It’s Just the Next Thing to Come from String: Chatting About Computational Tools

The invention of string led to a lot of things. Spun plant fiber, aka twine or string (right)img_3400netssm, led to by natural steps to cloth and the bow. These led to the ability to live in colder climates, higher protein diets and patriarchies that honored war and the warrior. Discoveries that can be linked to the invention of string punctuate history. Cloth led, in 1801, to Joseph- Marie Jacquard’s card-programmable loom (below), a programmable machine. One step that naturally followed from the programmable loom was the electronic computer. It showed up in the 1940s to79a1e62f71762746a95af6fc885443f4-jacquard-loom-weaving-looms serve the needs of code breakers and the physicists who ginned up the first atomic weapons. From twine to cloth to computer it was only a matter of taking the next step. People thought, invented, marveled and moved on.

New tools create both opportunities and problems. The plough led to better-fed and better-organized local communities, but also serfdom. Printing led to the spread of literacy, the Reformation, the industrial Revolution, and war on an unheard of scale. Electricity led to clean power, but also daytime TV. The good came with the bad.

Each new gizmo or discovery tool sported its ownmulti-generational break-in period. The same goes for the computer. Sixty years downstream from its debut, the break-in period is in mid-stream. As a result, we can begin to zero in on some opportunities and problems. It’s time for these to be discussed.

Computational Age is a term used to highlight the new round discovery, thought, wealth creation and decision making emerging from string’s latest offspring. Computational is an awkward word. Even so, it frames the discussion of not only of new tools, but also career choices, recent history, the status of our culture, and the way people are beginning to view the natural world.

The Computational Turn has been defined as that point sometime in the mid-1990s when digital devices went from useful for some to necessary for everyone. This was a watershed moment. Universities now use the word, computational, to identify courses of study that apply computer tools, such as simulation and data mapping. Computational majors have appeared in traditional field of study, from A to Z, including astrophysics, biology, chemistry, engineering, finance, geology, history, journalism, law, music, social sciences, weather forecasting and zoology. This is a revolution in mid-stream.

The rise of laboratory science ushered in an age of discovery. The rise of digital tools, including simulation and data mapping, is generating another revolution.

The payoff for faith in science and technology was the short-term extraction of value from the natural world. But, this revolution had a downside. The cost was a cascade of avoidable mistakes, catastrophes and chronic social and environmental degradation left for future generations to clean up.

Emerging digital tools are powerful because they sidestep some of the limits of traditional laboratory science. They provide a cheap way to look at alternative futures. They open a window into the complex behavior of natural and human communities outside the lab that lab experiments could not begin to reveal. The lab is a good place to investigate the way two elements behave when mixed, but not to look at the way dancing bits of air create a hurricane.

Embracing new digital tools and the complex world outside the lab is helping reduce the number of avoidable catastrophes, unravel historic patterns and processes, and ultimately offers the possibility of restoring health to a damaged world. As with the rise of twine, the plough, electricity and traditional science, careers and fortunes are being made.

When it comes to serving up the cultural effects of new digital tools, it helps to savor one dish at a time.  That’s what’s been happening.  Early military applications framed in terms of “complex systems” found a home at the Santa Fe Institute as a new Manhattan Project in the 1980s.  Chaos and complexity applied to weather forecasting, communications and gaming followed.  More recently, earlier methods and lessons have been applied to resource management, business, investing, parenting, education and marketing. Each area has it’s own set of discovery moments, adopters and popularizers.

Framing the discussion by new area of application meshes with the notion that new digital tools present opportunities for taking a second look at almost everything. That’s already happened with the recasting of our understanding of how the world works for those in the military, business management, medicine, finance and investing, vehicle and aircraft design, health and disease control, and methods for creating a healthy natural environment.

It’s time bring together scattered elements of an ongoing conversation. This discussion will go on for a while. One commentator estimated that it would take fifty years of sustained academic effort for people to really dial in the digital toolkit. That means work for an army and many opportunities for those who stay ahead of the curve.