicine, chemistry, and engineering. From this group, economist Adam Smith wrote his important work, the Wealth of Nations. James Watt studied energy efficiency and invented the steam engine, an important component of the Industrial Revolution.
Magnus Magnusson said of these exceptional individuals, “Most knew one another; many were close friends…They were stimulated by enormous curiosity, optimistic about human progress and a dissatisfaction with age-old theological disputes. Together they created a cultural golden age.”
Voltaire, who was exalted as a Philosophe in France, where cult figures, high drama and egos seemed to prevail, said of these men, "We look to Scotland for our idea of civilization."
I bring up this topic because I wonder, maybe even hope, that the discussions on blogs and social networking sights such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn could produce intellectual ferment that could lead to positive change now and in the future. My question: Is that possible?
I have been grappling with whether a person who communicates nearly exclusively online can meet my definition of a leader—one who brings together or guides a group of people to make a difference (change the future.) I recognize that in large part, the Arab Spring was a product of Twitter, and the activities of Occupy Wall Street expanded because of Twitter and Facebook. Today, various groups, both radical and moderate, attempt to use social media to further their causes. Those were and are discreet events that led to groups coming together for change.
I see notices of events and activities that excite for a short time, but do people take action on the things that disturb or excite them. Is it possible to use these tools to create an enlightenment that includes ongoing progress, thought and action? What part does leadership play?
As seen in the Scottish Enlightenment, it is clear there was not one true leader. It was a number of people who stepped forward. Maybe that is what the Social Media Enlightenment I hope for would be—individuals who engage in discussion with the belief that something will eventually come of it.
For a period of enlightenment to occur, it seems that the following conditions must be in place:
- Openness to new ideas (curiosity).
- A belief that better things can and will come.
- Agreement that intellectual discussion is desirable.
- Relationships that begin with trust.
- On-going intellectual discourse on particular topics.
- A format that allows both presentation and disagreement in a supportive way.
It is hard to say if discussions of today can make a difference in the future. However, I do not yet see real discussion that points to enlightenment. It seems there is too much information to consider and too little time to delve deeply into single important topics.
I realize that when the luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment met, they did not know they were changing the world in so many ways. They were just meeting to share a whiskey or ale with friends who were willing to debate. Is that how change comes about in our age?