Don’t Say WTF! Say “Consilience”
Above image by Philips Design Portfolio: SKIN Dress.
At the tiniest end of the spectrum, researchers are busy recruiting quantum particles for computer processing and memory.[i] Pull back and discover that our Milky Way Galaxy apparently contains several tens of billions of Earth-size, potentially-habitable planets.[ii] Even the final inner frontier is being diligently mapped and accessed; you can now slip on a relatively cheap headset that reads your brainwaves and lets you control a robot. With. Your. Thoughts.[iii] However, most future-shaping technologies are a lot less obvious. Like the fog in the Carl Sandburg poem,[iv] they slip in on little cat feet, quietly trying to solve problems and in the process, unearthing answers in strange places.
Such as a women’s lingerie drawer.
Medical doctors in the 1960s needed a material both flexible and long-lasting for the artificial heart they were constructing. So they did what everyone did: went home and looked around for an object that resembled the tissue or organ they wanted to fix.[v] Unfortunately, girdles and blood don’t play well together; the fiber content of ladies’ shapewear induced blood clots, which could lead to strokes. In fact, many such found materials failed to live up to promise. “So I started thinking, could we have materials we could specifically design for medical purposes, rather than just taking them off the shelf,” says pioneering MIT biomedical engineer Robert Langer, Ph.D. He then developed a polymer wafer used in operations such as brain surgery, where it’s placed on tumors to treat them with targeted drugs. For such a small object, it required an enormous amount of cross-disciplinary activity involving at least ten different specializations, including polymer science, chemical engineering, chemistry, pharmaceutics, pharmaceutical science, neurosurgery, pharmacology, medicine, radiology and toxicology. Traversing the traditional boundaries between disciplines is now driving a lot of innovation. “I think the days of an individual working in a garage and coming up with major inventions that really make an impact are over,” adds neurosurgeon Henry Brem of Johns Hopkins Hospital. “It’s teams, now, of people with a unified purpose that work together and build on everyone’s expertise.”[vi]
This development was predicted by biologist Edward O. Wilson in Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (Vintage Books, 1998). “Disciplinary boundaries within the natural sciences are disappearing, to be replaced by shifting hybrid domains,” he writes. “These domains reach across many levels of complexity, from chemical physics and physical chemistry to molecular genetics, chemical ecology, and ecological genetics…There has never been a better time for collaboration between scientists and philosophers, especially where they meet in the borderlands between biology, the social sciences, and the humanities.”[vii] Any fragmentation of knowledge – and the chaos it causes – Wilson blames on the cloistered, insulated side of academe which thrives on territorial artifacts of scholarship at the expense of meaningful collaboration. “The greatest enterprise of the mind,” he continues, “has always been and always will be the attempted linkage of the sciences and humanities.” Negotiating this divide has resulted in a steady “jumping together” of knowledge, which 19th century Cambridge scholar/polymath/scientist/philosopher William Whewell termed consilience.[viii] “Consilience,” says Wilson, “is the key to unification.”[ix]
Consilience is also more elegant than omg or wtf?! in an era where…
fashion designers cultivate strawberries in an antioxidant-rich shade of inky black that grow matching lace doilies in the roots; nearby, a strain of super-spinach sprouts micro-biological transistors for the electronics sector.[x]
puzzling out how life began and whether or not we are alone in the universe requires travel in the quantum realm, hacking a path through a giant pile of data and looking back in time at stars…all in the same day.[xi]
biologists, mathematicians and electrical engineers are creating synthetic life in the lab.[xii]
your wallpaper becomes wellpaper, surrounding you with a scent-filled bubble of soothing security that can be customized to rev you up, calm you down or shift your mood to make you feel A-OK.[xiii]
young researchers routinely bring together “big data, Facebook, YouTube, public relations, military strategy, PTSD, national and international politics” and mold public policy.[xiv]
your toilet analyzes chemicals in your urine to warn you about health issues[xv] and your wearable tech is concealed in your weave.[xvi]
sociology fieldwork includes studying how spacecraft-teams instruct robots.[xvii]
we grow our own biocompatible jewelry and ivory,[xviii] harvest protective helmets from the exoskeletons of crabs[xix] and lab-cultivated ethical leather.[xx]
building structures utilize a NASA-developed polymer so translucent, light and insulating, that for years, no one knew what to do with Aerogel.[xxi] And the cement heals its own cracks. Where old-school concrete cracks under tension, allowing in havoc-wreaking water, chloride ions and carbon dioxide, the new concrete harnesses the power of microscopic bacteria. These organisms thrive in inhospitable, bubbling pits and have no problem with the high pH of concrete, into which they are embedded, along with starch. When the concrete cracks, the humidity awakens the bacteria. As they feed on the embedded starch, they excrete a major constituent of concrete called calcite.[xxii]
“We create it but we don’t understand it,” opines author and critic Charles Leadbeater, about the confusing picture that many of these new technologies paint. “It’s our creation and yet we don’t control it.”[xxiii] Which immediately brings to mind the story of Frankenstein, particularly the book’s subtitle: The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus, you’ll recall, was bound to a rock for eternity while an eagle (the emblem of Zeus) swooped in daily to eat his liver. The Greek gods meted out this punishment after the Titan defied them and gave fire to humanity, stealing secrets above his paygrade.
As the winds of change blow, some highly touted gales will be downgraded to the level of kerfluffle, a testament to the power of PR buzz and word of mouth (as Douglas Adams observed in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the only thing able to travel faster than the speed of light is bad news). And some deceptively gentle zephyrs will end up burning down the house. “We can be fairly sure,” adds Nick Harkaway, author The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World, “that next year will be twice as changey as this year and that will increase exponentially from now on.”[xxiv] Prediction, as Danish physicist Niels Bohr once observed, certainly is difficult…especially about the future.