Our moral obligation to understand science and technology.

Deep Breadth
Jan 31, 2018 · 5 min read

Civilization is a thin and fragile layer.

If we care about the future of humanity (i.e. preventing a self-inflicted apocalypse), we have a personal moral obligation to be technologically and scientifically literate.

Carl Sagan put it like this…

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

Modern societies are entirely dependent upon the uninterrupted functioning of extraordinarily complex systems.

Infrastructure, energy, food production, transportation, communications, manufacturing…all technologically endowed, are more efficient and powerful than ever before.

Society is the most complex, interconnected, and interdependent it’s ever been.

But it’s not the most resilient.

We’ve built civilization upon pillars of scientific and technological advances, but it’s become very easy to take them for granted- turning a blind eye as they weather and erode from lack of maintenance.

Most things seem to work just fine without requiring our daily attention and contribution.

The are so many humans it’s easy to start assuming that someone has things under control. It enables a kind of willful ignorance and social loafing of knowledge.

The effects of our actions are hard to conceptualize, and no snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche.

How fragile is society, really?

At any given moment, over half a million humans are flying through the air in thin metal fuselages [s].

At the same time, a single computer glitch can cause hundreds of delays or cancellations. [1][2][3]

Monocropping and farming on massive scales has made food production insanely productive and efficient.

But, a single pest or disease can wipe out the entire yield as it did in the irish potato famine. [1][2]

In any modern city millions of humans packed into close proximity can coexist in relative harmony.

But, any city is just three days without food, power, or water away from rioting and chaos. [1][2]

With a few keystrokes a programmer can spin up hundreds of computers to train a machine learning algorithm that can help detect early stages of cancer.

Or they can unleash a national scale cyber attack.

A handful of scientists in a small lab can develop a technique to personalize vaccines based on a person’s genetics.

Or they can engage in biological warfare.

In addition, solar flares, earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural disasters can wipe out communication and power grids with little to no warning. [s]

It seems that society is a thin and delicate layer of organization upon what is otherwise a very large number of relatively stupid apes.

The miracles and magic of modernity

It really is a kind of miracle that things work as well as they do. Despite its intricacy and complexity, society manages to not collapse most days.

We’ve become increasingly dependent upon and surrounded by devices and systems that most people can’t explain. They’re essentially indistinguishable from magic. Many think food comes from supermarkets and electronics come from retail stores or the internet.

And still things don’t fall apart…

In truth, the vast majority of people in industrialized societies today live longer, more materially comfortable, and safer lives than the absolute richest royalty of just a few centuries ago. [1] [2]

It’s worth noting that we didn’t get to this peak of modern society despite specialization of knowledge and the division of labor, but because of it.

But that doesn’t mean we should let the division of labor define the division of knowledge.

We’re only surrounded by magical devices and systems we can’t explain if we choose ignorance. If we endeavor to discover, we’re instead surrounded by an explorable, comprehensible, and beautiful world of collective human knowledge.

It’s not that every person needs to understand how jet engines, genetic modification, the internet, cellphones, and electric power stations work…

Scientific and technological literacy aren’t about understanding every aspect of every discipline.

They’re about developing a set of core competencies that give us the ability to understand aspects of whatever disciplines we choose to understand.

So what are those competencies?

Physical Literacy

To make the universe comprehensible, we have to organize our thoughts and we have to learn to be engineers and scientists.

We can develop big scale frameworks for how seemingly disparate disciplines and concepts fit together.

That is, we can focus on first developing a breadth of knowledge so that a depth of knowledge is available to us everywhere we look.

The size and time scales of the universe might be a good place to start.

We can learn not to be intimidated by looking under the hood and see how things work in their full complexity.

Then we have to develop the skills to start exploring…learn to take that complexity apart, recognizing how the parts fit together and relate to the bigger whole.

Where exactly we start doesn’t matter.

But starting somewhere does.

If we want to play our role in preventing societal collapse, we’re obligated to identify what is magic to us, and to try and make it understood.

This might feel like a destruction of beauty or of something sacred…but in practice, fuller appreciation of something’s true complexity only adds to its beauty.

There are many paths to beauty only accessible through scientific inquiry.

Endeavoring to walk them not only opens us to the awe of the natural world, but simultaneously makes society as a whole more reliant.

Deep Breadth

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Big pictures, thresholds, and cross sections.