The Look and Feel of 21st Century Science

In this time of disruptive change, we need to rethink the basic structures of knowledge.

Humanity is going through unprecedented global change. The systems that arose to organize societies in the last 400 years are breaking down — and now is the time to envision what will come next.

I recall a talk that inspired me several years ago by the eclectic scholar, Dougald Hine where he explained that knowledge systems change in a nested manner. Some things (like the way we get news on a daily basis) can evolve quickly as new technologies alter media institutions on timescales of a few years or decades. Other things move more slowly.

An example he gave for these historic sloths was the organization of academic disciplines at universities — some of which have been very slow to change in a hundred years (think about the presumed boundary between “hard” and “soft” science that is so resistant to leaving). Yet the slowest of all is in the archival institutions that we all libraries. It is to changes in these modes of information storage for long periods of time that we must look when paradigmatic change is upon us. Such a change is now upon us right now.

The oldest libraries were storehouses of pottery. Data was painted onto clay pots to record important information about crop yields that go back thousands of years in places like Mesopotamia and ancient China. Later it was scrolls like those famously burned in the Great Library of Alexandria. More recently it has been bounded paper volumes that we call books, as the printing press gave rise to literate societies in the last few hundred years.

Now we are fully in the digital age when it comes to information systems. And digital data is profoundly networked and ephemeral in ways that were simply not possible before. We can update the linkages and information content with ease that makes book printing look cumbersome by comparison. So it has become paradigmatic that libraries are “going digital” and building up a network ecology framework for organizing the knowledge of societies.

What does this have to do with the look and feel of 21st Century science? In a word, everything. For humanity is now on the cusp of planetary-scale crisis. According to earth system scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Institute, the Earth has now passed at least four of nine “planetary boundaries” that define a safe operating range for global civilization. We are fully in overshoot-and-collapse — living through an Easter Island type of instability on a planetary scale.

At the same time, our social systems are in deep turmoil due to massive wealth inequality and the various forms of institutional decline that comes with collapsing trust in an unequal world. This is apparent in the rise of authoritarian leaders in many countries in concert with a rapid drop of trust in authoritative expertise. Science is in crisis alongside the political and economic systems of the world that are in turmoil today.

So we must envision a look and feel for science in the future that is networked, agile and ever-evolving, relevant to the pressing issues of the day, and deeply, DEEPLY ecologically human. This last point bears elaboration. And a brief side comment about the fundamental importance of metaphors for organizing knowledge in societies.

The guiding metaphor for the Modern Era was the “clockwork universe” of Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes. I wrote more about this in an earlier essay, The Great Lie of Living on a Dead Planet. When we separate mind from body; humans from nature; and societies from their environments; we are doing so by presuming the Universe to be a giant mechanical device with no morality or soul inside. This metaphor gave rise to the mechanistic sciences of physics and chemistry in the 16th through 19th Centuries.

Many of the systemic problems we face today — from climate change to political corruption — are traceable back to this illusion of separation between machines and living things. And so it should come as no surprise that the 20th Century was a period of ascendence for systems thinking in fields like ecology, computer science, quantum mechanics, and the study of social networks. Herein we can see the early shape of the new paradigm for 21st Century science.

The guiding metaphor here is ecological networks. Living systems that function through their interdependence, networked relationships among functional parts, and a dynamism of emergence that is not reducible. The science of the last few hundred years may necessarily have been reductionistic (breaking complexity down into manageably simple parts in order to make sense of it) but the science that is emerging will equally strongly require holism in order to make sense of the interwoven patterns that arise as global systemic behaviors.

Let me demonstrate the difference with a concrete example from my work as the coordinator for birthing a new scientific society for the study of cultural evolution. I have worked with a team of researchers to map out the knowledge ecology of this field. We did this because a survey of our founding membership revealed a strong desire for knowledge synthesis across the divided silos of university departments.

A beautiful map for the knowledge ecology of Cultural Evolution Society members.

Research in psychology was not adequately being informed by (or informing) that which was taking place in anthropology or sociology. Historians were not in sufficient dialogue with archeologists or population ecologists. Political scientist hadn’t played well with economists. Biologists weren’t working closely with humanities scholars. What’s worse, researchers in each of these siloed fields have scarcely been in dialogue with each other either. According to one illustrative study, 90% of all peer review journal articles have never been read!

In another essay I called this The Predicament of Knowledge and it is now chronic as humanity is clearly failing to apply all of this compartmentalized knowledge to the crises of living in a 21st Century world. The argument I made there was that we collectively have all the knowledge we need to solve every major social problem in the world. Yet we lack the capacities to synthesize and apply all this knowledge in real time.

This is where the Cultural Evolution Society comes into play. The mechanistic divisions of Modern-Era science have led to treating science as an industrial manufacturing process devoid of human sentiment or morality (think of all the animal testing done in cages throughout the last 400 years). What is needed to replace it is a living intelligence process guided by evolution for sense-making and collective learning. This requires a 21st Century understanding for (a) what it means to be a living thing; and more specifically (b) what it means to be human.

Sciences of the future will need to be integrative and holistic, emergent and evolutionary, and profoundly informed by knowledge of their interdependencies. No more “Cartesian” separations. No more dividing knowledge into silos. No more treating humans as an industrial input into corporate machines. Instead we need to apply the ecological principles of regeneration, resilience, and thriving. Scientists of the future will work together as networks — an evolutionary step beyond the ad hoc interdisciplinary teams of the late 20th Century.

Tools for synthesis will include group facilitation, scientific visualization, computer modeling and simulation, and iterative design practices. We will need to actively co-create in pluralistic communities where those trained in specific domains of knowledge are partnered with transdisciplinary scholars who specialize in facilitating knowledge synthesis. These are the new-and-improved generalists of a bygone era. They are fully human as networked ecosystems of people learning together using tools, theoretical frameworks, and social practices that are incentivized for collective intelligence.

Critical for this science to emerge will be that it avoid its greatest current threat — a 21st Century version of the burning of Alexandria’s great library. We need our science to survive the potential collapse of global civilization in the next 50 years. Let this sink in. It is a very serious issue that is hardly on anyone’s radar at the moment.

Yes, there is a crisis in peer-review publishing.

Yes, there is a crisis in public understanding of science for policymaking.

Yes, there is a crisis of impending ecological collapse of the biosphere.

Yes, there is a crisis of anti-science demagogues replacing rigorous methods with ideology.

Yet at the deep systemic level, there is a greater crisis of unraveling paradigms for knowledge systems as humanity goes through its next great transition as a species.

It is here that the new sciences must emerge. It must not be based on a separation of theory and practice — for it will be the practices of working with, studying, and guiding the evolution of complex social systems that will enable the sciences to advance. And also what enables the social systems themselves to maintain the efficacy to continue their existence. These things are inseparable in reality and must be dealt with accordingly.

Applying this back to the observation that started this essay, we must envision libraries of the future as networked living systems of interconnected human beings. The “digital divide” between those with access to internet and those without is only one use for this phrase. Another is the deeper semantic separation presumed by disembodied rationality — that there is no digital without physical and all human knowledge is worthless if it fails to be embodied by human societies as social norms, behaviors, narratives, and institutional practices.

The digital libraries of the future will be cyborgs… interwoven human-machine meshworks for active learning. The singularity is us as human beings. The look and feel of 21st Century science will be human through and through. There will be holism and integration; emotion and reason recombined in resonance with findings from the cognitive and behavioral sciences. And it will be ecological; embedded in human networks which are themselves embedded within physical and social geographies.

Let us rapidly transform the look and feel of science to reflect its best face. Let is be systemic and integrative. Let it be moral and political. And let it be relevant and responsive to the crises we all face together on a daily basis in the real world.

Onward, fellow humans.

Want to support my work? Appreciate my writings? Make a contribution here.