- Scientific research and innovation often leads down completely unpredictable paths. For instance, a chain of connections links the American Revolutionary War with the development of antimicrobial chemotherapy.
- Today, we have the technology to radically reform democracy based on the ocean of personal data that society constantly produces.
- Tomorrow, we may have the power to build nanofabricators, devices that could build anything that we want or need.
Innovation happens for a multitude of reasons. My favorite result of innovation is the unintended consequence.
For example, the American War of Independence deprived the Brits of access to the North Carolina pine trees from which they made pitch with which to protect the hulls of their ships. So the impecunious Earl of Dundonald in Scotland cooked coal from his mine to make pitch. This process also generated a vapor that ends up as gaslight. The consequent ton of free “throw-away” gaslight as a coal-tar byproduct inspired chemist William Perkin to analyze it for artificial quinine. Instead, his work produced the first artificial aniline dye — which later turned out to stain only one kind of bacterium in a Petri dish. Bingo: chemotherapy.
Second-guessing this kind of sequence is difficult, if not impossible. So, we have lived for most of history with unpredictable tomorrows. The problem is: the more there are, the more there are. As a result, the rate of change accelerates through time — rarely more so than with Descartes and his reductionist method for producing trustworthy data. His advice was to reduce any problem down to its simplest components. This approach spawned the modern scientific method, which sent 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 pal of mine at Oxford who got his D. Phil. in the poet Milton’s use of the comma. He ended up as the head of a department at a major American university because he did what the system encourages: create a specialist niche so small that there is only room in it for you. And then explain your work only in your own gobbledygook. In this way, you are incomprehensible and therefore irreplaceable. Try, for instance, asking a chromo-dynamicist what she does for a living and see how much of her response you can understand, much less critique.
When innovation collides with institutions
Today, innovation is accelerating primarily because of advances in information technology. Change comes, most of all, from the no-man’s-land between previously isolated disciplines. Thanks to the internet, it is easier than ever for researchers to enter no-man’s-land and bump into colleagues, from different disciplines, who are on similar investigative quests, often making connections they never knew were possible. As a result, the latest specialist fields are often multi-disciplinary: bioengineering, neurophysiology, electrochemistry, quantum physics. Each field produces arcane material well beyond the comprehension of the average citizen, let alone of social institutions. These institutions were established in the past, with the technology of the past, to handle the problems of the past, according to the values of the past. Yet, in most cases, they remain unchanged since they were first organized.
Representative democracy is a good example. It was set up in a time of bad roads and no telecommunication. So, find someone with a horse who was willing to ride to the capital to represent the local views. The roads were so bad that these riders returned only at lengthy intervals to check on local opinion. Over time, the riders became known as “politicians” and their return visits as “elections.” Today, we have perfect roads and high-tech communications — yet, the same centuries-old procedure.
We value our institutions, such as law, marriage, the stock market, education, or the Constitution because — resistant as they are to change — they represent what we call “tradition.” The U.S. president takes an oath not to encourage novelty but rather to “preserve, protect, and defend.”
As a result, our institutions react to any innovation in terms of how likely it is to rock the boat by taking the necessary steps to limit this eventuality as much as possible. For eminently understandable reasons, the typical first stage in this process is to throw a committee at whatever it is to determine if the innovation can be adapted to the institutional processes, not the other way round. The thinking is: “This is what we do and have always done. Does this innovation offer an opportunity to do so more efficiently, faster, or cheaper?”
How Big Data could reshape democracy
But this approach is already questionable. The internet, Big Data algorithms, and predictive analytics all could coalesce to provide a radically different way to find 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 exhaust” provides information on all aspects of our behavior.
Only a small part of what data exhaust reveals about us includes: everything you buy, your bank details and money activity, as well as your travel experiences, shoe size, health, medication, medical history, birthplace, gender, marital status, social status, children, family structure, insurance, age, income, flight history, car use, use of mass transit, and daily commute schedule. What else? Oh yes, there’s also what you read and your TV and radio program (or, more accurately, your streaming and podcast) choices, along with your media subscriptions, education, job, hobbies, residence, friends, social life, favorite music, favorite sports, clubs, and religious beliefs. It gets even more personal: your ethnicity, personal grooming habits, pets, food preferences, sexual activity, financial worth, exercise, social media use, sleep, politics, criminal behavior, gambling, and pornography use. And much more.
Until the advent of the supercomputer, analyzing such data, if scaled up to a population-level, would have been impossibly complex. Now, it’s not so. Today, we have machines that can calculate in a few seconds what would have taken each of us a lifetime. We throw search algorithms into the ocean of social data to identify patterns.
Now, imagine this: We could use predictive analytics to find how the patterns we detect reveal trends in public opinion that are most likely to shape the future. We could then present scenarios for people to choose from, and then produce suggestions regarding those scenarios that are likely to satisfy the largest number of people. This could be a new way to govern a democracy.
The results of this process clearly offer a more representative outcome than that, for instance, facilitated by the UK House of Commons, in which each member of Parliament represents, on average, some 70,000 constituents. Every election, the voters must choose from a slate of five or six party platforms. In other words, 70,000 people are supposed to be adequately served by one person offering one of 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 more general good. However, there is another possible future looming on the horizon, one that likely will render everything discussed so far irrelevant: the potential of nanotechnology to bring the greatest change to our lives since we left the caves.
Nanofabricators and a future of abundance
There are thousands of labs already working on nanotech today. And designs are ready for a “nanofabricator” that brings atoms together into molecules, and then molecules together into stuff. Perhaps 25 years from now, nanofabricators could make anything you want: fresh water, clothing, bricks and mortar, a car, gold, lunch, medication, a bottle of Chardonnay, a copy of the Mona Lisa. If it’s made of atoms, you’ll be able to make it.
The raw material feedstock for a nanofabricator is mainly dirt, air, and water. And, of course, the nanofabricator can make a copy of itself — perhaps one for everybody on the planet in a matter of months. What comes next is something for which our two million years of tool-use and our backward-looking obsession with survival in the face of scarcity have not prepared us: abundance.
Every aspect of our social existence is shaped by the culture of scarcity in which we have lived since the beginning. All our values, ethics, standards, and beliefs are based on dealing with scarcity: Property is private. It’s good to share, and it’s wrong to steal. There can only be one talent like Michelangelo. Diamonds are expensive. Few people get a Ph.D. In other words, scarcity is valuable.
But in a world of unlimited abundance — if there is no scarcity — does anything have value? What does “worth” mean in this situation? What will happen to the organizations answering our needs, when people with nanofabricators have no more needs? Going back those perfect roads that we built — do we need those anymore? Do we need infrastructure at all or anything that government does?
From a more philosophical perspective, if people don’t work to live anymore, what will they do with their time? Does the elimination of scarcity also remove the trigger that stimulates our creative abilities? How do we manage a global community composed, not of roughly 200 nations, but of nine billion autonomous individuals? Will the cities empty when we can each live (and live comfortably) anywhere on the planet?
When each of us lives a geographically separates, truly independent life, what happens to the culture we once shared? Or will we achieve that via 3D holograms and virtual contact? And what will that 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-manufactured essentials: food, water, shelter, clothing, transportation, and medicine?
Clearly, there are a lot of questions, but we only have 30 years or so to answer them.
Further, the old institutions won’t work in a world of abundance, which will have no need for economies of scale, efficient centralization of command, conformity for the sake of security, national identity, or all those old, industrial metaphors that we have applied, so far, to living in a society. Because there will be no society. It’s time to prepare.