The term, “computational age”, is used to describe cultural changes that have been developing for a while. This is a place to discuss these changes.
In 1705, a surprising stock market crash that wiped out even the invincible Isaac Newton kicked off an earnest search to understand how groups of things behave. That search continues to this day. Why do crowds of investors go mad? How could life emerge from an assembly of lifeless individual molecules? The problem in 1705 was not a failure to recognize the problem or lack of interest, but a lack of tools.
The dishes on Newton’s menu of interesting problems included the motion of bodies, light, electricity, the properties of materials and the surprising behavior of communities. The tools for understanding most of these emerged. The tools for looking at the behavior of communities did not. The odd and surprising behavior of communities remained Newton’s untasted dish.
This gap in the menu led to a modern culture where social progress was neglected in the euphoria of new technology. The connection of the individual to society was often lost.
Medievals imagined a universe saturated with the sacred and with a clear idea of a person’s place in it.
Newton’s successors came to understand the world as clockwork, drained of meaning. Humans became mechanisms. Communities fractured. Alienation became watchwords for observers, like Marx and Freud. Technology roared ahead. Societies bounced from one inadequate ideology to the next. The simple pursuit of happiness suffered.
With a better understanding of communities, that is changing.
Connected things produce amazing phenomena outside the realm of traditional science. Put people in a room. Great ideas can emerge. Have conversations. Language emerges.
Tools, such as simulation, help us get at some of the surprises connected things can create.
Taking motion and electricity seriously produced unexpected benefits. Taking communities seriously is doing the same thing. We get better weather forecasts, more reliable pacemakers, and a whole host of “smart” devices.
Taking connection seriously seems to promise a change in culture, recapturing some of the sense of wonder experienced in the world before Newton. Relationships matter more. A sense of mystery and contingency rebounds. With a rising premium on creating winning teams, the term, “servant leader”, is back in fashion.
The term, “The Computational Age,” is a convenient hook.
Words, like “computational” and “complexity,” were at one time useful for developing computer-based tools. But, they don’t work well elsewhere. The trend is to use everyday words. Why talk about a “complex adaptive system”, when “community” will do the job?
“Computational” is the word that gets a lot of use today. Search the Internet using “computational” and any letter of the alphabet to get a feel for a revolution that runs from “computational astronomy” to “computational zoology”, with room for “computational humor” in the middle. An army of computational grads is hitting the street, intent on making fortunes and changing the world.
The “computational turn” appeared recently to identify a cultural watershed. On one side, the computer was as a selectively useful tool. On the other a host of devices had become central to our lives.
“Computational Age” was coined by Stephen Wolfram in 2012. Since then, it has begun to show up as a useful way to frame today’s culture.
What hasn’t changed?
The new tools don’t promise miracles, just a finer-grained look at the way living communities work.
We already benefit from better weather forecasts, flood protection, preventative health, wildfire prevention, fisheries management, flight safety, surgical practice, investment analysis, and, yes, even political campaign planning. Computational tools just enhance the application of earlier methods.
Fewer surprises. Fewer dumb mistakes.
How about the pioneers?
Getting a warmed over textbook version of discovery is never satisfying. Better to ask why physicist Steven Hawking declared, “I think the next century will be the century of complexity.” Or, how Michael Crichton was led to create complexity themed novels, such as Jurassic Park? Connected people created today’s culture. Tracing their path can help make sense of the seemingly complex. Communities create surprises. People talk. Things happen. Inventors sit not only on the shoulders of giants, but also an army of people that educated, fed, raised, paid and collaborated with them.
In 2005, Michael Crichton asked, “All right, if we’re going to do better in this new century, what must we do differently?” He suggested putting “complexity theory” to work and complained:
The science that underlies our understanding of complex systems is now 30 years old, . . . .but . . . not much has really penetrated general human thinking.
Crichton’s use of the term, “complex systems,” was a bit too exotic for most people. As mentioned above, “communities” does the same job. That aside, Crichton’s complaint is being answered. Our new insights into the odd behavior of communities are bearing fruit. On the way, discovery can be its own reward.
Surprising, is it not?