Doubt is unpleasant, but certainty is absurd.
Our swarm’s structure can change when either our physical or institutional tools change, but sometimes those change a lot only after our mental tools change. In our last half-millennium, we went through big changes in how we created, amassed, recombined, tested, and spread ideas, and those changes happened first in Europe and its transplants, then spread around the planet. About 550 years ago, Europe got its first printing press, which went on to change how we created, amassed, recombined, and spread ideas. About 300 years ago, that helped trigger a change in how we tested ideas about the physical world. About 150 years ago, that helped trigger a change in how we tested medical ideas. About 50 years ago, we got the electronic computer, which, like the printing press, sped up much idea change. Such events changed our mental resources, which led to many changes in our other tools and in our trade, which led to many changes in our lives. Our near future promises more idea-related change.
The Very Pulse of the Machine
It’s sometime in the future and you’ve just invented a time machine. For your first trip you plan to watch Johann Gutenberg build his printing press. You dress in what you think is period costume, carry what you believe is period money, learn what you imagine is period language, and inoculate yourself against what you guess are period microbes. Then you set your controls for the night of October 16th, 1448, in Mainz. However, your machine accidentally lands on top of the sleeping Gutenberg, killing him—and irreparably damaging itself. Cursing your luck, you hide the body, mop up the blood, and ransack the house to find truly period money and clothes. You can’t get back to the future, but you want to keep history on the track you know by building a printing press in northern Europe. You think it will be easy.
After all, how hard could it be? You know that you only need four things: something to print on; type to combine into words; ink to swab on the type; and a press to squeeze the printing surface down onto the inked type. So the next morning, as the cocks crow and the cathedral bells clang in the dawn’s chill, you shoulder your way through the narrow, crooked, dung-choked alleyways. You’re going to buy some ink from the copyists.
They serve the monasteries and cathedral schools. You also plan to talk to the scriveners, who serve the nobles and merchants. They also serve university students in Cologne down the Rhine to the north, Heidelberg up the Rhine to the south, Würzburg up the Main to the east, and maybe even Erfurt and Leipzig far to the northeast. They all think your plan crazy. But after selling you some ink they suggest that you next get what they write on—parchment.
You’re now in the tanners quarter, for parchment is really a kind of leather. While you try to hang on to your breakfast in the gut-churning stench, the tanners tell you that the butchers don’t slaughter enough sheep, goats, and calves each week for them to keep your press going. So they prefer to sell mostly to the cordwainers, pouchers, and girdlers, who make gloves, shoes, belts, and purses. In any case, one Bible needs 200 or more skins, which is outrageously expensive. Plus, a skin takes a month to prepare. Besides, only the costliest ones would be supple and flat enough to use in a press. To the tanners, a library is just a place where lunatics stack thousands of gutted sheep.
So you can’t use parchment. Papyrus is also out of the question since it, too, costs too much. Given the snowed-in mountain passes over the Swiss Alps, mule-train supply from Egypt is too uncertain so far north of the Mediterranean. Anyway, it’s too glossy to take the copyists’ ink. Plus, it’s too brittle to withstand the press you plan to build.
Your next bet is paper, which in this era is made by pulping linen rag. Linen, made by crushing flax plants, used to be rare in Europe but slowly grew more plentiful there after 1150, when Arabic-speakers stole high-tech cloth-making tools from China and brought them to Spain. Those tools then slowly seeped into the rest of Europe.
But while Mainz has some paper, it’s scarce because demand is low—neither the nobles nor the clerics want it much because it tears too easily and can’t last as long as parchment. In any case, what little there is in German-speaking lands comes from French- and Italian-speaking lands, which makes it costly.
So you try to get a local millwright to switch from grinding grain to pulping rag, but he doesn’t know how. So you sail up the Rhine, south, to the nearest ‘big city,’ Strassburg. It has a paper mill, which started there in 1430. From the goldsmiths there you buy the chief ingredient you’ll need—fine wire mesh.
However the resulting paper is thick and porous, like thin felt or thick blotting paper. The copyists’ ink just splotches on it. Asking the Strassburg miller for help is a waste of time. He has zero interest in competition, and he’s not about to tell you any guild secrets. So you try bribing his lowliest ’prentice, but he doesn’t know much. After months of trials—and more clumsy bribes—plus some discreet spying—you figure out that you need to add gum to bind the paper, and clay to give it a gloss.
Back in Mainz, you now you have ink and paper; next you need type. Knowing nothing about metals, you first think to make your letters by shaping and firing clay, so you visit the potters. But they have no idea how to fire clay that hard—porcelain is still a secret in China—so their tiny clay letters just shatter when pressed hard. Then you try whittling letters out of wood, but the too-small pieces often break in your hand; and when they don’t break, they warp or crack as they absorb moisture. Besides, as you realize after visiting the woodcut printers, for your purposes, wood would wear down too quickly, anyway. So you visit the sealcutters to find out how to make metal type.
After you explain your problem to them, they say that you need four different metals. You need a hard metal, like iron, to carve into letter-punches for your letters. You also need a harder metal, like steel, to carve that iron into such letter-punches. Plus, you need a soft metal, like copper, to bang those iron punches into, and thus make the bases of your type molds. The sealcutters, who among other things emboss and engrave signet rings and armor plate and the like, know how to do all that, but they don’t know what metal to make the type itself out of. You go to the goldsmiths to solve that problem.
You tell the smiths that you need a metal that’s both soft enough to melt into type shapes easily, yet hard enough to resist wear. They’re fine with that, but they point out a problem. Molten metals shrink as they cool, so you would lose all your type’s serifs. You need those to mimic handwriting perfectly. And if you can’t do that, nobody would buy your books because they wouldn’t look like books. So you ask the smiths for a metal that expands as it cools.
When they quit laughing, they tell you that no such metal exists. But you’re from the future, so you know that it must. After a while, you realize that what you need is a mixture of metals—an alloy—but you don’t know the best proportions for the alloy you need. Nobody in this timeline does—not in Europe, not anywhere. After years of trying, you settle on an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony, which miraculously fills in the serifs.
Lead and tin (from mines in the Harz mountains to the north) are cheap and common in Mainz, where pewtersmiths alloy them to make mugs and other utensils. But antimony, which hardens lead, is rare in Mainz, so knowledge of its alloys is patchy. So sometimes you get good type, but mostly you get soft type. You resign yourself to having to pay for new type often.
Next, you visit the vintners to see how to make a press. You soon learn that, despite what future folklore might say, wine presses are great for crushing grapes but not for printing. You need an especially smooth wooden screw to press your paper evenly down on your inked type. If not, your press would shred every sheet of paper fed to it. Also, the winery’s beam press exerts such force that it would squash your too-soft metal type. So you next visit the linen weavers. They iron their linen (or put pleats in damask cloth) with a screw press, which you find works well with your soft, thick paper.
Now all you have to do is hire a carpenter to remake the press so that you can feed sheets of paper in for brief pressings. That gives you everything you need.
But when you put the parts together you find that the copyists’ ink won’t work. It’s made from soot (for the color), and oak galls—crushed, soaked, and boiled in a rusted iron pot—for the tannic acid that etches skin. It’s great for writing on skin, but it won’t stick to your upraised metal type.
So you visit the painters to find out how to make your ink stickier. After the usual round of bribes and spying, you find out that you have to turn the ink from a watercolor into a varnish by boiling it with oil. You then visit the oilmillers, who make linseed oil from flax—which is plentiful, thanks to the linen trade. They lightly roast flaxseed, stuff it in woolen bags, then crush those in a wooden press. But when you try that oil, you come across yet another problem. The oil does indeed make the ink sticky enough, but the soot in the ink won’t bind with the oil, so your printing is faint and uneven. On returning to the painters—and more of the usual sneaking and bribing—you find out that you have to bind the soot and oil by boiling both with soap and gum.
Getting gum is no problem. The painters make it by crushing gum arabic (resin imported from North African acacia trees). But soap isn’t so easy. Making it from tallow and ashes isn’t hard, but there’s little demand. In this period, and unlike in Muslim Europe, in Christian Europe even the rich often avoid bathing. It’s thought unhealthy. Instead, Christians prefer to mask odor with perfume. (The common saying at this time is: “Where all stink, no one is smelled.”)
However, you can get some soap from the chandlers. They mostly make tallow candles (and a few of the less smelly beeswax candles for the rich), but they also make a little soft soap—it’s useful for enemas. That gives you an ink that works.
But daubing the ink on the type either takes too long, if done carefully, or wastes too much ink, if done sloppily. So you steal an idea from the woodcut makers, who nail a piece of leather to a rolling pin to thus roll ink onto their woodcuts. However their stone rolling pins damage your soft metal type, so instead you nail a leather ball stuffed with horsehair to a stick. To ink the type, you roll the spongy ball on the inkblock then swab it over the typebed. After a while, though, the leather grows brittle and the old ink cakes on it. So you consult the tanners, who tell you that to keep the leather supple between uses you must keep it in a bucket of old urine. (They don’t know it, but stale urine produces ammonia, which is a strong cleanser.)
Now you must decide how to arrange all the elements in your shop, especially how to arrange the type for easy typesetting. You decide on capital letters in a wooden case above another case holding minuscule letters—thus, an upper case and a lower case. Then you must design your type, and hire and train your typographers, press operators, and the artists who will illuminate your books.
Then one night, one of the fires common to a cramped wooden town filled with rushes, splinters, tapers, lamps, and cooking fires, burns your paper-and-oily-rag-filled workshop to the ground. You have to start over.
All that work has taken years of your life. You’re now decrepit. Many of your teeth have fallen out from recurrent scurvy thanks to the lack of fresh fruit in winter. Your skin is pitted from bouts of smallpox, eczema, and psoriasis. You have arthritis thanks to dysentery and poor diet. Your eyesight is failing and eyeglasses aren’t common yet. You couldn’t afford them anyway. You also now bear scars from knife fights defending your few remaining coins from cutpurses in town and from brigands on your trips outside town. Plus you smell like a horse.
But at least you finally know how to build a prototype printing press in this epoch.
Knowledge can be immensely valuable. But to be useful, it has to fit into a network at a particular time and place. Even given all your future knowledge, you couldn’t have done what you did were it not for the centuries-long work of a dozen guilds. Further, you have to inject a lot of effort to mate all those works into a new reaction network of people and tools capable of making a device that can print on a mass scale.
Even all that isn’t enough to change us much because you also need money to buy and transport that machine’s parts. And money to cause them to be put together. And money to keep their supplies flowing. And money to run the press. Not to mention money for a place to keep it. Don’t forget money to move and sell your books. There’s also money to travel, to bribe and spy, and to pay for room and board for yourself and your apprentices. And to keep everything secret.
So you hock your tools and supplies to a rich merchant who you somehow convince that you can do the mad thing that you claim you can. He then borrows 1,550 gold florins—a huge sum—at six percent, and becomes your backer.
But after some years, your backer notices that your chief ’prentice—a Paris drop-out from nearby Gernsheim up the Rhine—often disappears with his only daughter, whose belly is beginning to swell. He quickly arranges for them to marry. That gets him all your printing secrets. Then, since you haven’t paid him back yet—and show no sign of doing so—he brings suit at the monastery of the Barefoot Friars to get your tools and your stock of sample printed pages. He shows up with his brother, both solid burghers, and two clerics. You don’t even go; you send two of your apprentices.
So you’re penniless again. Tempting opportunities for assisted suicide appear often—hunger riots, plague, dysentery, typhus, catching leprosy from the pariahs forced to live outside town, random violence, the occasional war, a footpad’s knife.
You must also somehow create enough demand for print to make it pay in a time when almost nobody in Europe can read, and even fewer can write. So you must sell to the few merchants who need printing to run their shops. You must also sell to the few nobles and clerics who are literate enough to read, rich enough to buy, and crazy enough to own your fake manuscripts. So your first products can’t be newly written books. They must be things like Bibles for nobles; grammars for universities and cathedral schools; and waybills for merchants. Plus, if you dare, some under-the-counter porn.
You also have to worry about the cathedrals and universities. Together, they control what you could print, since they control much of both demand and supply. You also have to worry about the local princeling and his brute squad. He won’t like this strange new idea of having his human possessions talking to each other directly through print—who knows what they might say. Then you have to worry about the scribes. They invest years to become competent, if not proficient, at their arcane art, taking pride in their work, and you’re about to destroy their trade. So while you’re on a trip to Paris to sell some of your first books, they accuse you of dealing with the devil to make such uniform copies at such low cost. That could get you run out of town—or run through with a sword.
Meanwhile, the townsfolk can’t stop laughing. ‘Scribeless writing’? That’s as impossible as a horseless carriage. However, more years slip by and, somehow, you solve all your new problems. Now, finally, you own a working printshop. Everyone stops laughing.
In this age, Bibles are so rare that they’re deeded on death like plots of land. They take a scribe nearly a year to copy and can cost ten times what even a well-to-do merchant could earn in that year. Your faux Bibles cost a fifth as much. Books at the time are a kind of expensive furniture, and you’ve just built a semi-automated furniture manufactory.
In the streets, instead of spitting on you as usual, everyone now sucks up to you.
However, you now have a new set of problems. Your outlay for your printshop is far higher than hiring some scribes and sticking them in a cowshed. Also, having to replace your too-soft metal type every few months adds to the cost. Plus paper is still both costly and rare. Demand is still low. So your printed books are still costly, just not as costly as handwritten ones. So the clergy and nobility still control what you can print. In particular, the one-page indulgence is big business, since it can wash away sin, even future sin. Even illiterates buy it—instead of just one peccadillo they could pick a peck of peccadilloes. Murder, incest, sodomy, sorcery, church robbing, all have prices. So, even after your costs start to fall, you’ll only have strengthened the clerics and the nobles.
So even after years of risk and hardship, little appears to have changed. But at least you can now make some money—provided you do just what all guilds do—suck up to money and power, and keep your process secret.
It’s now October 28th, 1462, 14 years after you landed in Mainz on October 16th, 1448. That night you wake to a tumult. An archbishop, coveting Mainz’s riches, is besieging the town. In 12 hours of fighting, his 500 mercenaries plunder and burn, killing about 400 townsfolk, including your ex-backer’s brother. Two days later, they drive out hundreds more, including the printers. The archbishop even steals your house.
It seems that all your work has been in vain. You’ve lost everything. But Mainz’s exiled printers now carry the art of fake handwriting up and down the Rhine and Main, like a fire running up rivers of gasoline. By 1480, at least 110 towns would have printing presses. By 1500, 236 would. By then, the new presses would have already churned out some 40,000 new editions in perhaps 20 million copies. That’s more books in a few decades than Europe’s total handwritten output for the previous thousand years.
It was a gigantic mental explosion, for this was in a world where monks would travel many miles to visit a monastery or cathedral simply because it had as many as 20 handwritten manuscripts.
Books and paper and paper mills then worked synergetically with the multiplying printing presses, just as railroads and coal mines and iron mines would later do with the multiplying steam engines. As presses spread, so did paper mills. As the volume of paper rose, its price fell, then so did the price of books. Finally unchained from the sheep supply—and the cramped and chilblained hands of monks, copyists, and scriveners—bookmaking went autocatalytic. That then slashed the cost of both bookmaking and papermaking because if we can make cheap books, we can make cheap books about how to make more cheap books.
Suddenly, knowledge was no longer as locked in our heads, no longer as jealously guarded and passed on only from father to son, from mother to daughter, from guild member to ’prentice. More of us could be changed by others without having to be alive when they were alive. No longer did we have to be in the same family, live in the same town, belong to the same guild.
Further, before the press, books were costly and rare, so authors were few, and many of those few had to be lapdogs of the mighty. As the price of books fell, more of us became readers—so more of us could become authors. As authors, not having to suck up so much, we could say more of what we really thought. We also started to race to be the first with a new thought. Plus, we started to care more about being correct—our readers might know more than we did.
Thus, more ideas flowed out of our skulls and mingled in a growing sea of more reliable thought. That new abundance and reliability made some of us more skeptical of any thought. More of us started asking for a new thing—proof. Soon, every author was checkable; every two ideas were pairable; every thought was questionable. Our ideas got a ticket to ride, and where they alit, they didn’t care.
But while all that began happening to us in Europe by about 1500, it didn’t happen as quickly elsewhere. Although in our Muslim lands we had paper and other high-tech tools long before Europe, we banned Arabic presses until at least 1727. Movable type broke the cursive style, and the press threatened religious authority. But even having presses wasn’t enough. In China and Korea we had them centuries before Europe, but they were large and remained state owned (perhaps because their number of characters was around 40,000 instead of a few dozen).
In Europe, though, early presses were so small they could even go mobile. There, we could dismantle one, pack it onto an oxcart, or float it on a raft, and unpack it in the next town. And perhaps that was Europe’s core difference—there, we could say something and run away. The next town might not have enough readers to make it pay, but it might at least have a different ruler. So, like roaches, when threatened, we could just run and hide—and even churn out print about how to run and hide. Soon, we could make fun of even the pope in print. Once we could do that, we could make fun of anyone. Which we did.
That then petrified the mighty. Heresies had come before; revolts had come before; but none had survived mass slaughter to stamp them out. For instance, against the Cathars, a Christian sect, the Catholic Church had created the Inquisition and declared a Crusade. In 1209 in one French city alone, and in one day, Catholic warlords had murdered everyone there—perhaps 20,000 men, women, children, even babies—Cathar and Catholic alike. The saying at the time was: “Kill them all. God knows his own.” Print, though, spread new thought wider and faster. The powerful might ban, exile, torture, and kill as they like, but bonfires can burn only so many books.
So, just as the steam engine plus coal would one day bring about ‘riverless waterwheels,’ thus adding to our physical power, the printing press plus paper brought about ‘writerless scribes,’ thus adding to our mental power. If the steam engine is the iconic invention of our last big physical phase change, the printing press is its analog for our last big mental phase change. It didn’t change the number of our brains, or their size, or even their location, but their linkage—that is, their networking. Armed with it, we increased how much and how fast and how widely we could create, amass, recombine, and spread ideas. It also changed how we tested ideas, at least a little bit, by encouraging something we weren’t used to: questioning authority. So, just as the steam engine triggered waves of change after a long period of near-stasis, so did the printing press. It was the very pulse of the machine.
As Wordsworth would later say of something else, Europe’s printing press was a being “breathing thoughtful breath.” Before it, to make anything that needed lots of mental effort, we had to bring together many experts in many fields. That took a lot of force, a lot of money, or a lot of time. The printing press is itself an example. After it, though, we could hold expertise in our hands. One of us could more cheaply leverage the mental effort of dozens of us.
So that led to a big jump in our mental power, right? Nope. Or at least, not at first. The first big result was mass bloodshed—preceded by mass protests, riots, and uprisings against authority, both religious and civil. For example, Martin Luther, the chief protester behind Protestantism in 1517, later sided with the nobility and clergy against a peasant revolt that his own printed work had helped incite. As a result, perhaps 100,000 peasants were massacred. By 1543 he also wrote a book inciting pogroms against Jews—and exactly four centuries later, another German leader was to take him seriously.
But Europe’s mental resources also began to phase change as its old ideas and its old ways of thought slowly began to disintegrate under the relentless hammerblows of print. More and yet more of us began to say what we thought in a phase change still ongoing today, half a millennium later.
By the 1660s, Europe’s idea firestorm, fanned along by the printing press, was still burning briskly. The acrid stench of singed dogmas had triggered a new questioning spirit in both religion and politics. Many new sects were still quarreling about how we were to live our lives. Some called for legal divorce, legal polygamy, the vote for all adult males. Others called for free enterprise, an end to monarchy, separation of church and state. Yet others called for vows of poverty for priests, religious freedom, liberty for all—sometimes even for women, at times, even for slaves. Over here, we shouted for free love. Over there, for no private property. Over yonder, for common male ownership of all property—including sexual access to all nubile females. Nudists, vegetarians, even female preachers—seemingly anything went. Had we miniskirts, electric guitars, and the Rolling Stones it would have been the ’60s all over again—except, oops, three centuries before we stopped hanging each other for saying whatever we pleased.
All those sects had been growing since Luther’s first printed protest against the pope in 1517. But one obscure one had been growing at least since 1514, when Copernicus handwrote a 40-page outline of a sun-centered solar system. They called themselves ‘natural philosophers.’ They acted just like any other sect—tiny numbers, weekly meetings, ceaseless bickering—but weren’t persecuted like one because, strictly speaking, their big idea was neither political nor religious (although in this period there really wasn’t such a thing as an idea that wasn’t in some way religious). In essence, they thought that the cosmos was a machine.
In itself, that thought wasn’t new. Earlier thinkers, like Aristotle in Greece two millennia before, had thought much the same. This time, though, members of the new sect—building on work from all over, and going back centuries—began to rely on math, instruments, or experiment. Aristotle hadn’t. So their approach, unlike Aristotle’s, might lead to precise and testable predictions. For instance, one of them might use math and instruments to conclude that the earth was flattened at the poles by a precise amount. Was that right? They were beginning to think that to answer such questions it was no longer enough to read old books then argue about them. Now the idea was to go and look. For them, ideas about the world were becoming worthwhile only if they could be precisely stated and physically tested. Aristotle’s couldn’t.
Aristotle had been meticulous and careful, but he had no talent for math. He also had never tried to make instruments to improve his observations. Nor had he seen the value of testing his notions. He thought that all things, from the sun to a planet to a crab, behaved as they did because they had built-in purposes—ends, goals, the things for which they were made. So if something didn’t behave as he thought, that only meant that he hadn’t correctly guessed its purpose yet. He could always guess again. Thus, rain fell and rocks rolled for much the same reason that eggs hatched and trees grew—built-in tendencies drove them to do those things. Everything tended toward some built-in goal state—its purpose. So, for him, kids didn’t grow into adults because of a long sequence of small changes. Kids grew up because that’s what something inside them was striving to do.
Today, his way of thought might look like playing tennis with the net down, but he was still pivotal to the obscure sect of wayward thinkers because, like a few others who lived before him, and whose work he built on, he tried to show that we could make sense of the cosmos without turning to gods or magic. His assumptions were often wrong, so his conclusions were often wrong, but he always tried to be comprehensive, consistent, and, above all, logical. He called his system of thought the Organon (Greek for The Tool).
Two millennia later, Europe’s little sect of natural philosophers built on his logic but slowly shed his assumption of unseen built-in purpose. Over time, they came to assume that most everything (except life-forms, they thought) was passive. For them, nearly everything did whatever it did because its parts were acted on by mathematically consistent and physically testable forces.
So their new idea quickly spread all over Europe, right? Nope. For Europe in the 1660s, it hardly mattered. War mattered.
In German-speaking lands, about one in three of us there had just died. Ditto for Czech lands. Poland was a smoking ruin. France and Spain were decimated and exhausted. Ireland was starving, and half of us there had just died, emigrated, or been enslaved by England. Also, while many big wars were just over, having a small one was still something we did whenever there was nothing good on TV. Thus, around then, England went to war roughly every three and a half years. Meanwhile, all Europe seemed on the verge of being swallowed whole by the still growing Ottoman Empire, which would get as far as Vienna by 1683.
Plus, after any war, mercenary bands, which were what passed for armies back then, roamed Europe, looting and pillaging. Also, the Inquisition was still tromping over Iberia and the future Latin America, burning Jews, heretics, sodomites, witches. Besides all that, either famine or plague or hard winter might visit every few years. In 1661, parts of England suffered harvest failure. In 1665, England suffered a Great Plague. In 1666, London burned in a Great Fire. In 1667, a Great Frost froze the Thames solid.
In the Europe of this era, life was short and cheap. Families with 15 to 17 kids weren’t strange, and the age of adulthood was 12 for girls, 14 for boys. (Sixty years before, Shakespeare had married off his Juliet—and her mother before her—at 13). There, we started breeding young and made many babies because one in five died in childbirth, and mothers often died giving birth to them.
In this world, starving to death in the streets was common. Ripping a bear or dog or cock to pieces was a spectator sport. Hangings were the chief entertainments at monthly carnivals. And every town dangled leathery, bird-pecked corpses at its gates as a sign that it was tough on crime.
So most of us there didn’t puzzle over whether or not the cosmos was a machine; we worried about more urgent matters—like how to survive to 20 years old.
So while Europe’s newest sect talked their crazy talk in little coteries, mostly in the northwestern Atlantic region—in London, Edinburgh, Paris, Amsterdam, Leiden, Leipzig, and elsewhere—few of us listened. Nearly all of us continued to live in a version of Aristotle’s animate, purpose-filled cosmos.
Thus, in our candlelit world, if our babies died, demons may have possessed them. If our cows took sick, a witch may have hexed them. And if our backs suddenly pained us, we may have been ‘witch-shot,’ a term that survives today in Italian (colpo della strega), German (hexenschuß), and Danish (hekseskud).
How could we take the new style of thought seriously, even if we could understand it? We would have to reject many things that many of us had believed for millennia. For one, it would mean replacing dogma, authority, and spirits with math, instruments, and tests—none of which we’re good at. We’re good at biology’s four Fs: feeding, fighting, fleeing, and, um, reproduction. And were we not, we wouldn’t be here to think about not being especially good at anything else.
But attitudes in Europe did begin to change—for many reasons. From the 1200s to the 1400s, Europe developed, inherited, or stole, shipping aids like the compass, the sternpost rudder, the lateen sail, and the quadrant. By around 1500, such tools, coupled with the gun, had helped lead to slave raids on Africa, cheaper trade with Asia, and conquest in the Americas. Along with booty, explorers in the Americas started bringing back strange plants and animals. What were we to make of those? The Bible didn’t say. By around 1600, new sights had also started growing in Europe itself as both the telescope and the microscope began to spread. What did those mean?
All that helped further catalyze the new questioning spirit that the printing press had helped trigger. Cheaper paper and ever more books also meant more readers. That meant a growing news system and a growing postal system. By the 1660s, that also led to Europe’s first two natural philosophy journals (in England and France), which is one way the new sect coalesced—by talking to itself.
But those weren’t the only reasons Europe’s mental habits began to change. That had begun to change much earlier, around 1100, because of several converging chains of ideas. In all our literate countries—today’s Iraq, Egypt, Greece, Turkey, Syria, the list is long...—we had spent millennia slowly creating, amassing, recombining, testing, and spreading ideas about math, logic, and the cosmos. Then, relatively suddenly, Europe gained access to many of those ideas. That was like striking oil, except that instead of energy, the new well spouted geysers of thought. With that injection of pure adrenaline, mainlined straight into Europe’s intellectual heart, no longer did a few monks in a few scattered monasteries make all Europe’s written lore about how the cosmos worked. Its cloisters filled with the sound of excited scribbling as its monks tried to ingest at least 1,500 years of thought in one gargantuan bite. That event, perhaps more than any other, may be what started all the other pinballs rolling, leading to math, to shipping, to guns, to printing, and on.
In 1159, at a monastery in Canterbury, one of those exhilarated scribblers wrote that “we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or for our height, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.”
By 1687, standing on the shoulders of millennia of giants, Isaac Newton published his thoughts on gravity. Suddenly, we could explain the motions of planets and moons, comets and eclipses, tides and falling apples—pretty much everything everywhere—in a wholly new way. With that, the Copernican cat jumped out of the Aristotelian bag.
Or so the popular story today often goes. But telling the story that way would be to laud rare success by ignoring routine failure. What about all the countries and all the centuries where we didn’t change?
For example, both the telescope and the microscope came along at about the same time—1610. One led to major new insights into how the cosmos worked in under 80 years. But the other didn’t lead to major new insights into how our bodies worked for over 280 years. Why? Like the telescope, the microscope showed us many new things, but merely seeing new things wasn’t by itself enough to force us to see things anew.
The difficulties that likely surrounded creation of the printing press in Europe, and the unevenness of its later spread around the globe, suggest that no tool, no discoverer, no inventor, no innovator—if isolated—can do much. In a densely integrated network, big changes can happen only when a potential change-bringer fits into a particular slot in the network at a particular time. Lots of pieces have to support it, and it has to mesh with lots of other pieces, or else nothing much might happen. For a fire we need a match, but we also need tinder—and the tinder needs to be dry, and in one place.
However, Newton’s book did go on to trigger big changes in Europe. But not for a while, and not by itself. For one thing, at first nearly none of us there even noticed it. Of the tiny few who did, most didn’t understand it. To most of those few, his huge tome was just a long series of mathematical squiggles marching down the page. For most of us in Europe, the new thinkers weren’t savants leading us into a new age. If we heard of them at all, it was as figures of fun in new London plays. What they said, and how they said it, was just too kooky for the rest of us to take seriously.
So the new style of thought wasn’t quickly accepted—or valued—or even understood. Our older ways of thought were easier to take, more supported, and much more entrenched. But it spread from our wig-wearing, snuff-taking philosophers to our apron-wearing, dirty-fingernailed artisans. And why? Much as was to happen in another prolific period (1860-1910), the new way of thought was part of a burst of change, not just in math and astronomy, but also in practical things—in this case, optics, metallurgy, mechanics, and pneumatics.
Thanks to the press, rising literacy, more translations, bigger towns, greater exploration, spreading financial tools, more precious metals, more slaves, more trade—and before all that, the Black Death—Europe’s merchant class was growing. (Something similar had happened in Europe in the 1100s, but a climate crash in the 1300s had choked that off.) So, just as in the 1100s (and later in the 1800s), there was money to be made and power to be gained by inventing new tools, especially in what by 1707 would become Britain. Except this time there were presses to spread the word. And towns to spread the word in. And readers to spread the word to.
Tool-making, instead of remaining the idle hobby of a few bright dabblers in the nobility or clergy, more and more became the norm for some of the cleverest kids of that rising class. More of us were reading not just because of the press but because of the jobs that the press opened us to. The town demanded things of us the village never did. Trade and industry required skills of us the farm never had. So knowledge specialization and knowledge concentration grew. Knowledge about how stuff worked grew. Knowledge of the physical world grew. And all that knowledge spread faster, more widely, and more cheaply.
So over the next century, new products that mattered in both trade and war began to spread in northwestern Europe. Over time, several of us there had, among other things: eyeglasses, pendulum clocks, pocket watches, clocks that worked on ships, precision octants, more accurate telescopes, leaf-springs for carriages, cheap iron pots, flintlock guns, gun cartridges, and longer-range guns. That was new. Previously, philosophers weren’t there to do things; they were there to explain why things couldn’t be done.
One particular tool stream would later matter a great deal, first to Britain, then to the rest of Europe and its transplants, then to the whole planet. In 1643 came the first barometer, which proved that a vacuum could exist, despite what Aristotle had said two millennia before. By 1654 came the first vacuum pump; by 1671, the first vacuum chamber. Then by 1698, came the first crude steam engine; by 1712, the first useful one; and by 1776, the first fuel-efficient one.
As early as 1755, a statue of Newton stood in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge, a new object of veneration. By then, Europe was already turning its new thinkers into its latest secular saints. Aside from everything else, the new tools, especially in navigation and weaponry, made war in Europe more and more intense—and war with anyone outside Europe more and more of a joke.
Then in 1783 came a huge sensation as half of Paris watched the first public balloon ascent. That stunned everybody. The skies were for birds and angels, so what was this? Everywhere in Europe, we began to say that now that we could fly, it must be a new age. So of course some of us at once bet on who would be first to have sex in the sky.
By 1800, Europe’s newest sect was turning into its newest orthodoxy. Most of us there still didn’t understand it, but that no longer mattered. The physical tools it had led to already mattered so much that tribal pride had begun to take over. Even politicians and playwrights and poets were parroting the new ideas. Wordsworth would eulogize Newton as a lone intellect, forever “voyaging through strange seas of thought.” Not that most of us in Europe necessarily believed in the new view, but it became fashionable to say that we did. In airy drawing rooms all over Europe, as well-dressed lords and ladies, we now spoke of it just as if we knew what we were talking about. By then, it seemed clear to many of us in Europe that something important had changed. Somehow, it now seemed possible to unscrew the back of the cosmos and see how it worked—and, perhaps more importantly, use the screws and springs and gears we found there to gain power over the world, and each other. More of us then started looking at the cosmos as a machine (except for ourselves, we thought). We began building a new organon, slowly backsliding away from the old doctrine of Aristotle and his forebears and inching toward the new heresy of Newton and his descendants. Today we call that organon ‘science.’
A Microscope Made of Numbers
Science led to many changes, but they were uneven. To ward off lightning storms in the 1660s in Europe, we rang church bells and prayed; by 1800, though, we were installing lightning rods. However nearly all of us, whether in Europe or elsewhere, were still peasants, still illiterate, still had big families, still died young in large numbers, and still suffered from much the same ailments that we had in Egypt or Iraq four or more millennia before. For most of us, over four in every five died before reaching ten years old, and our life expectancy at birth wobbled somewhere between 20 and 35 years. Science helped change all that—but not until the 1890s. Since then, all around the planet, our average life expectancy has more than doubled. Just from the early 1950s to the early 2000s, it leapt from about 48 years to about 68 years. In 2005, we lived almost ten years longer than we did just in 1970. Much of the groundwork for that health and lifespan phase change started in the 1830s, when Europe first faced a virulent new disease. That disease was cholera.
A cholera bacterium is good at its job. When it enters a host’s mouth it shuts itself down and shores up its armor to get past the acids in the stomach. Once in the gut, it discards its armor and grows a swimming tail, which lets it reach an intestinal cell. It then discards its tail and starts disrupting the cell’s sodium pumps. Those pumps then flush their cell’s water and electrolytes into the gut, which bloats. Then comes explosive diarrhea and vomiting. The host ejects up to a gallon of fluid every four hours. Within 12 hours, the blood loses a quarter of its volume, then it coagulates. The extremities grow cold, the skin wrinkles, the eyes sink. The body, deflating like a burst balloon, goes into hypovolemic shock. The heart and kidneys fail.
Without treatment, cholera’s most virulent strain is one of the most rapidly fatal illnesses we know. In two to three hours it can kill one in every two of our healthiest adults—and almost all our sick, starved, old, and young. Today, it’s no threat in our rich lands, where even a simple glucose and electrolyte drink, like Gatorade, will save lives. But in the 1830s, Europe had no idea what to do. Back then, Europe’s main medical idea was to make the sick expel various fluids—starting with cutting them to make them bleed. (At the time, putting someone ‘in a good humor’ had a medical meaning.) All such treatments were just about the wrongest possible things to do for catastrophic dehydration.
So as cholera spread from India in 1816 to Europe, to Britain, to North America by 1832, millions of us died. The best remedy that doctors in the United States came up with was brandy and water. But they tried bleeding first. They also tried mustard poultices, opium, and morphine. They tried quinine, turpentine, and camphor. They tried castor oil, hot punch and hartshorn, tobacco enemas, hot sandbags, and—the latest rage—electric shocks. Earlier, doctors in Britain had also tried brandy. But they also tried sulfuric acid. They tried enemas and bleedings. They tried hot flannels and hot-air baths. They tried ringing the sick with hot bricks, setting off smoke bombs, putting buckets of burning pitch in the streets—they tried everything they could think of. Nothing helped.
In Europe and its transplant countries, cholera terrified us not just because it killed lots of us—lots of things killed lots of us—but also because it was a new way to die. It didn’t fit any of the ideas that we had built up over millennia to deal with mass death.
In battle, we could explain death—or rather, justify it—by claiming heroic self-sacrifice. In the home, child deaths were so normal that, in a way, we found them easy to accept. Our little ones often died, and that was that. In the rest of life, most diseases first made us feel ill, then took their time killing us. Tuberculosis, for instance, took months or years to kill. Its symptoms were also easy to care for. Also, diseases that we found horrid, like leprosy, usually spread slowly enough that we could flee, isolating any carriers and abandoning them outside town to die.
But cholera? In some ways it was worse than the plague. It could take down an entire family in a few hours. Plus, it did so by forcing us to vomit and defecate in huge volumes. It thus killed us as fast as on the battlefield. It killed us as mysteriously as other ailments took our young. It struck without warning, laughing at our remedies. And it killed us revoltingly. The only way we could make sense of it was as a curse, like a volcano or earthquake. Church attendance shot up everywhere.
Under such pressure, we looked around for someone to blame. Thus, in New York in the summer of 1832, cholera at first mostly afflicted the poor, the free black, the slave, the native, and the French, German, and particularly the Irish immigrant. So, obviously, they must have brought it on themselves. The Irish, being both recent and Catholic, were obvious suspects, not to mention riffraff. Similarly, in London, our rich blamed our poor, and our poor blamed our government. In the slums, many of us believed that doctors were taking cholera patients to hospitals to kill so that they could use the bodies for dissections. Others of us thought that either the doctors or the druggists had poisoned the wells to drum up business. Yet others of us held that the government had brought cholera on us to kill the poor. Doctors thus went in fear of their lives in the poorer parts of towns.
Had cholera only killed our poor, perhaps not much might have changed. But cholera didn’t care about our poverty lines. As it started killing more than just our poor, we began to believe that it must be divine punishment for the dissolute, the wanton, the irregular churchgoer. Then, as it kept killing us no matter who we were, or what we did, we concluded that since even the most blameless and pure (and rich) got sick, they must have been secretly sinful. Why else did they get sick?
In London, by June 1832, and with 22,000 dead, the urban poor were rioting. The government, fearing its own demise more than the deaths of its citizenry, quickly passed many laws about living and working conditions. But that was nothing new—it had been doing so for the past two decades as our numbers had rocketed up with the phase change into industry. Somehow, though, the government nearly always forgot to fund those laws, oversee them, or enforce them.
However, one of the laws passed in 1836 did trigger big changes. But that law wasn’t about cholera. It wasn’t even about medicine. It was about statistics. The state, wanting better mortality data, started collecting and centralizing detailed data on births, marriages, and deaths. Not for medical reasons, of course. It wanted to better manage title deeds, as well as to make more money selling annuities to the public. But out of that mass of data would come astonishment as a few of us mined it, putting Britain under the microscope of the new human statistics. We had built low-powered optical microscopes since the early 1600s, and high-powered ones since the 1660s, but it was only in the 1830s that we stumbled upon a new kind of microscope—a microscope made of numbers.
Whirlpool of Conjecture
In 1842 in Britain, a reformer used the new numbers microscope to show us a country we didn’t recognize. In Manchester, 57 percent of the kids born to working-class mothers died before reaching five years old. In Liverpool, 62 percent of all deaths in its laborer pool occurred before the age of five. In Britain as a whole, even babies born into the gentry couldn’t expect to live past age 43. Those born into trades and such, likely wouldn’t live to see 30. For those born into labor and the like, the age of expected death was 22. In cities like Liverpool, laborer life expectancy at birth was 15. Further, whether rich or poor, for every one of us dying of old age or violence, eight of us died from disease.
As the news spread, outrage grew. So the government sprang to help: It passed another slew of nearly toothless laws. Parliament’s first problem was ignorance of the real problem. So it turned to the doctors. But they had no idea what to do, either.
In London—by then, the biggest and richest city of our richest, most powerful country—perhaps 640,000 of us had no piped water. Nor did having piped water always mean that we were happy with it. Sometimes eels, living and dead, poured from our taps. Dead bodies, from mice to babies, sometimes floated in our cisterns. Cesspits sometimes overflowed into our water supply. Street standpipes supplied water for at most one hour a day, just three days a week. Nor was that water always pure. One of our water companies even took its supply from the Thames right next to a sewage outflow. In our poorest streets we had no standpipes at all. There we lived from bucket to bucket, buying water at one to three ha’pennies a pail. We used it to wash ourselves, then reused it for clothes, then floors. Most of us didn’t wash anything other than faces, hands, and necks. We all announced our class by our clothes and speech—and smell.
In such a world, cholera or no cholera, many diseases killed us in the tens of thousands a year. Thus, Britain’s first cholera epidemic in 1831 was followed by an influenza epidemic in 1837, then a typhoid epidemic in 1838. In England and Wales, cholera killed 53,293 of us in 1848-1849. But so what? Influenza had killed around 50,000 of us the year before, in 1847-1848. Smallpox, diphtheria, and dysentery were also big killers. Meanwhile, over in Ireland, a potato famine was then busy killing a million of us. Cholera was nothing special compared to so many other killers: typhoid, scarlet fever, smallpox, tuberculosis, even measles.
The only thing special about cholera was that it was fast and new—and thus scary. Had we reacted in our usual ways, in a few centuries we probably would have adjusted to it and accepted it. But now we had new tools, and a new attitude toward testing. With balloons in the sky and steam engines on the ground, we felt that if we put our new attitude to work, we could solve the problem. After all, this was a new age, wasn’t it?
In 1852 a doctor used the numbers microscope to find that London’s cholera deaths seemed to relate to ‘bad smells’ (‘miasma’). The chance of death followed the contour lines along the fetid Thames. The math seemed clear: The higher we were, the safer we were. How rich we were didn’t matter. That got Parliament’s attention. The doctor then suggested that it clean up the sewage-filled river. Westminster harrumphed into its muttonchop whiskers.
A year later, cholera killed 10,738 Londoners. Another doctor used the numbers microscope to trace nearly 500 deaths in ten days to one street’s water pump. But the pump wasn’t taking water from the smelly Thames. Hmm. Maybe cholera was carried in water, not air? But that didn’t fit. Everybody believed in bad smells. The government did lots more nothing.
During the next outbreak, only one water company obeyed a new law and piped fresh water into London. Few of that company’s customers died, but neighbors all around them did—their water companies had ignored the (as usual, unenforced) law, continuing to take water from the fecal Thames. Still Parliament did nothing. Maybe sewerage would save lives, but it would also cost money.
Then in the summer of 1858, the Thames turned into a public sewer. Parliament fled the rooms nearest the river. The press thought that hilarious. By analogy with the Great Exhibition in 1851, they called it The Great Stink. Handkerchief-to-nose, Parliament then rushed through funding for the sewerage engineers’ plans in a record 16 days. A quarter-million deaths in Britain from cholera just from 1848 to 1854 alone was bearable. Making law in a stinky room was not.
Eight years later, the main work was done. That finally, um, flushed out the problem. By the 1890s, cholera mostly avoided big cities in western Europe and North America, then later in the rest of Europe’s transplants. By then, they had all revamped their sewerage.
All that is, except Hamburg, whose city leaders had dithered over filtering its water—largely for political reasons. In 1892, cholera once again hit Hamburg, which still took its water from the sewage-filled Elbe. Its sister city, Altona, also took water from the fecal Elbe, but sand-filtered it. When cholera struck Hamburg, it killed 8,605 of us there. But it spared Altona, except for later killing 328 of us in one small area—which took its water from Hamburg. Even politicians couldn’t ignore that unplanned lab test.
So by the 1890s Europe and its transplants defeated cholera, right? Well, yes and no. There we put up the lightning rods, but didn’t understand the lightning. So we had no real idea why the rods worked, or whether they would always work. Cholera wasn’t really defeated, it was deflected, and we didn’t understand why. To truly defeat it, and similar diseases, we had to do more than lay sewer lines and put in some of the new high-pressure steam pumps. We had to see infectious diseases in a wholly new way. That was far harder than merely mustering the will to spend more money on public works.
For one thing, as doctors it would mean admitting that we had been doing the wrong things—and thus had been needlessly killing our patients—for millennia. For another, it would mean accepting that we all must have been ingesting each other’s fecal matter for millennia. That was too much to swallow.
So we instead blamed cholera on the spread of industry. We blamed the growth of cities. We blamed supposed electrical or magnetic changes in the earth itself. In 1853 we had wailed that “all is darkness and confusion, vague theory, and a vain speculation. Is [cholera] a fungus, an insect, a miasm, an electrical disturbance, a deficiency of ozone, a morbid off-scouring from the intestinal canal? We know nothing; we are at sea in a whirlpool of conjecture.”
That confusion continued for decades.
Why, though, were we so confused when we had long had microscopes good enough to see microbes? Was it because such microscopes were still fuzzy and costly and rare? Nope. When better ones arrived, all they did was show us even more things that we hadn’t known existed—and couldn’t explain—so they caused more confusion, not less. Was it because nobody had thought tiny things could kill? Nope. As early as 1847 (in Vienna) and 1854 (in Florence) and elsewhere, a few doctors and anatomists had already begun to think that maybe microbes might be killers. Yet as doctors, most of us ignored them. We did so for many reasons, special to each case, but there’s one overarching reason:
We couldn’t understand what our microscopes were showing us.
Seeing microbes in a dead body needn’t mean that they killed the body, any more than seeing ants at a picnic means that they caused the picnic. They might merely be byproducts of the fatal illness. They needn’t be its cause. For one thing, microbes that looked a lot like cholera microbes teemed in certain cheeses. Why didn’t we die when we ate cheese? Besides, when we looked inside our own bodies, no matter how healthy we were, we saw all sorts of microbes. If they could kill, how come we weren’t all dead? In any case, we thought that they were too tiny to kill. The best analog to them that we could think of was that of a poison. But what poison could continue to kill no matter how much we diluted it? Seeing something is meaningless unless we have a structure in which it can fit.
Data isn’t knowledge until we have a theory that it fits into.
In Europe at the time, our oldest theory of infection dated at least as far back as the Greeks over two millennia before. It held that if lots of us got sick all at once, then the air must have become charged with bad smells. The resulting smelly vapors caused disease. That idea was plastic enough to fit many diseases, no matter what we saw, or how we tried to test it. So refuting it was hard. Besides, after it had survived for a long while, and death was on the line, how could so many of us have been so wrong for so long? So it must be right.
Another theory held that disease just spawned in the blood, just as flies just sprang from rotting meat. That also went back at least as far as the Greeks, and it, too, was just as hard to refute, for much the same reasons.
The youngest theory held that the transfer of ‘putrid matter’ caused disease. But that contagion idea arose only late in the 1500s—and only repeated plagues had forced us to even consider it. Out of that grew the idea of quarantine, but few doctors believed in it—partly because nobody could find the said ‘putrid matter,’ and also because quarantine mostly didn’t work.
Thus, in Europe, cholera didn’t fit any of our accepted theories about infectious disease. We needed new theory. But faced with so much data pointing every which way, we didn’t just make up one theory; we made up four—then argued about them. It didn’t help that we weren’t just facing one cholera, but many strains—we just didn’t know that.
So even by the 1890s, after many of us had finally agreed that some microbes might kill, we still argued about how.
Even by 1910, after many of us had agreed on how, cholera visited a city in Europe one last time: Naples. To politicians there, cholera had become “the disease we aren’t allowed to mention.” So they destroyed all evidence of mass death and pretended it didn’t happen.
What killed us for so many centuries, and what’s still killing us in our poorest countries today, isn’t the cholera bacterium. It isn’t even poor sewerage—although that doesn’t help. Nor is it our usual suspects—cruelty, stupidity, even poverty—although those don’t help, either. It’s ignorance. Had we known what the problem was, we could have solved it millennia ago. Even without sewage treatment, cholera is simple to treat—once we understand it. Of course, we also couldn’t begin to treat it until we were rich enough to afford the tools and resources needed to do so. We first needed clean water, more sewerage, more housing, paved roads, flush toilets, machine-made soap.... To get all that, we first needed yet more tools that we had only just invented: steam engines, steam drills, steam pumps, factories, Portland cement.... To afford all that we first needed bigger cities, mass production, rising incomes, trade unions.... All of which gave us more schools, more food, more health.... And we wouldn’t have gotten any of that had we not had the steam engine driving us, and the tools to apply it to many fields. But even all that may not have mattered had it not lead to an explosion in our numbers, huge new attraction to our cities, huge overcrowding there, and thus a vast uptick in our disease rates. Add to that a disease so new that we hadn’t yet rearranged ourselves enough for it to distinguish between rich and poor. All those hammers had to fall on us more or less at the same time to force us to change our age-old beliefs, because we wouldn’t have chosen to do much about cholera had we not stopped seeing it as punishment for sin. It had to leave the divine realm and become a practical—and solvable—and politically crucial—problem. And for that to happen, we first had to invent two kinds of sensors: the optical kind that revealed tiny images, and the statistical kind that revealed huge signals. Both were important, but the second came centuries after the first, and we changed only after the second. So the microscope of numbers was medicine’s last big turning point—not the huge leaps in antibiotics and other therapies that were to come a century later. Before we can solve any problem we first have to see it.
Accepting the Unacceptable
In the long run, neither food nor labor nor materials nor energy, nor even physical and institutional tools limit us; knowledge does. It seems likely that we have mental toolboxes just as we have physical and institutional ones. How, though, do we make more mental tools? When does a mere guess become reliable? How does data turn to knowledge?
Suppose you live in England around 1812 and one day you find a curious-looking stone lying on the ground. What do you make of it? It’s so symmetric and intricate that it looks like part of something that once may have been alive, but like nothing alive now. You, like most everyone you know, were brought up on Aristotle, so you assume that it must have been designed to some purpose.
Perhaps a sculptor made it, then lost it? But no, you later find another one, just like it, except half-buried. An elaborate hoax, perhaps? Or perhaps both are long-lost religious or magical or art objects? But no, you then find another one, embedded in a rock face. Nobody could have made that.
You ask the locals, who long ago gave such stones names—dragon tongues, devil’s toenails, snakestones, thunderstones, and such. They tell you many origin tales to go with the names, and also tell you if the type you found will cure arthritis, prevent snakebite, ward off the evil eye, or whatever.
Normally you might accept such tales. But these aren’t normal times—because you happen to be exploding your way across England to make a canal, so you soon find many such stones, and different locals tell you different tales. They can’t all be right. Also, much of Europe is abuzz about its new sect of ‘scientists’ (not yet named), which by now is growing into an odd new profession, and you want to be part of the new crowd. Perhaps these stones are your ticket in.
With each stone you come across, foundational thoughts that to others are so granite-solid that they seem unshakable begin to slip and wriggle away like tadpoles in your hand. The differences in the stories that you hear force you to try to pierce a veil so hidden that the rest of us can’t even see it.
So do you conclude that those odd-shaped stones must have been formed when certain life-forms went extinct millions of years ago, then their remains absorbed minerals and thus turned to stone as they slowly got buried over time? Nope. That would be far too big a leap from what you know—or rather, believe you know.
You’ve been brought up to believe, like most everyone in Europe in 1812, that the earth is only about 5,800 years old. That’s based on Biblical studies. (Although, were you living in India, you might well believe that it was billions of years old. But then you wouldn’t be blowing your way up across the country; nor would there be an odd new profession for you to want to join.) So ‘millions of years’ is an unthought. You also believe, following Aristotle, that all life-forms had always existed. So since the stones you find don’t look like they belong to anything presently alive, they couldn’t have been part of something alive in the past. God wouldn’t make something, then unmake it. So extinction, too, is an unthought. Besides, you don’t know anything about permineralization, or even how rocks form. Geology doesn’t really exist as a field yet. Also, as a child you were taught that flies spring from rotting meat, and eels from mud, and so on, as Aristotle had said.
So what do you conclude? Well, perhaps something like this: Those strange stones must be failed results of mud’s urge to turn into life. Why not? Such a guess would fit everything you know. And explaining it may not get you laughed at. It might even get you funding. So you’re more likely to think it and say it, and those of us hearing you are more likely to believe it and spread it.
If your guess becomes popular, it might even change how others see the stones they find, or have already found, which might go on to alter the chances of them concluding one thing over another. If you explain it well, they might even begin to think as you think—seeing through your eyes. That might then change the future, just as Aristotle, and so many others, had changed your eyes. Thus, when you speak to others, you don’t merely describe the world, you might also change it—because what you’re describing isn’t the world, but what you guess is the world.
Thus, the things you’re likely to think don’t merely depend on what you find. They also depend on what you know (or rather, believe), plus what’s already accepted by the groups you belong to, or wish to belong to. Everything else is an unthought.
So coming to such a conclusion, even after years of effort, would have less to do with stupidity than with your ignorance about your ignorance. In 1812, we didn’t know what we didn’t know.
However, if you one day realize that, then maybe you could try adding constraints to your guess: Can you think of anything that we might find if your guess wasn’t true? Also: can you think of some instrument that we might build to help us find such things? Also: can you use math to narrow the possibilities for your guess? Maybe by modeling mud’s propensity to spawn life? (What kind of mud? How much mud? Where must the mud be? How long must the mud be there?)
Now, that’s not normal. We prefer to try to prove things, rather than fail to disprove them. Constraining a guess gives rivals a better chance of disproving it; plus, it’s harder to come up with such guesses. But then, that actually strengthens it. The more we try to disprove something, yet fail, the more we’re likely to believe it. Further, even if we can’t think of any constraints on a guess, it might still be useful if it were to at least suggest that our earlier guesses were just that—guesses, and not the knowledge that we had long mistaken them for.
We’re an infant species, and don’t have any adult supervision to ask how everything works, so we’re making everything up as we go along. Unlike an improv play, though, we aren’t merely making up our dialogue, we’re also making up the backstage rigging that operates all the scenery—calling this big light in the sky ‘the sun’ and that other one ‘the moon,’ but only guessing at what they are and how they work. We do the same when we see an interesting stone and call it a ‘fossil,’ or a common behavior and call it ‘gravity,’ or a moving smudge in our new microscopes and call it a ‘microbe.’ We give things names, but at first we don’t know what the words truly mean.
So we keep a record of all our testable guesses (which we give the Greek word ‘hypotheses,’ and then if we test them enough, another Greek word, ‘theories’), including the ones we later found out to be wrong, which we then hand on to future generations. Each generation thus uses the last generation as its placeholder adults. That way, we always get to start off with all the guesses that may sound right, but which may still be wrong.
Thus, the word ‘fossil’ grew to mean more than ‘strange-looking dug-up stone.’ But only after many decades. In one word it now conjures an entire world-view, a densely linked network of beliefs about how the cosmos works. That’s because the word is attached to a theory—a testable model of reality—which tells us a lot because it makes a whole network of testable claims at once. It’s the theory that’s important, not the word. The word without its theory is mostly just a jumble of disconnected guesses. The same is true of ‘sun,’ ‘moon,’ ‘gravity,’ ‘microbe,’ ‘carbon,’ ‘gene,’ ‘semiconductor,’ and on and on. As we build and test new models, we make up new words, or firm up old ones, and thus rewrite our dictionary, relearning the world, re-seeing the world.
But our words are always wrong. About all we can do is try to make them a little less wrong over time, for we’re always guessing. Throwing a stone and asking where it lands is one thing, but finding a stone and asking from where it might have been thrown is quite another for there are so many possibilities. So, often, to have any chance of extending our knowledge, we first have to believe something before we can see it. But, once we come to believe something, it’s hard to unsee it—whether it’s true or not.
None of that ended in 1812. On January 6th, 1912, an amateur geologist proposed that the continents had once fit together. Geologists jeered for decades. Continents drifting on solid rock? That was an unthought. After all, what force was immense enough to move a continent? He had no answer. Then, on December 18th of that same year, an amateur archaeologist claimed to have found the skull of an early human in Sussex. Paleontologists in Britain cheered for decades. Now they could boast that the earliest known human ancestor was British. But why didn’t the skull fit with all the other fossils that we had already found? He had no answer. (And no wonder—he had secretly made the skull out of separate parts.) Yet still, paleontology hailed the skull as Piltdown Man. Why the difference in reactions? In 1912, geology didn’t yet have a theory of the planet that let continents move; and paleontology’s theory of species change was still so wrong that politics could easily intrude. Without enough ways to test its guesses, neither field could tell a good guesser from a good faker. Geology then refused to believe in continental drift for 50 years. Paleontology refused to not believe in Piltdown Man for 41 years. Both fields didn’t know what they didn’t know.
Were our sciences any different in 2012 than they were in 1912, or 1812? Sure, we knew more, but still we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Are our sciences likely to be any different in 2112, or 2212? Sure, we will know more, and, yes, we will be less unsure of what we do know—but the more we know, the more we will know just how little we really do know, and how much more we don’t know.
In science, then, the bad news is that we don’t know anything at the level of detail that most of us outside science appear to think that we do—and the worse news is that we likely never will. So science isn’t just about seeking truth. It’s also about accepting doubt.
Now, that’s really not normal. So scientists tend to be peculiar folk. Endless doubt leads to lots of testing and lots and lots of quarreling. And, often, that quarreling has to happen in public—wherever we meet or publish. So in science we mostly bicker—and gossip, and show off to each other, but mostly we bicker. Science is one long argument. (Oh yes, as scientists we shrug a lot, too. That’s because we have to be more willing than normal to accept that mostly all we know for sure is that we don’t know much for sure.) That style doesn’t work equally well in every field, but of all the ways of checking our guesses that we’ve yet tried, it seems to be the least worst. Of course, mere bickering isn’t enough; and expensive toys—like cyclotrons and magnetic resonance imagers—do matter. Plus, bickering is far from limited to science alone. But bickering inside science is special. Students spend years learning how to bicker properly. That bickering can reduce many kinds of error, and that self-correctiveness gives science its special strength.
In science, we have to try to accept that when a guess passes a test, we can only—at best—conclude that so far we don’t know for sure that it’s wrong. We have to somehow accept that our guesses aren’t ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ They can only be obviously wrong and less obviously wrong. We hope that, over time, our guesses will say less and less about what we would like the cosmos to be and more and more about what the cosmos actually is. That is, we hope that they’ll get less wrong.
In science, then, we must somehow accept that we don’t know what the hell is going on—and likely will never know what the hell is going on. However, many other groups seem to be convinced that they know what the hell is going on, and they’re convinced that they have to convince other groups that the hell that they know is going on is what is, in fact, going on.
The cosmos never lies, nor tires, nor is confused. It’s never coy, nor shy, nor timid. It always answers our questions—and always plainly and bluntly and immediately. But the amount of data that it can convey with a large rock very far away—or a small one lying on the ground—far exceeds our ability to understand what it just said. So to us, it often speaks with a mouth full of marbles. What’s it saying, exactly? Outside science, many of us seem to believe that we can hear the words clearly. Whether we live in mud huts or steel skyscrapers, we don’t wish to hear—no matter how much we learn—that we may never have any idea how stuff really works. After all, we build many of our belief networks to combat our doubt and fear. Our hunt failed, we’re starving, our babies are dying—or the stock market crashed, we lost our retirement savings, our house is gone. Why? Our local belief network tells us. It also tells us what to do next. It tells us what’s important and what’s not. It tames the cosmos for us. It gives us emotional sustenance. That gives us the courage to face an unknown and potentially threatening future where we may not matter much at all. Thus we’re less interested in truth than in comfort. The wonder then isn’t that we long believe things that aren’t so, but that we ever change our beliefs at all.
Wiring the World
When it comes to knowledge generation, what have we been doing, what are we doing, and what might we be doing in future?
Before the printing press, we were text-poor; after it, we were text-rich. That linked us in a new way because many more of us than before could read exactly the same text. That changed things because when we’re disconnected we all have to face our problems—at least our technical problems—alone, so it takes a genius to find or make or do or think up anything really new. Print linkage lowered that cost, and many changes followed.
Today, we aren’t just text-rich, we’re also music-, video-, and in many other ways data-rich. But we’re think-poor. Many of us might be thinking separately about a technical problem, but few of us can think together on exactly the same problem at exactly the same time. Might we one day become think-rich? That is, could we develop something that might let us bring to bear lots of mental power on any particular problem? Might we one day have genius on tap?
Were that to happen it might lead to at least as much of a mental phase change as the printing press did because what we have depends on what we know, but what we know depends on what we have. Both depend on our toolboxes—physical, institutional, and mental. In turn, those toolboxes relate to each other, and they depend on and affect how many ideas we can test how well and how fast, and how much and how fast we can spread and divide our labor—whether physical, institutional, or mental. In turn, those limits depend on and affect how many of us can be alive, how densely we can live together, and how easily we can transport ourselves, our things, and our data around the planet.
Those three things—our numbers, densities, and transport abilities (of both matter and data)—are all rising now. As they rise, they can tie more of us and our things and our data together, building us into larger and denser networks. Such networks can sometimes generate new tools—whether physical, institutional, or mental, which can magnify our supplies of food, physical labor, energy, raw materials, and, above all, mental power. In particular, the more mental power we have, the less of everything else we need—or, rather, the more of everything else we can call upon. With more mental power we gain knowledge, and with knowledge, we gain physical power.
However, our rising numbers and closer living and easier transport can also lead to more competition, confusion, and contention, and thus strife. Which way might we teeter as all three rise?
Our network lets us pass goods and services back and forth between ourselves (call that our exchanging network). It also lets us jointly do things or build things by sharing and dividing work, or by passing work around, either intentionally or stigmergically (call that our doing networking). However, since it also lets us pass data around, because of it, each of our corporate bodies, and more generally (since trade also spreads data) our species as a whole, in some sense, collectively thinks.
A single brain thinks, but, as the printing press suggests, a network of brains can also think—as long as there’s some way to spread the results of thought, which might trigger more thought in other brains, which might build on that to spread yet more thought. Thinking and transporting (and thus communicating) are related. So besides an exchanging network and a doing network, we’ve also been building a thinking network.
We’ve had the two things that make such a network—thinking nodes plus transport links between those nodes—ever since we’ve had language: from the moment that one brain could signal (via gesture or voice) and another could understand.
Without necessarily desiring it, or even noticing it, we seem to have been slowly wiring ourselves into a planetary network for maybe at least as long as we’ve been able to speak, at which point we traded both things and ideas as we walked about seeking food.
However when we were foragers, neither our number of brains nor our linkage between them could change much for long periods. Our numbers stayed nearly stable, as did our densities, and our transports.
With farming, though, we ratcheted up our thinking network (although that was hardly its intent). We were forced to invent tools that led to more brains, and we increased our linkage of them by inventing tools that led to us packing ourselves into denser clumps, and also tools that let us speed up and expand our transports.
So, long before the computer, or even the telegraph, or even writing, that ramified not just our exchanging and doing networks but also our thinking network. So call any such tools, mental tools (even though they’re made of physical parts—just as institutional tools, like banking, are made of physical parts).
That tool change mattered because ideas are a bit like diseases. As foragers, we were few and mobile, so diseases could neither spread far nor fast. We also had few or no tamed animals, so fatal diseases couldn’t last long. Their hosts died before they could spread. The spread of ideas had similar limits. Our bands were small, so the chance of a genius in one was small. Even a genius in one of our bands needn’t have led to much change because that genius needn’t have had much motivation, nor much leverage—nor much challenge, since the kinds of problems our band had needn’t much change from year to year. Further, even if a band had a new idea, it could only spread to other bands at walking speed. So, just as with diseases, new ideas might not last long, nor spread fast, nor spread far. Their ‘hosts’ might have died too quickly relative to our numbers, group sizes, and transport speeds. Thus, both disease flow and idea flow likely were low.
That changed, then kept changing, with farming, horse riding, cities, ships, writing, printing.... For instance, with horses or camels or ships or whatever, we could travel further, so an idea could spread further before its first host died. Similarly, with writing, instead of being confined to our brief lives, our little voices could start piping down the centuries, then the millennia. We could thus share thought with others across not just space but also time—although it was only a one-way time-machine.
Even so, most of what we wrote was much the same for millennia—because the agrarian world was just as much of a mousetrap for network thinking as the foraging world was before it. Our numbers kept growing, but our densities topped out, as did our transport speeds.
Regardless of our capacity to invent, our desire to invent, and our acceptance of invention, needn’t depend solely on our numbers and density and transport. Were that all, our industrial phase change either may never have happened, or were it to have happened, it seems more likely to have been triggered first in populous Japan, or India, or China, not tiny and on-the-fringe-of-everywhere England.
Getting us to stand on each other’s shoulders isn’t easy. More normally we stand on each other’s toes. To encourage invention, it seems as if our network doesn’t merely need lots of nodes. Nor does it merely need lots of wiring. It seems to need certain kinds of dense wiring.
We can link in lots of ways, but some ways seem to aid group problem-solving more than others. For instance, Fearless Leader must be good at seizing and keeping power in Pottsylvania, because he did, but he needs Boris and Natasha to think up clever ways to keel Moose und Sqvirrel in Frostbite Falls, because he can’t. So linking everyone to him alone isn’t wise; he can’t think for everyone. But linking everyone to everyone else would be just as unwise; no one could focus on any problem. To solve a wide range of problems, too much data and no focus is just as useless as too much data and a single focus.
Over time we’ve found other ways of linking together (and incidentally, thinking together). One such way happens when we form several clusters of densely but locally linked groups, with longer-range links between hubs in such clusters. Linking ourselves that way may mean that more of our brains might settle around solving the same related set of problems, yet if we find a solution anywhere, it could still spread everywhere quickly. In essence, each cluster of nodes around a hub could become a separate node for thinking about a problem. Linkage between us then has a chance of being both dense (within clusters) and diverse (between clusters).
Like building complex physical things, we don’t seem to be able to build complex mental things without sharing and dividing work (either intentionally or stigmergically), either in space or time, or both. Just having lots of nodes (potential diversity) isn’t enough. Just having lots of wires between nodes (potential density) isn’t enough. For hard mental labor we also seem to need (at least) lots of wires between nodes that are in special clusters, where each cluster is made of a certain large enough number of diverse enough nodes. In short, we seem to (at least) need to preserve both density and diversity. That is, if we don’t already happen to have a genius handy.
Chance events, even million-to-one chance events like the birth of a genius, grow more common in a world of over seven billion. Over time, the more of us that our tools let live, and the denser our tools let us get, and the faster and wider our transports, and the faster and wider our data-flow, and the higher the fidelity of our data-records, the more ways we found to get yet more numerous and ever denser and to increase the speed and fidelity of our data-flow.
In the 1400s in Germania came not the first printing press but the first one that couldn’t easily be controlled, and with that our pressure to speak began to drown out our urge to muffle. Data began to flow in a way that it couldn’t have before. In the 1800s, with the first telegraphs in France, Britain, and the United States, our data-flow, for the first time ever, became limited by the speed of light, not the speed of flight. Writers began referring to “the thrill electric,” and a few of us began to dimly see that data itself could be a thing, almost separate from matter.
Today, just as we did after the printing press, and the telegraph, we’re once again increasing our network’s data-flow as we find new ways to link our thinking tools together—except that now those tools are no longer just our naked brains—in a new ‘thrill electric.’
First, we’re now creating more new technical data in one lifetime than in all of recorded history. Take just one obscure example: knowledge of slime molds. From 1945 to 1951, about 17 research papers on slime molds appeared every five years. But from 2002 to 2009, 13 appeared every three weeks. And that’s nothing compared to hot fields. In 2008, over 50,000 new research papers appeared in brain science. Anyone who was up-to-date as of 2000, was probably far behind by 2010.
We’re also amassing more data than ever before. From 1999 to 2002 we almost doubled the amount of new data stored electronically or in print. In 1967, the largest text dataset on the planet was about a million words big; by 2006, that had grown to about a trillion words. From 2000 to 2005 a new robot telescope gathered more star data in its first two days of operation than we had managed to gather in six thousand years. From 2004 to 2007 we nearly doubled the number of proteins we knew—counting everything we had learned since the beginning of time (that is, since we found the first one in 1838). Further, by 2009 we had learned of 50 million chemicals. We had been discovering them mostly just since 1800, yet we found the latest ten million in just the last nine months of 2009. By then, we were finding a new one every 2.6 seconds. By 2013, the Large Hadron Collider poured out about 30 petabytes a day; that’s about 6.3 million DVDs worth.
We aren’t just creating and amassing ever more data; we’re also making it ever easier to spread. By 2010, our planet was spidered with well over a billion computers and over five billion phones, most of them mobile. Nor were those devices only in rich hands. For instance, in 1993 Bangladesh was one of our poorest countries and only two in a thousand of us there had phones. But by 2008, a quarter of us there did. By 2011, nearly half of us did. Such devices, soon to be bristling with sensors, likely will mean that just about everything that can be digitally encoded soon will be.
Not only are we creating, amassing, recombining, and spreading data, we’re adding to its testing, too—at least for some of our more technical data. From 1990 to 2005, the number of scientists and engineers in the United States was doubling every 16 years. In China, the doubling rate for researchers was every 10 years. Our scientific tools are also changing, beginning to shoulder us out of the lab, just as robots are shouldering us out of the factory. For example, microfluidic devices plus laser confocal scanning microscopes plus computer chips to control them, are coming together to make robot lab assistants that do lab tests. In 2009, some prototypes were just five inches wide. They cost $8 U.S. They worked all day and all night. That same year came the first ever robot scientist. Not only did it do its own tests, it guessed which new things to test next, then it did those tests. Soon, entire labs may slip down the rabbit hole that transistors fell down. Similar teensytronics will almost certainly mean that big changes in biochemistry, biotechnology, nanotechnology, medicine, and materials science are ahead. Given our rapid tool changes in many fields, lots of small-scale phase changes may be ahead.
In general, it seems that the more ideas we can CARTS—create, amass, recombine, test, and spread—the more easily, quickly, and cheaply we can work together to develop new tools. While those tools might at first change only one of our groups, if they’re widely useful then in time they’ll spread, even if the first group tries to keep them to itself, and even if other groups have to transform deeply to adopt them.
But our ideas only get more reliable—or rather, less wrong—if we value such ideas more than any other kinds of ideas. Producing them takes more effort than just copying some older ideas and making slight changes, or simply making stuff up. It’s easier to CARS—create, amass, recombine, and spread—or ARS—amass, recombine, and spread—or even just RS—recombine and spread—than to CARTS—create, amass, recombine, test and spread. CARS needn’t become CARTS. In fact, there’s pressure against that. Anything that needs more effort will become more common only if we desire it more than its competitors. Do we?
Rising data-flow needn’t mean rising concord, empathy, or bonding; it can also mean rising discord, enmity, and warring—despite what giddy speakers may say at the time. In 1498, of the printing press: “There is nothing nowadays that our children... fail to know.” In 1868, of the telegraph: “[By 1878] Men then will learn that they are brethren.” In 1924, of radio: “[Soon] peace ought to be brought nearer and war be more quickly banished from the earth when the executives of all the nations can confer as if around a council table.” In 1997, of the internet: “[By 2017, children] are not going to know what nationalism is.”
The ideas we tend to spread the fastest or the widest needn’t be the least wrong ones. Unlike physical things, which have to obey the laws of physics or they fall over or blow up, our ideas needn’t necessarily obey any law. So we have no easy way to separate fact from fiction. Also, a data-rich world is an attention-poor world: The more facts there are, and the more they jostle for our attention, the less attention we can give to any one. So a wealth of data creates a poverty of attention. Further, technical ideas tend to be hard and boring compared to our usual: sex and food and money and power. And the shorter and snappier the tale, or the tastier and juicier the gossip, the faster and wider it tends to spread.
So more data needn’t make us any smarter, or even more informed—it might merely make us more quickly and more deeply informed about stuff we wish to be informed about, which might only reinforce our prior beliefs. How likely are we to struggle to understand those whom we don’t agree with when we could chum with those whom we do? Thus, having many more of us alive, and having many more of us talk together, and talk faster, too, needn’t mean that we think together any faster—or more clearly—than we did before. The more we link, the more we might groupthink. So, the cheaper and faster we can spread information, the more misinformation and disinformation we might spread. And the faster and wider any sort of information can spread, the easier informing can become infobombing. A stony river is kindest to the smoothest pebbles. The simplest ideas travel the furthest.
So as our data storm turns into a data blizzard, we might even be getting more biased, not less; more parochial, not less; more divided, not less. It seems possible, perhaps even likely, that data will soon be so plentiful that insight about that data may become a new currency. But without an equal rise in our ability to test that data, to try to ensure that it’s reliable, that it fits into some testable theory of reality, our rising data-flow needn’t trigger major change in our lives (other than strife). CARS needn’t become CARTS. We will always have to battle to accept the unacceptable.
The last time we went through this big a jump in data-flow it was with the printing press and we first got two centuries of bloodshed. Maybe that won’t happen this time around; but if it does, it may happen far more quickly. Perhaps that won’t end us. If it does, nothing else matters.
In sum, putting that whole sequence of guesses together: For millennia we seem to have been building a network for thinking (inside our network for doing, which is inside our network for living). We didn’t intend it, and we mostly didn’t even notice it. It happened ecogenetically, not evenly, nor uniformly, nor linearly. But as a result of all our wiring and rewiring, data-flow between us rose with our rising numbers, density, specializations, and trade and transport. Over time, more of us could more easily think together, even without intending to, far less having to be alive at the same time, live near each other, work on the same tasks, or even speak the same language. Over time, we could more easily CARTS ideas about ourselves and the cosmos around us. Because of that, we could more easily build new physical and institutional and mental tools based on those ideas, then spread those tools—and the ideas behind them—even if we didn’t intend to, or didn’t even wish to. Our resulting untested ideas might be wrong, or our tested ones might change, or, once we made physical, institutional, or mental tools based on our tested ones, their network effect might be nothing like what we expected they would be, but some of our more unexpected changes over the millennia—perhaps even our current industrial phase change—might have been due to our network’s slowly rising mental power.
If that’s true, then it’s not data that changes us, but knowledge, and that’s hard to make. Could we speed up how we make more? Our network, over time, led us to mass production here and there, which both brought us together physically and organized our labor so that we could work together instead of continuing to work apart. But that was for physical work. Could we do the same for mental mass production?
If so, that might bring our network from a think-poor to a think-rich state. Knowledge is power; but knowledge about how to make more knowledge is even more power. We have all sorts of corporations and associations and organizations and cooperatives, and so on, and in them we’re physically together, but we’re still mostly mentally apart. It’s not easy to work together mentally on one problem. So mostly we continue to work mentally apart and stigmergically. We don’t have ‘mental factories.’ Unlike physical things, knowledge isn’t something that we know how to make more easily, more reliably, more quickly, or more cheaply. Yet.
Much of knowledge discovery, whether in science or outside it, is a lot like chemistry. It amounts to taking an idea from here and an idea from there and mixing them in some new way to make a new idea. One atom here and one atom there can, if fused together in the right way, can become not two atoms, but a new molecule—1+1=3. Sometimes, that’s so surprising that it becomes ?+?=!!!. From that we might get a printing press, a steam engine, a computer. Or a theory of gravity, a germ theory, a theory of plate tectonics. Or antibiotics, or food-from-air—or a nuclear weapon. But that’s not easy.
Getting a lot of us working together on a hard problem is different from simply getting a lot of us together (like in a city), or putting a lot of problems in front of a lot of us (like in a university). A hard problem is too hard for any one of us to solve. It’s so hard that it’s even too hard for any one of us to easily divide up and hand out pieces to others that they can separately solve. So it’s nothing like our normal problems, which we can solve by rounding up more people and handing out more shovels.
So solving a hard problem would mean first answering several questions: How to clearly phrase exactly what we want to know? How to attract people to solving it? How to bring the attracted together? How to contract with them? How to link them up so that they can go about solving it? How to manage their problem-solving process? How to judge how much, or even if, they’re succeeding or failing? How to reward them? (Also, for a sensitive problem: How to keep secret those parts of it that need to be kept secret? How to control publication of those parts that need to be controlled?)
All those questions are themselves problems.
We already have billions of brains on the planet. With our newest tools, many of those brains can already talk to each other. And those tools have already smartened up enough so that some of those brains, even if they don’t speak the same language, can do so—to some extent. Those brains can also watch the same videos together. And they can read and write together—sort of. But talking together, or watching together, or even writing together, isn’t the same as thinking together. To do that on an arbitrary problem we need yet more tools. Do we desire them? And if we do, can we build them?
To get them, we might wait on AI (artificial intelligence)—finding some way to build machine intellects. Or we might wait on IA (intelligence amplification)—finding some way to amplify our naked brains. Or we might wait on some combination. But even if neither happens soon, if we do desire their results we might still build such tools recursively with the very thing that they might be aimed at aiding—that is, with early forms of metaconcerts. We might try to use ourselves to bootstrap ourselves.
If we do then maybe in future we’ll call such things ‘collective detectives,’ or ‘borganisms,’ ‘meatballs’—who knows what. The point is to bring many brains together in concert to solve one specific problem. We already have piecemeal ways to do some of that in a few narrow domains.
However, extending problem-solving from one, to two, to many, and distributing it around the planet brings in several networking problems. A metaconcert would be more than a bunch of brains in a box. Getting a group of us, separated by distance, and thus perhaps time zones, norms, maybe even language, to focus on any one thing, much less agree on anything, let alone agree to solve a problem—at least a technical one—far less a hard one, and so add to our knowledge, is like playing a new kind of game—not against each other, but against the problem.
In such games, leadership is important, for without someone, or some set of someones, to set up rules for how the group will play the game, there is no game. The game must also have some sort of reward structure to make it worth playing, although such rewards needn’t necessarily be monetary; they might be fame, excitement, challenge, or even just sheer fun. Publicity of the game also matters—for if we never hear of it, we can’t ask to join it. Administration of the game matters, too, because someone has to handle setting up and maintaining the game’s structure so that we all can play it without each having to worry about details not germane to the game itself. Plus, there’s always stuff to do with money and laws and equipment and so forth.
But all that is just to do with arranging the orchestra and renting the concert hall, not with performing the concert itself because hard problems will fight back.
Next comes the basic question of constraint: how do we want the problem solved? Fast? Cheap? Well? Solving it fast and cheap, means not well; fast and well means not cheap; cheap and well means not fast. Even with the right tools, we could do any two, but not all three.
Then, trying to solve the problem within the concert hall and by the game constraints may mean lots of brains, each helping at whatever level and frequency they choose to, or are paid to. But solving hard problems isn’t like digging ditches; we can’t just hand out more shovels and hope for the best. Such problems seem to require a variety of brains, and those brains seem to need to network in intricate ways or there’s no point having a group.
Further, sheer scale generates its own problems, separate from the problem itself. For large, hard-to-solve problems—which is what we would convene large groups to solve—leaders do the task identification (what is the problem?) but task subdivision (how can we subdivide the problem?) also has to happen because none of us, or few of us, can solve the whole problem—or else we wouldn’t be trying to group-solve it.
But our brains are limited, and ego and competition always intrude, so task subdivision, and subsequent performance on subtasks, is highly sensitive to group size, composition, and structure. For example: Too heavy a group leader’s hand, and the group narrows into follow-the-leader; but too light a hand, and the group diffuses, unable to focus. In either case, there’s no point to the group. An effective concert needs both diversity and density. (Or: ‘Many hands make light work,’ but ‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’)
When task-subdivision is itself a task, it may itself be one that can be quite hard, and often one that can’t be completely done before the task itself is done. So while we’re in the midst of solving the problem, we often discover new problems, which themselves become subtasks. But then we have to keep track of, and prioritize, and manage those. That’s separate from admin of the game itself.
Also, when task-subdivision is itself a major task, identifying a subtask is hard, but growing the group to solve newly identified subtasks is ever harder—because the group’s knowledge of the problem grows during problem-solution. Any potential new inductees would first have to gain enough of that new knowledge to even understand a subtask (so that they might then be competent enough to help solve it). But just gaining that competence is itself a task. Further, by then the number of subtasks may have grown so much that there may be so many subtasks, each so hard, that simply learning enough to decide which subtasks to try to become competent enough to try to help solve, itself becomes a task.
Finally, when the problem is sensitive, who decides—or perhaps, how is it decided to be decided—how secrets are to be kept, or even what is to be a secret, and from whom? What is to be kept secret within a subteam but not the wider group, or within the wider group but not the world? And when something needs more effort, who or what decides if it’s time-critical enough to warrant waking up the whole subteam, or perhaps even the whole support team?
In other words: The problem itself changes as we try to solve it. Thus, solving it means building a multi-brain structured for it. But until we solve it, we don’t know what parts such a brain needs, nor how they must link. In essence, the problem’s hardness requires that we build a brain specially adapted to solving it, but we can only do that by actually solving it.
Overall, the problem-solving steps seem to break down into: identifying tasks, matching people to tasks and teams, building and maintaining teams, generating guesses, testing guesses, resolving confusions, and building tested guesses into a sturdy framework. Those steps are neither separate nor linear, but this rough scheme might work for many technical problems.
However, to know how to best solve a hard problem we often first have to solve the problem. So the first way we might find to solve the problem almost surely won’t be the best way—and that includes this particular problem, namely: the meta-problem of building tools to help us solve problems.
Finally, supporting everything to do with leadership, rewards, publicity, and administration, plus all the many scale problems—like task subdivision, subtask management, and context catchup—needs tools. We mostly don’t have them. Yet.
Such tools aren’t going to arise by chance. Or rather, they might, but that may take a long time. Also, having been shaped for many problem domains, at first they probably won’t fit together. One barrier is money. The meta-problem of solving problems is hard; so if there’s no money in solving it, few of us will try. But the real problem isn’t so much creation of the tools, but incentives for creation of the tools.
Today we tend to look at a problem not in terms of the problem but in terms of our groups. If two groups compete to solve a problem, it’s enough for one group to outcompete the other, not for either group to find better tools to solve the problem then share the tools. That can happen, but often only by accident. Thus, most of our institutions orient toward rewarding individuals, not groups. We don’t have many well-thought-out reward schemes for group work, especially over a network. A dispersed contractual system might help.
Failing that, or something like it, for a long while our mental tools seem likely to remain pathetic compared to our physical tools. When it comes to mental tasks: rather than bulldozers we have shovels; instead of pile drivers we have hammers; in place of cars we have rickshaws; for supertankers substitute triremes; and for jets, hang-gliders. So we usually don’t choose a problem to solve; more usually, we put together a set of tools (smart but nearly unaided people), then wonder which problems we can solve with the tools at hand. Without more tool support, our ways of working mentally seem unlikely to change much anytime soon.
In short, just as we have a physical production network, we have a mental production network. However, one is centuries behind the other. It’s still near the hand-tailored, piecework, and cottage-industry stage, despite all our universities, research labs, and think tanks. Those are just today’s versions of yesterday’s monasteries and cathedrals—when writing was scarce and strenuous, and therefore almost secret and nearly sacred; they’re all built around fixed locations and static reward structures. Since 2008, and our first fully automated factory, we’re nearing closure of the feedback loops in our physical production network, but not yet our mental production network.
Of course, if you think that, you’re obviously from the future, stranded by your time machine in this era. What to us in 2020 or perhaps even 2030 or so is the very latest, shiniest gizmo, to you is just another piece of knuckle-dragger tech; just as quaint to you as the telegraph is to us today. You, stuck in a slow time before the first thinking engine, are used to a completely different world. In your timeline we have global mental power grids, just as today we have national electrical ones. For you, brainpower is just one more fungible production factor, like concrete or plastic or steel, except that its price would keep falling and its power would keep rising as more and yet more of us—and our ever more capable thinking aids—plug in. In your era, global cleverness is as tappable as electricity, and knowledge—not just data—would flow from its jacks.
For you, cleverness would have liquefied. We today already have lots of intelligence on the planet; what we don’t yet have is access to it on demand and in bulk. We don’t have on-demand genius. But you did. So you call your time the Age of Liquid Intelligence, and look around with wonder—or maybe pity—or perhaps envy?—on our hobbled time now, and all past millennia, as the Age of Solid Intelligence. But for now, you’re stuck here. So if your think-rich future is to come about more quickly, or perhaps at all, how do you propose to build toward it? After all, how hard could it be?
If you succeed, rocketry suggests one possible future. About nine-tenths of a rocket’s launch mass is fuel. It needs fuel to move itself against gravity and air resistance, more fuel to move that fuel, yet more fuel to move that fuel, and so on. After ignition, though, as its fuel begins to burn and it begins to rise, its amount of fuel falls, so its remaining fuel doesn’t have to work as hard to move itself. The rocket thus burns nearly all its fuel lifting itself just a few inches off its launchpad. Beyond that critical stage, the faster it goes, the faster it can go. Once in space, air resistance vanishes, gravity lessens, and most of its fuel is gone, so its remaining fuel becomes ever more efficient at moving it the further it gets from the planet’s surface.
We may be the rocket. And we may be getting closer to liftoff. But there’s a proverb, perhaps the oldest one still alive in the world, dating back at least 3,800 years to Iraq—“the hasty bitch bears blind pups.” If we’re the rocket, who, or maybe what, might be the pilot, if any? Also, if we’re indeed nearing some sort of moment of birth, birth can be a dangerous time, especially if it’s the first time.
In sum, as we wire up the world we seem to be building something—but what? Just as some termite species build giant nests without knowing it, so have we, for millennia, been linking more and more of our brains and hands into an ever vaster, ever faster-acting planetary nest. But that needn’t mean that we know what it’s up to any more than termites do theirs. The more intricate and fast-acting that we make it, the more power will it give us to make sense of our world. But it is itself part of that world. So the more intricate it gets, and the faster acting it becomes, the more will it cloud our future, for data isn’t knowledge. For that we would need a theory of what our millennia-long nest-building might mean, and right now we have none. Nor might we ever get one that we could be certain of. We’re smarter than termites, yes, but the nest that we’re building by wiring ourselves up is so much more complex than their nests that we don’t know what we’re up to any more than termites do. What might we be part of once we finally connect all the dots? Are we about to jack into a world super genius? Or are we about to stick a fork into a global wall socket?