On Monday he resigned from the New Yorker magazine after what the New York Times described as “one of the most bewildering recent journalistic frauds”. Bewildering because Lehrer is cool, modest and smart. His postmodern CV leaps from neuroscience at Columbia to literature at Oxford; he dresses like a Palo Alto geek.
“He dresses like a Palo Alto geek.” This, of course, throws a whole new light on the situation. Who knew my little burg is famous? I live in a place that has become a stereotype. A Palo Alto geek … am I one? I gulp hard and look in dismay at my worn jeans, my secondhand t-shirt, the sweater I found on a bench outside Stanford’s Green Library decades ago. More to the point: If he dresses like “a Palo Alto geek” – can he be said to be a hipster at all?
Naturally, I did a google search for “palo alto geek” and turned up the following photo (below), captioned: “Dragon Quest fans were treated to these ‘Be My ValenSlime’ T’s at creator Yuji Hori’s Palo Alto appearance over the weekend. Plus, the lucky fans got to buy Dragon Quest VI two days before release. Sigh, we’ll just add this to the list of reasons we wish we lived in Cali.” Note bene: Cali, the writer says, not Palo Alto.
I learned that Palo Alto even boasts a hotel for geeks, which offers “Free WiFi, the bagged lunch you can grab on your way out to a pitch meeting, and the whiteboard surfaces for late-night brainstorming sessions.” One commenter sneered: “To become a real Geek Hotel, they have to arm themselves with a lot more than just iPads and free WIFI. How much Bandwidth do I share with the 42 other Rooms? What is the Latency of the Connection for Games? Do they have PS3 & Wii for Lend-out? Or a Boardroom with the lastest Gamer-Rigs for Weekend-Clan Parties?!”
We digress. Thompson continues on Lehrer’s plight:
“Anyway, he’s in a real pickle, because in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works he fabricated quotes from Bob Dylan. That was stupid. Dylan exegetes have memorised his every word; you might as well misquote the Torah and expect the Hasidim not to notice.
“Also, when journalist Michael Moynihan chased up those quotes – intended to show how the right hemisphere of Bob’s brain rearranged nonsensical thoughts – Lehrer told a pack of lies. The fibs were plausible, involving supposed unreleased archival footage. Unfortunately for him, Moynihan is a Dylan expert. Jonah ended up digging a very deep grave for himself.
“Sweeping statements are all the rage in the school of pop science that produced Lehrer, so here’s one for you. He’s a victim of digital culture.”
Reason #1, according to Thompson: “the software that allows writers to cut, paste, tweak and borrow words also makes it easy to uncover plagiarism.”
The second trap is more subtle: “the fad for books in which a light bulb goes on and everything is illuminated: apparently random events are tied together by the Big Idea.” He continues:
“Lehrer’s theory of creativity is too muddled to sum up neatly, but there’s evidence of clumsy shoehorning on almost every page. Long before the Dylan lie was discovered, critics had mocked Imagine for its slippery elisions. Shakespeare, Nike, Pixar and the brain: Lehrer had something misleading to say about all of them.
“In places, Imagine borders on parody. It talks about the left-field creativity that produced a disposable mop, the Swiffer. ‘That insight changed floor cleaning forever,’ says Lehrer.
“Today’s digital market seeks to satisfy the appetites of intellectually curious people with very short attention spans. The result is a deluge of books, blogs, online lectures and web apps that offer to unpack the world for us by playing multidisciplinary leapfrog.
“This scandal should make us think carefully about the methodology underlying many of these claims. We don’t need any more hipster ‘intellectuals’ telling us what traffic lights in Tbilisi and the mating habits of the duck-billed platypus reveal about Why Stuff Happens. Lehrer is a potentially brilliant exponent of proper science. I hope his career recovers from this scandal. But I hope the genre doesn’t.”
In my not-so-hipster thinking that’s just being a smart ass. A very old-fashioned kind of thing.
Postscript on 8/6: A pungent example of the two sentences above: See Evgeny Mozorov‘s “The Naked and the TED” in the current New Republic, here: “’When I look at the 21st century, I reverse the numbers around and I see the 12th century.’ This is probing stuff.”