It’s that time of year when people write predictions for the year to come. I’ve done that, many times. If predictions for are what you’re looking for, then you’ve been brought here on false pretences. This post is about my predicament.
I’m looking for help. I’m looking for you to tell me people to go listen to, books and articles to read, places to go, things to do, anything that would help me learn more about my predicament.
Let me try and describe it as best I can.
My grandfather said something very depressing to me when I was around 12. He told me that my generation would be the one with peak longevity, that life expectancy would start to decline in years to come, probably for the first time in recorded history.
Friends of mine have been saying something else that’s very depressing. Again, for the first time in recorded history, it would appear that you have to be rich to be thin.
Longevity, health, nutrition, these are some of the ways we set out the problems of our age. Sure, every age has its problems; our ancestors had theirs; our descendants will have theirs. I shall resist the temptation to say “if we have descendants”. Suffice it to say our descendants will have theirs.
Each generation’s problems can appear to be unique, and perhaps they are. Our particular set comprises water, food, energy, nutrition, health and the threat of war. Perhaps they’re not that unique after all.
What’s unique about our generation is that the costs of movement and of communications have dropped precipitously, and continue to drop. Humankind’s propensity to migrate and to connect may have always been there, but that propensity has been constrained by barriers of cost and affordability.
That is less true now. Humans are able to connect, to communicate and to move in ways that our predecessors could only have dreamt of.
These two phenomena affect everything we do, and they’re both accelerating, with exponential growth in their effect. Some people call this “the second half of the chessboard”.
Everything is affected. Everything.
We can’t think of our world in isolation, it’s connected. To other objects in space, not just in our solar system but beyond. We’re slowly learning what that connectedness means. Breakthroughs in our understanding of physics a century ago are helping us do that. And that’s affecting the way we think of ourselves, our origins, our purpose.
We can’t think of the countries we live in in isolation, they’re connected. Which puts a great deal of pressure on our political and economic and financial and social systems. As you would expect, the pressure is telling, and major cracks are showing in all these systems. There’s a natural temptation to “contain the problem”, to introduce greater and greater frictions, to build and extend walls to contain human, intellectual and financial capital within legacy frameworks. Those responses are failing, and there’s much wailing and gnashing of teeth as a result. Political, economic and social systems are showing signs of extreme instability, and “failed states” have become more common.
We can’t think of the way we live in isolation, in terms of what we produce and what we consume, when, where and how. We’re connected. Everything we do has consequences that affect others. Water, food, energy, nutrition, health and the threat of war. Here we go again.
We can’t think of our own bodies the way we did, as we learn more about the genome and about the biome. The way we inherit and pass on physical characteristics is something we continue to investigate and refine our understanding of.
We can’t even think of our own minds the way we used to, as we learn more about how ideas form and spread, how values take hold, how we form economic and social systems, how these evolve. Theories of group selection in this context are regaining momentum.
Everything is connected. That phenomenon is accelerating. And everything is affected. The effects are far-reaching and themselves seem to be accelerating in speed and intensity.
What should I do about all this? That’s my predicament.
My instinct is to believe that in that connectedness lies the solution. That we’ve spent far too long steeped in the cult of the individual. That we need to understand more about what it means to be connected rather than to try and reverse the process of connection.
Much of who we are and what we do is based around the individual. The way we think of ourselves. We use phrases like “no man is an island” and then appear to spend time making us into individual islands. If any part of the fabric of society exhibits group instincts we try and nullify them.
Our ideas of property are based around the individual. Our ideas of employment are based around the individual. Our ideas of happiness are based around the individual. Our ideas of privacy are based around the individual. Our ideas of capability are based around the individual. Our ideas of relationships are based around the individual. Our ideas of trust are based around the individual.
Our ideas of health, education and welfare are all based around the individual.
The internet of <choose the term du jour>.
Our ideas of everything are based around the individual.
And we’re learning that we are actually more connected in every dimension we can think of, and potentially getting more connected every day.
Hmmm. Something has to change.
So I want to learn more about networks and relationships. I want to learn more about what makes them tick. I want to learn about the data that all this throws off. I want to learn about the implications of all this.
That’s why I’m interested in web science.
Because I believe that it represents a possible way for us to deal with the problems of our generation.
And that’s where I need your help. I’ve been doing this for over a decade now, and each day I realise how little I know. I want to accelerate my learning. You represent an amazing resource. You know things I don’t. Help me learn. I will share what I learn back here.
Have a great 2016.