Innovation happens for a multitude of reasons. My favorite outcome of innovation is the unintended consequence.
For example, the American Revolutionary War deprived the British of access to the pines of North Carolina from which they made pitch to protect the hulls of their ships. So the poor Earl of Dundonald in Scotland cooked coal from his mine to make pitch. This process also generated a vapor that turns into a gas lamp. The consequent ton of free “disposable” gaslight as a by-product of coal tar inspired chemist William Perkin to analyze it for artificial quinine. Instead, his work produced the first artificial aniline stain – which was later found to stain only one type of bacteria in a Petri dish. Bingo: chemotherapy.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to guess this kind of sequence. Thus, we have lived for most of history with unpredictable tomorrows. The problem is: the more there is, the more there is. As a result, the rate of change accelerates over time – rarely more so than with Descartes and his reductionist method of producing reliable data. His advice was to reduce any problem to its simplest components. This approach spawned the modern scientific method, which has taken us deep into the cracks and fissures of knowledge.
Now we have a new mantra: “Learn more and more about less and less” – like a friend of mine at Oxford who got his D. Phil. in the use of the comma by the poet Milton. He found himself head of a department at a major American university because he did what the system encourages: create a specialized niche so small that there is room only for you. And then only explain your work in your own gibberish. In this way, you are incomprehensible and therefore irreplaceable. Try, for example, asking a chromo-dynamicist what she does for a living and see what part of her answer you can understand, let alone criticize.
When innovation collides with institutions
Today, innovation is accelerating primarily through advances in information technology. The change comes mainly from the no man’s land between disciplines hitherto isolated. Thanks to the Internet, it is easier than ever for researchers to enter no man’s land and meet colleagues, from different disciplines, who are conducting similar research, often making connections they never knew were possible. As a result, the latest specialties are often multidisciplinary: bioengineering, neurophysiology, electrochemistry, quantum physics. Each field produces obscure material far beyond the comprehension of the average citizen, let alone social institutions. These institutions were established in the past, with the technology of the past, to deal with the problems of the past, according to the values of the past. Yet, in most cases, they remain unchanged since their inception.
Representative democracy is a good example. It was created at a time when the roads were in poor condition and without telecommunications. So find someone with a horse who was willing to ride in the capital to represent local opinions. The roads were so bad that these riders only returned at long intervals to check local opinion. Over time, the runners became known as “politicians” and their return visits as “elections”. Today we have perfect roads and high-tech communications – yet the same age-old procedure.
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We value our institutions, such as law, marriage, the stock market, education, or the Constitution because, however resistant they are to change, they represent what we call “tradition.” The American president takes an oath not to encourage novelty but rather to “preserve, protect and defend”.
Consequently, our institutions react to any innovation in terms of the likelihood of the boat rocking by taking the necessary measures to limit this eventuality as much as possible. For eminently understandable reasons, the typical first step in this process is to start a committee on anything to determine whether the innovation can be adapted to institutional processes, and not the other way around. The thought is, “This is what we do and have always done. Does this innovation offer the possibility of doing it more efficiently, faster or at a lower cost? »
How Big Data Could Reshape Democracy
But this approach is already questionable. The Internet, Big Data algorithms and predictive analytics could all merge to provide a radically different way of finding out what people want from their governments – thanks to the fact that every time we click a computer key, we leave evidence of our predilections. This “data depletion” provides information about all aspects of our behavior.
Only a small part of what data exhaustion reveals about us includes: everything you buy, your bank details and financial activity, as well as your travel experiences, shoe size, health, medications, history medical conditions, your place of birth, your sex, your marital status, your social status. , children, family structure, insurance, age, income, flight history, car use, public transport use and commuting schedule. What else? Oh yeah, there’s also what you read and your TV and radio show choices (or, more accurately, your streaming and podcast), plus your media subscriptions, education, work, hobbies. , your residence, your friends, your social life, your favorite music, your favorite. sports, clubs and religious beliefs. It gets even more personal: your ethnicity, your personal grooming habits, your pets, your food preferences, your sexual activity, your financial worth, your exercise, your use of social media, your sleep, politics, your behavior criminal, your gambling and your use of pornography. And much more.
Until the advent of the supercomputer, the analysis of such data, if extended to the scale of a population, would have been incredibly complex. Now it is not so. Today we have machines capable of calculating in seconds what would have taken each of us a lifetime. We launch search algorithms in the ocean of social data to identify patterns.
Now imagine this: we could use predictive analytics to determine how the patterns we detect reveal the trends in public opinion most likely to shape the future. We could then present scenarios that people could choose from, and then produce suggestions for which scenarios would satisfy the most people. It could be a new way to govern a democracy.
The results of this process clearly offer a more representative outcome than that, for example, facilitated by the UK House of Commons, in which each Member of Parliament represents, on average, some 70,000 voters. At each election, voters must choose from a list of five or six party platforms. In other words, 70,000 people are supposed to be adequately served by someone offering one of the six options.
Surely, radically reforming the way we govern would usher in a period of considerable social turbulence as we adapt to new ways of shaping the future for the greater good. However, there is another possible future looming on the horizon that will likely render everything discussed so far irrelevant: the potential for nanotechnology to bring about the greatest change in our lives since we left the caves.
Nanomanufacturers and a future of abundance
Thousands of laboratories are already working on nanotechnology today. And the designs are ready for a “nanofabricator” that assembles atoms into molecules, then molecules into substance. Maybe 25 years from now, nanofabricators could be making anything you want: fresh water, clothes, bricks and mortar, a car, gold, lunch, medicine, a bottle of Chardonnay , a copy of the mona-lisa. If it is made of atoms, you can craft it.
A nanofabricator’s feedstock is mostly dirt, air, and water. And, of course, the nanofabricator can make a copy of themselves – perhaps one for everyone on the planet within months. What comes next is something that our two million years of tool use and our retrograde obsession with survival in the face of scarcity have not prepared us for: abundance.
Every aspect of our social existence is shaped by the culture of scarcity we have lived in from the start. All of our values, ethics, standards and beliefs are based on scarcity management: ownership is private. It’s good to share, and it’s bad to steal. There can only be one talent like Michelangelo. Diamonds are expensive. Few people get a doctorate. In other words, scarcity has value.
But in a world of unlimited abundance – if there is no scarcity – is anything of value? What does “value” mean in this situation? What will happen to organizations that meet our needs, when people with nanomanufacturers no longer have needs? To get back to those perfect roads we built, do we still need them? Do we need infrastructure or whatever the government is doing?
From a more philosophical point of view, if people no longer work to live, what will they do with their time? Does eliminating scarcity also remove the trigger that stimulates our creative abilities? How do you manage a global community made up, not of about 200 nations, but of nine billion autonomous individuals? Will cities empty out when we can each live (and live comfortably) anywhere on the planet?
When each of us leads a geographically separate and truly independent life, what happens to the culture we once shared? Or will we achieve it via 3D holograms and virtual contact? And what will it do to the way we socialize? Will the last act of nation states (before the government turns off the lights and leaves the building) be to provide emergency free downloads for nano-engineered essentials: food, water, shelter, clothing, transportation and medication?
Obviously, there are many questions, but we only have thirty years to answer them.
Moreover, the old institutions will not work in a world of plenty, which will not need economies of scale, effective centralization of command, conformity in the name of security, national identity , or all those old industrial metaphors that we have applied, so far, to life in society. Because there will be no society. It’s time to prepare.