At Idea Festival, it's the thought that counts

Part 1 of 3: Knowledge may be power, but critical thinking is king today.

By Michael Kruse, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2007

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Someone once asked Albert Einstein for his phone number, filmmaker Tiffany Shlain was saying one morning earlier this month, and Einstein said sure. He went to get the phone book and came back with the number.

Wait, the person said. You're, like, the smartest person in the world, and you don't know your own phone number?

Einstein said he purposely didn't memorize his number. Why waste brain space on something you know where to find?

He was onto something more than e equals mc squared.

Something that might be even more important today than it was then.

Shlain - the Webby Awards founder who was named one of the "Women Shaping the 21st Century" by Newsweek - told this story at the Idea Festival here at the Kentucky International Convention Center. The festival was a three-day ode to the necessity of a nimble, facile mind in the fast-changing 21st century. Its purpose, said founder Kris Kimel, is to get folks to think about old problems in new ways.

The Idea Festival is about how to be not just smart but 21st century smart.

Call this: The Conscious Act Of Knowing Less And Thinking More.

We need to spend less time and energy knowing stuff and more time and energy knowing where to find it and how to use it. Synthesis over rote facts.

Leave the trivia to the goobers on Jeopardy. So 20th century.

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Google senior research scientist Craig Nevill-Manning told a story at his session on the festival's second day about a million-dollar question on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire back in 2001: What was Carol Brady's maiden name?

Now, the guy sitting in the seat across from Regis didn't know that, but just about everybody watching on TV did. Searches for "carol brady maiden name" spiked like crazy at the time of the airing on the East Coast, Nevill-Manning said, and then again three hours later on the West Coast.

Martin was her previous married name, Google boomed, but Tyler was her maiden name.

This is how we know things now. We used to remember them. Now we just Google them.

That makes some people uneasy. Take the recent story in the New York Times Week in Review that attempted to explain why Britney Spears didn't know the words to a song she was lip-synching - her song.

"Performance anxiety, heavy drinking and even hair extensions have been variously blamed for these lapses," Jenny Lyn Bader wrote. "But why blame the victims? They are just products of a culture that does not enforce the development of memory skills.

"It's gotten easy to forget to teach young people how to remember. The Victorian ideal of encyclopedic knowledge has fallen away."

Sounds dire. But the Idea Festival crowd talked a lot about the upside of not knowing stuff. Shlain, for instance, thinks in links. That's how she puts it. She's 37, and she knew back in 1994, she said, that the Internet was going to change everything. Her films move in the stream-of-consciousness, tangent-to-tangent rhythm of the Web.

Everything's connected. The Tribe ties the history of Barbie to the notion of Jewish identity, and her new, soon-to-be-released film called A Declaration of Interdependence involves, among other things, honeybees, Botox, the global economy, the national crime rate, ecosystems, colonialism, Roe vs. Wade, DNA and a woman's right to choose.

"My films are all in this 'linky' style," she said.

She shoots very few of her own images. An aerial shot of the Golden Gate Bridge? That's what Google Images is for. "Everything that's ever been created is my palette," she said.

She then can focus more of her time on connecting things, and saying something, and making people think. Her films, she said, are meant to be the appetizer - and the discussion they spur is the main course.

Very 21st century.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at (813) 909-4617 or mkruse@sptimes.com.

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