I watched this fascinating talk by David Kelly (2006) about what he thought science would be like in the next 100 years. For him science is the process of changing how we know. Knowing is a constructive and creative act. He refers to the evolution of science as ‘The recursive game’ meaning the way science evolves is sustainable because it provided instructions on how to changes the rule allowing to for the process of acquiring knowledge to evolve infinitely. Building on that idea he takes us through the origins, future and meaning of science.

 

Origins

Until the 1700s knowledge and science were interchangeable terms. Science went through multiple phases of structuring. We started by trying to be ever more precise in our measurements, then invented tools that changed the scope offering new fields and questions to investigate. Now we are setting up sensors to get nonstop data about every aspect of our world.

Observation > writing > books > bibliographies (2000 BC) > catalogue (250 BC) > libraries with indexes (200 BC) > Collaborative encyclopaedias (1000)  > Controlled experiment (1590) > Laboratories (1600) > Scopes (1609) New tools > Society of experts (1650) > Necessary repeatability (1665) > Scholarly Journals (1665) > Peer review (1675) > Hypothesis and prediction (1687) > Falsifiable testability (1920) > Randomized design (1926) > Controlled Placebo (1937) >  Computer Simulation (1946) > Double blind refinement (1950) > Study of science (1965)

 

Future

Computers are going to lead to innovative ways of making science. Traditionally science methodologies rest on two pillars: We measure what we are observing and formulate a hypothesis. And from that hypothesis, if right we test it again against new conditions, if wrong we formulate a new one. Science was/is the back and forth between the two. Now, the amount of data we are gathering is exploding, and we are measuring data over extended periods of time. The shear amount makes it difficult to deal with. Data is so overwhelming we will be relying more and more on computer algorithms to read through and classify these data sets. Computers have allowed us to test multiple hypothesis at the same time and to explore all the possibilities (= combinatorial libraries: libraries of possibilities) within our field of study in order to understand its general behaviour. This lead to simulations. Simulations generate a large amount of data we can also use. In fact, Kevin Kelly speculates that most of the data we will be using to generate hypothesis will come from simulation rather than observation. What you imagine is as important as what you measure. Actually, some of it you would difficulty imagine. Some things have been proved only thanks to computers in a way that is completely opaque to us and dependant on brain power superior to ours. It’s only natural that at the complexity and level of abstraction we are working at today that computers could process information in a way our own minds cannot grasp.

 

He also identified collaborative science making as a future way of knowing, citing wikiscience and the prospect of the first 1000 author paper, before making the case for understanding science as an complex ecosystem made up of the internet, billions of computer processing power and that of our minds. An ensemble he refers to as a “super computer.” He also touches upon the return of subjectivity but without really going into what that entails.

 

Meaning

I want to retain two ideas from his talk. Firstly, He questions the distinction between discovery and inventing, and between knowing and creating arguing that if the process of changing how we know is flexible enough it offers possibilities and makes these ideas equivalent. I understand this to mean that creating new paradigms and ways of understanding (inventing, creating), is therefore also creating new possibilities for finding out (discovery, knowing). Science is about differences, diversity, options, choices, opportunities, possibilities and freedoms.

 

Secondly, I would like to pick up on the idea of subjectivity. It is a shame that he did not want to pursue that further because I think the question of the agency of knowledge development is essential. Firstly, I would argue that evidence of that agency lies within the military’s role in the development of scientific research and technology. (Luckily someone picked up on that as well). The question was: “If there were to be a peaceful century will science slow down?”

Kevin Kelly in response to warfare only addressed it as a source of finance. Number of scientific advances have grown through warfare and seeped into the commodities we use every day. This brings to mind the speculative project High-Speed Horizons as it questions, by looking at planes, whether if governments and the military had made different choices, the objects, infrastructure, technologies we use in everyday commodities may be very different.

Knowledge: The Recursive Game 1

 

In terms of peace time, I think we face many challenging crises with regards to climate change, disasters, sustainability which are more than enough to stimulate the progression of science and the interests of government.

 

This poses the question of where does power fit within the production of knowledge? Can politics reverse the expansion of science?

I agree with Kevin Kelly when he compares the complexity of scientific process with that of life. Historically the scientific process shows sustainable growth where governments and civilisations appear and disappear somewhat erratically. Knowledge creation is now practised at a scale so great (all levels of society) that political agency could not stop it on a global scale. Maybe it might not be the best course of action, I think technology, science and knowledge has been and is still a major stake (More on this here) in the struggle to remain politically relevant on the international stage.