The Look and Feel of 21st Century Science
Humanity is going through unprecedented global change. The systems that arose to organize societies in the last 400 years are breaking down — and now is the time to envision what will come next.
I recall a talk that inspired me several years ago by the eclectic scholar, Dougald Hine where he explained that knowledge systems change in a nested manner. Some things (like the way we get news on a daily basis) can evolve quickly as new technologies alter media institutions on timescales of a few years or decades. Other things move more slowly.
An example he gave for these historic sloths was the organization of academic disciplines at universities — some of which have been very slow to change in a hundred years (think about the presumed boundary between “hard” and “soft” science that is so resistant to leaving). Yet the slowest of all is in the archival institutions that we call libraries. It is to changes in these modes of information storage for long periods of time that we must look when paradigmatic change is upon us. Such a change is now upon us right now.
The oldest libraries were storehouses of pottery. Data was painted onto clay pots to record important information about crop yields that go back thousands of years in places like Mesopotamia and ancient China. Later it was scrolls like those famously burned in the Great Library of Alexandria. More recently it has been bounded paper volumes that we call books, as the printing press gave rise to literate societies in the last few hundred years.
Now we are fully in the digital age when it comes to information systems. And digital data is profoundly networked and ephemeral in ways that were simply not possible before. We can update the linkages and information content with ease that makes book printing look cumbersome by comparison. So it has become paradigmatic that libraries are “going digital” and building up a network ecology framework for organizing the knowledge of societies.
What does this have to do with the look and feel of 21st Century science? In a word, everything. For humanity is now on the cusp of planetary-scale crisis. According to earth system scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Institute, the Earth has now passed at least four of nine “planetary boundaries” that define a safe operating range for global civilization. We are fully in overshoot-and-collapse — living through an Easter Island type of instability on a planetary scale.
At the same time, our social systems are in deep turmoil due to massive wealth inequality and the various forms of institutional decline that comes with collapsing trust in an unequal world. This is apparent in the rise of authoritarian leaders in many countries in concert with a rapid drop of trust in authoritative expertise. Science is in crisis alongside the political and economic systems of the world that are in turmoil today.
So we must envision a look and feel for science in the future that is networked, agile and ever-evolving, relevant to the pressing issues of the day, and deeply, DEEPLY ecologically human. This last point bears elaboration. And a brief side comment about the fundamental importance of metaphors for organizing knowledge in societies.
The guiding metaphor for the Modern Era was the “clockwork universe” of Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes. I wrote more about this in an earlier essay, The Great Lie of Living on a Dead Planet. When we separate mind from body; humans from nature; and societies from their environments; we are doing so by presuming the Universe to be a giant mechanical device with no morality or soul inside. This metaphor gave rise to the mechanistic sciences of physics and chemistry in the 16th through 19th Centuries.
Many of the systemic problems we face today — from climate change to political corruption — are traceable back to this illusion of separation between machines and living things. And so it should come as no surprise that the 20th Century was a period of ascendence for systems thinking in fields like ecology, computer science, quantum mechanics, and the study of social networks. Herein we can see the early shape of the new paradigm for 21st Century science.
The guiding metaphor here is ecological networks. Living systems that function through their interdependence, networked relationships among functional parts, and a dynamism of emergence that is not reducible. The science of the last few hundred years may necessarily have been reductionistic (breaking complexity down into manageably simple parts in order to make sense of it) but the science that is emerging will equally strongly require holism in order to make sense of the interwoven patterns that arise as global systemic behaviors.
Let me demonstrate the difference with a concrete example from my work as the coordinator for birthing a new scientific society for the study of cultural evolution. I have worked with a team of researchers to map out the knowledge ecology of this field. We did this because a survey of our founding membership revealed a strong desire for knowledge synthesis across the divided silos of university departments.
Research in psychology was not adequately being informed by (or informing) that which was taking place in anthropology or sociology. Historians were not in sufficient dialogue with archeologists or population ecologists. Political scientist hadn’t played well with economists. Biologists weren’t working closely with humanities scholars. What’s worse, researchers in each of these siloed fields have scarcely been in dialogue with each other either. According to one illustrative study, 90% of all peer review journal articles have never been read!
In another essay I called this The Predicament of Knowledge and it is now chronic as humanity is clearly failing to apply all of this compartmentalized knowledge to the crises of living in a 21st Century world. The argument I made there was that we collectively have all the knowledge we need to solve every major social problem in the world. Yet we lack the capacities to synthesize and apply all this knowledge in real time.
This is where the Cultural Evolution Society comes into play. The mechanistic divisions of Modern-Era science have led to treating science as an industrial manufacturing process devoid of human sentiment or morality (think of all the animal testing done in cages throughout the last 400 years). What is needed to replace it is a living intelligence processguided by evolution for sense-making and collective learning. This requires a 21st Century understanding for (a) what it means to be a living thing; and more specifically (b) what it means to be human.
Sciences of the future will need to be integrative and holistic, emergent and evolutionary, and profoundly informed by knowledge of their interdependencies. No more “Cartesian” separations. No more dividing knowledge into silos. No more treating humans as an industrial input into corporate machines. Instead we need to apply the ecological principles of regeneration, resilience, and thriving. Scientists of the future will work together as networks — an evolutionary step beyond the ad hoc interdisciplinary teams of the late 20th Century.
Tools for synthesis will include group facilitation, scientific visualization, computer modeling and simulation, and iterative design practices. We will need to actively co-create in pluralistic communities where those trained in specific domains of knowledge are partnered with transdisciplinary scholars who specialize in facilitating knowledge synthesis. These are the new-and-improved generalists of a bygone era. They are fully human as networked ecosystems of people learning together using tools, theoretical frameworks, and social practices that are incentivized for collective intelligence.
Critical for this science to emerge will be that it avoid its greatest current threat — a 21st Century version of the burning of Alexandria’s great library. We need our science to survive the potential collapse of global civilization in the next 50 years. Let this sink in. It is a very serious issue that is hardly on anyone’s radar at the moment.
Yes, there is a crisis in peer-review publishing.
Yes, there is a crisis in public understanding of science for policymaking.
Yes, there is a crisis of impending ecological collapse of the biosphere.
Yes, there is a crisis of anti-science demagogues replacing rigorous methods with ideology.
Yet at the deep systemic level, there is a greater crisis of unraveling paradigms for knowledge systems as humanity goes through its next great transition as a species.
It is here that the new sciences must emerge. It must not be based on a separation of theory and practice — for it will be the practices of working with, studying, and guiding the evolution of complex social systems that will enable the sciences to advance. And also what enables the social systems themselves to maintain the efficacy to continue their existence. These things are inseparable in reality and must be dealt with accordingly.
Applying this back to the observation that started this essay, we must envision libraries of the future as networked living systems of interconnected human beings. The “digital divide” between those with access to internet and those without is only one use for this phrase. Another is the deeper semantic separation presumed by disembodied rationality — that there is no digital without physical and all human knowledge is worthless if it fails to be embodied by human societies as social norms, behaviors, narratives, and institutional practices.
The digital libraries of the future will be cyborgs… interwoven human-machine meshworks for active learning. The singularity is us as human beings. The look and feel of 21st Century science will be human through and through. There will be holism and integration; emotion and reason recombined in resonance with findings from the cognitive and behavioral sciences. And it will be ecological; embedded in human networks which are themselves embedded within physical and social geographies.
Let us rapidly transform the look and feel of science to reflect its best face. Let it be systemic and integrative. Let it be moral and political. And let it be relevant and responsive to the crises we all face together on a daily basis in the real world.
Onward, fellow humans.
It is all the transcendence of human race that people today reach the height of maximum luxury upgrading from the days of their very ancient Stone and Cave age. What human being has achieved today was once only a dream out of reach. But man's curiosity—perhaps the most wonderful gift given to man by God was behind his quest leading to wholehearted efforts to convert all impossible dreams of yesteryears into reality.
Today in the 21st century, men have reasons enough to be proud for their unique achievements. From stepping into the moon of cloning genes, there has been a long list of tremendous success of science and technology. But restless people's mind has still enough desire for even greater achievements. And there is every reason to believe that in the coming days many of such dreams would be possible for us.
Today at the starting days of the 21st century, Technology is the most pronouncing name all over the world. We are at the age of computer. Application of computer is becoming a common name in all aspects of life.
Computer now no longer remains only a laboratory kit. Its application ventures into industrial setups, health care facilities, educational institutions, banking systems, ticket booking counters, carrying out business proceedings, governmental jobs in fact in all aspects. Greater accuracy, more memory capacity and time saving ability of computer make people more and more interested towards its application.
CD-ROMS have already ventured into conventional paper printings with their greater storage capacity and longer safety. Internet the name has already created history turning out the world into a global village.
Electronic commerce (E-com) is all set to create big bonanza in the 21st century where a man in India sitting with his computer could order his required assets at a market complex in America and within hours, he could get delivered his required assets at his doorstep. Software experts are continuing their efforts to create even new miracles.
Home works have already been carried out to regulate computer applications. Pirated software packages, leaving computer viruses in the net are creating havoc all over the world. The recent "love bug" menace stalled net application throughout the world for several hours leading billions of dollar loss incurred in the worldwide business proceedings. Need therefore now arises to have strict international cyber laws to prevent such crimes.
Medical science is yet another area where man has already gained big success. Bypass surgery organ transplantation, CAT scan, ultrasound, Keyhole surgery are the names that have given maximum safety to human life. Using modern equipment in human body, diagnosis and surgery has already created history. Computer application has given greater accuracy and sophisticated modes to medical facilities.
Telemedicine now makes possible distant treatment, where a patient can consult with his physician by pressing keys in the keyboard. In the coming days, it would have greater access where a patient sitting in India could consult and get treatment from a specialist in America. Application of robots in surgery is already under experiment in Western countries.
In the coming days of the 21st century where a surgeon could sit in his place and just by pressing keys perform surgery getting assistance from the robot. The recent success by the scientists in human gene mapping has marked another grand success in the field of medical science. Scientists now believe that it would be possible to have absolute treatment for diseases like cancer or AIDS in our coming days.
Like polio or pox, many other diseases would also be completely eradicated from our life. However, in the time of overall human health management, there remain many shortfalls. Inequality in human health security is a big defeat for medical science. High cost now becomes a factor where the rich can only afford to get specialised medical facilities.
For the poor, better medical facilities are still a distant dream. Large number of children still is dying of malnutrition in many African countries. Every day, more than 1000 women die all over the world in problems related to pregnancy and childbirth. In our country malaria and tuberculosis still cost large number of deaths. In many places, villagers nave still to depend on quacks since they cannot afford modern medical treatment.
What we now need is equality in terms of health care facilities. Let's hope we achieve this goal in the coming days of the 21st century.
In the field of space science, there has been success beyond imagination. Once people dreamt of getting the moon in their hands. And today after stepping into the moon they are now dreaming of making holiday resorts at moon.
Success achieved in mission Mars has thrown new light on the possibility of life in other planets. Grand success achieved in space science has now led to spectacular achievements in the field of communications like E-mail, Internet, ISD system, mobile Tele system, fax etc. Recent revolution in TV broadcasting is also due to grand success achieved in the Space science.
In transport, air service system has already created revolution turning the world into an area of only a few hours of journey. Supersonic jets are now under trial, which would give fastest ever transport facilities. Railway system of transportation has achieved steep heights. Japan has already created history by introducing fastest ever electronic railway engine. Gradual decrease of conventional fuels like petroleum or coal has now led people to find out non-conventional fuel resources.
A vehicle driven with solar energy is already under trial. Solar energy would be the mains source of fuel in future, which would also be eco-friendly.
In the field of agriculture also, people's efforts have led to tremendous achievements. Green revolution has created history all over the world Biotechnology has helped hybridization where scientists have come out with success in producing advanced varieties of high-yielding, disseat resistance or drought-resistance seeds.
With the assistance of satellites meteorological science has got new boost-up with early prediction of proper time management or water management for better cultivation. As has been reported scientists in Britain recently created a type of insect the can kill any other type of crop destructing pests. In the coming days man new evolutions are in the line which, would make possible even evolution are in the line which would make possible even better crop management.
In the field of nuclear science, scientists have already developed fission technology to produce greater energy. They have already learnt to produce nuclear energy from high-powered radioactive elements like plutonium, thorium or uranium. In the wake of decreasing stock of non-renewable sources, people have even learnt of making artificial radioactive material India's Kamini Research Reactor has already set example using "Uranium 233"; a man-made fissionable material derived from thorium, as fuel.
Efforts have been continued to harness fusion of hydrogen atom. In the coming days of the 21st century, scientists would certainly come out with success trapping large amount of energy from fusion of hydrogen atoms, to be used in useful purposes.
Success of science and technology is tremendous. We have already achieved a lot and there is lot more to be achieved in the coming days. But where science and technology has made us materially rich in socioeconomic front, the world is also going to be a big loser. Man's de; to achieve beyond limit has now threatened safety of human life.
We fast proceeding industrial setup, environmental pollution is becoming a common name. Vehicular pollution is fast growing at a pace emitting poisonous gases everyday in the environment. Number of patients suffering from respiratory ailments, skin diseases or other health hazards is increasing every day. Being one of the most polluted cities in the world, thousands of residents in Delhi are reportedly suffering from respiratory problems.
Green house effect is becoming a serious concern threatening world environment. With the increase of industrial activity and decrease of forest coverage, carbon-di-oxide level is rising in the environment at a rate faster than the normal resulting in rising of world temperatures. Scientists have reported melting of ice in the Polar Regions and rising of the sea level. It has now been predicted that by the mid of the 21st century, many islands and parts of the countries will submerge under sea.
Ozone depletion is yet another reality creating havoc in our life. Refrigerator, a success of science, has added luxury to our life, but the coolants used here now remain one of the major sources of chloro-floro- carbon (CFC), that causes depletion of the Ozone layer, the protection barrier of the poisonous ultraviolet light. With the influence of UV light, danger of skin cancer is rising tremendously.
As Darwin explained in his theory of evolution, to keep balance on earth every species need to keep its multiplication at a balanced rate. With excessive multiplication of human population, other species are downing their population rate. Several varieties of birds and animals are already extinct from our environment. With greater human establishment, forest coverage is fast reducing. Landslides, heavy rains leading to floods have now become the common occurrences.
Large-scale competition among the human beings has led to shortage of all conventional resources on the earth. For example, the scientists have predicted that by the mid of this century, the world would face big potable water crisis.
On the social front, disparity between the rich and the poor is increasing tremendously. Social tension is mounting steadily. People are going to be more and more mechanical. Joint family norms is now almost outdated.
People have become more and more self-centered. With lack of sympathy among the rich for the poor, social crimes are raising reducing safety to man's life with deprived classes as also neo-rich taking to crime.
Disparity among the countries has also been rising. Countries have become more and thirstier to increase their influence. Various world organisations like WTO, UN, etc. have no longer remained fair in conducting their business. In these organisations, voice of the rich countries prevails to the neglect of the poor countries.
The North-South gap has been rising tremendously. Where the American and European countries are turning to be world's heaven in terms of luxury, people of many African countries are dying of malnutrition, disease and death.
Political disparity is mounting among the global powers increasing regional tensions. Even after experiencing war havoc a number of times; nations do not seem to have learnt to avoid conflict. To show their own muscle power, countries have concentrated beefing up their stockpile of conventional and nuclear arms.
Again both economic and political disparity is giving birth to rebel groups within the countries. World terrorism is now creating havoc all over the world. Man is the most successful creation of God. And all human beings always seek mental peace perhaps the most wonderful gift of God. The revolution of scientific inventions was all started to give comfort and happiness to man's life.
When Einstein evaluated his theory of relativity (E=mc2) perhaps he did not even imagine that one day men would apply it to enrich their stockpile of dreaded nuclear weapons. But very unfortunately people's desires to feed beyond limit make them hawkish against one another. It took thousands of years to reach at today's level of progress, but it will not take even a day to go back to our days of origin.
Fortunately a sane human mind can never desire for destruction. World efforts are continuing to ensure permanent peace. At the beginning of the 21st century, can we really hope of getting a world of love, unity and peace in our coming days? Religion which should be source of mental peace, universal brotherhood, and respect for other beliefs is now being misused to promote terrorism whether it is Kashmir, Chechnya, the Philippines or elsewhere by Islamic fundamentalists.
The unprovoked killing of innocent and devout pilgrims to Amarnath, the Nature-made (not man-made) Shiv lingam, in Jammu & Kashmir is a gruesome reminder to the extent where religious fanaticism has reached. Is it not better to be an atheist than theist, if such brutalities are to be heaped on human beings in the name of religion? Amar Nath symbolises God's incarnation in snow to most, it is not Ram Janambhoomi-Babri Mosque dispute which should lead to inter- religion clashes.
Let man learn to co-exist that is the only wish of every peace-loving person for the 21st century.