06/18/2011 12:03 EDT | Updated 08/18/2011 05:12 EDT

In the Beginning, the Idea, the Word, Then Babble

We live in an idea-driven economy in which, when asked if he has anything to declare at customs, a Bill Gates (with Microsoft in his brain) can reply with a straight face "I have absolutely nothing to declare!"

Most of us believe that, in the beginning, there was the Word.

The provocative proceedings at ornate Koerner Hall on the Royal College of Music campus in Yorkville suggest otherwise -- that, in the beginning, was the Idea. Surely, one must suppose, God, in her infinite wisdom, had the idea of creating planet earth and, indeed, the multiverse, before her six days of labour began. Words, after all, are the byproducts of ideas. Words, or images, explain ideas to us in conversation, writing, music, art, science and maths.

Ideas can be shared today in milliseconds in cyberspace, which is essentially the new marketplace for ideas. Indeed, we live in an idea-driven economy in which, when asked if he has anything to declare at customs, a Bill Gates (with Microsoft in his brain) can reply with a straight face "I have absolutely nothing to declare!"

In his relentless pursuit of finding new ideas for changing times, Moses Znaimer, the prescient creator of upstart Citytv, hosts ideacity in Toronto each year, inviting 50 out-of-the box presenters and staging three parties at trendy restaurants for the 600 people who fork out $1,000 each (plus an extra $150 to attend a party), to be seen if not Heard, at the three-day event. Scripted speeches are outlawed; presentations cannot exceed 17 minutes; there is no single topic.There are singers, actors, dancers, jugglers and clowns; architects, bankers, doctors, technology gurus (a surfeit of them, perhaps), agitators, devil's advocates, and, of course, scribes. Many of them have books to promote to a captive audience that thrives on new ideas. Schmoozing, networking, is the order of the day.

So let's offer up a somewhat surrealistic narrative of what struck us about this year's ideacity, which wound up Friday night with a raucous soiree at the Rosewater supper club.

This being a Moses Znaimer event, nobody was surprised when the disputatious Ottawa Citizen columnist Dan Gardner, who has written the best-seller, Future Babble, gave a lecture on -- get this! -- bullshit, which is what his book is all about.

Gardner sought to show us that, in this era of endless conspiracy theories, even those who say they do not believe in bullshit are actually bullshitting themselves. He then gave us a fascinating case study about the great, but now largely forgotten, British historian Arnold Toynbee, whose mammoth 12 volume Study of History series was required reading when I was at Harvard in the 60s. Toynbee's thesis, discredited by most other historians, was that great civilizations, like Greece, Rome and Britain, decline, fall and sometimes renew themselves, followed by eras of religious revival. He loathed modern nationalism, which created the Nazis and fascists, calling it a false god.

I suspect that Pierre Trudeau's contempt for nationalism, may have stemmed from reading Toynbee, some of whose high-blown contributions to the London Observer I edited with delight in the 1970s. Just how false a prophet Toynbee was came in his confident assertion that, in today's world, human beings would lose all interest in -- get this, too! -- technology.

To my mind H.G. Wells, in his book The Outline of History, which also required reading in my academic generation, did a better job than Toynbee, and with less bullshit, when he explored the hitherto neglected Asian civilizations, and concluded than history is combat between tyranny and education. Wells's science fiction epic, War of the Worlds, was also more prophetic than anything Toynbee wrote, but I doth digress, as always.

Let's rewind again, to 1967. Children around the world, including the preteen Heards in Virginia, laugh, cringe and cry when they see the movie Dr. Doolittle, starring the great but very moody Rex Harrison, as the unconventional, itinerant British vet who sought, in the Academy Award-winning title song, to "Talk to the Animals." In the movie, based on the Hugh Lofting novel, he was taught animal language by Polynesia, his pet parrot, a unique member of her species; she did not repeat what she heard, but told people new things.

Fast forward now to a Thursday session at ideacity we are introduced to the space age Dr. Doolittle, who just may be very close to talking to possibly the most intelligent, caring animals on our threatened planet, dolphins, Diana Reiss, a cogitative psychologist at Hunter College in New York and the National Aquarium, Baltimore. In studying dolphins for 30 years, now using sophisticated Internet technology, Dr.Reiss has discovered how close they are to humans, different as the bodies may be.

Like humans and the great apes, dolphins can recognize themselves in mirrors, which amuses them for hours. They have acute sonar, as well as eye, vision. Like us, they protect their young, hunt and play in groups (i have surfed with them in South Africa and Hawaii). Most importantly, Dr. Reiss shows us, dolphins speak to each other in a language of at least 100 distinct signals. (An important distinction between dolphins and us, I believe, is that they do not kill their own kind.)

It is Reiss's mission to crack the code of the dolphin dictionary, or keyboard. She has already succeeded in getting them to read images on an underwater keyboard. She ended her presentation with quite the most horrific images seen at ideacity: a clip from the mass slaughter of dolphins by Japanese fisherman from the Oscar-winning movie, The Cove, for which she was an adviser. Pointing out that not even laboratory rats can be treated this way, she urged us, as citizens of the world, to protest this annual massacre to the Japanese authorities.

Then there was the alarming dissection of one of the most pernicious ideas and practices in modern society -- honour killings, in which girls and women are killed for affecting Western garb and customs -- by the outspoken National Post sage, Barbara Kay. She ridiculed the fashionable view that these are just examples of family violence. They are nothing of the sort, she insisted.They are dismal examples of "social terrorism," acts of "collective murder." At least a dozen Canadian female were victims of honour killings in recent years. Then she took a shot at the Slut Marches that began in Toronto and have become fashionable around the world --or at least countries that will tolerate them. "There is no honour in being a slut," she said.

A highlight of the event, though he very elegantly said nothing really new, was Conrad Black, the only presenter who needed no introduction from Moses, professing his innocence on tape and arguing that, given our relative prosperity in this deep recession, this may indeed be the long awaited Canadian century.

Given that Friday June 17 was the centenary of the birth of the first idea-based corporate titan, IBM, which pioneered the development of many of the computer elements we take for granted, not to mention Watson which won against humans on Jeopardy, the timing of ideacity was astute. For the agenda, varied and unpredictable as might have been, was underpinned by ideas -- and the slogan of Thomas Watson, the control-freak founder of IBM, was, of course, THINK.

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