Hunched Over In A Shrinking World
Welcome to the Hunch Room, a What’s Next Health series where futurists, leaders, thinkers, and friends ponder the practice of hunching and the intriguing notions they’ve come across on ShareYourHunch.org. New to sharing your hunches? Check out this video.
Today, the Hunch Room is serving up reflections by C. Brandon Ogbunu, assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University and external professor at the Santa Fe Institute.
By C. Brandon Ogbunu
ShareYourHunch.org provides a place for play, where profound ideas can be discretized into informal, digestible bits. The model works the way that many complex systems work in biology, ecology, medicine, and society–individual pieces of information combine, recombine, interact, and create emergent phenomena and conversations.
My perusal of ShareYourHunch.org has given me a lot to think about, as the contributions cover vast territories of domains, offered by individuals from a seemingly wide breadth of experiences, professional backgrounds, and walks of life. Attempting to organize the hunches into categories or themes is challenging, but feasible. Many hunches articulate anxieties about a world that is now operated in digital spaces. That is, not only is commerce taking place in these spaces, but also politics, romance, even war. Other hunches make allusions to a world where increases in travel make it easier than ever for humans to be in other physical spaces.
Both of these sorts of hunches appeal to a “shrinking world”; whether we are talking about two adolescents on opposite sides of the world cooperating in a console video game campaign, or how changes to business operations have sparked reimagination about the relationship between living space and work space, the world feels smaller than ever before. And with this come many of our fears… but also opportunities.
In an arena where I work, the study of epidemics, the shrinking world has pandemics more possible: a single airplane carrying an unknowing contagious passenger can change the course of world history. This has made the application of sciences like network theory, and practices like contact-tracing so important: the study of epidemics is growing into a more nuanced craft, driven by details of who is in which rooms rather than assumptions about how groups of people are behaving and interacting. One hunch that I have related to this is that we will continue to extract out more fundamental rules–resembling a sort of physics–for how contagion happens across diseases (or phenomena) of various kinds. The key here will not be to come up with a set of laws that we will apply to all situations, but laws that serve as a guide for how to think through a given epidemiological scenario.
These examples from epidemiology highlight that the shrinking world is necessarily two-sided, and that the second side contains the possibility of solutions, discovery, and hope. That is, the shrinking world makes it easier for pathogens to spread, but also makes it easier for governments to share data and resources, and to intervene.
I often challenge myself to consider and lean into the hope and possibility that lives in this shrinking world. Like many others, I fear the fraying of social bonds, the rise of anti-science sentiment, and the emergence of scam-adjacent financial schemes that are possible because of the high connectivity of digital spaces. But I challenge myself to be more creative, as this shrunken world, if reimagined properly, could yield new opportunities for education, expression, and inclusion.
One hunch that I read, by Bruce Haden, spoke to this:
This delivers on the strength of the hunch format: it is a bite-sized inkling that communicates something profound, in this case about our shrinking world. So much of modern research on humans has focused on the experiences of individuals in so-called Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (W.E.I.R.D.) societies.
But like this hunch offers, simple models of how human beings live, love, learn, and the countless other “average” features of what life is like cannot possibly hold up to the presence of new faces, minds, and ideas from around the world. Herein lays a profound and important opportunity: the shrunken room can disabuse us, not only of stale (or rotten) ideas for what a person is, but will likely challenge the categories themselves. When we come to learn how more people think, feel, and live, we may learn something greater about the diversity of the human experience.
What will we do with more information on how more people live? Will this simply serve as more training data for a predictive algorithm for human behavior? I think not. I think the shrunken room, with more people from more parts of the world, will complicate the idea of singular models for the human experience. Surely we can (and should) identify patterns and proclivities where we can. But the vastness of the human experience may tell us that inability to fit a curve isn’t a bug, but a feature. And this diversity is tractable, and truths can be extracted towards better health, governance, and more rooms that fit the needs of more people.
Here’s a couple of the other hunches that drew me in this time from hunchers David and Carol.
Will you join me in hunching about the future?
C. Brandon Ogbunu, a computational biologist and writer, is an assistant professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Yale University, and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. His research program focuses on the forces that are responsible for how diseases emerge, evolve, and persist. Ogbunu is also a contributing editor to WNYC’s Radiolab, and he has written several popular essays for Wired (where he is a regular contributor). He serves on the Board of Reviewing Editors of eLife, is an associate editor at Evolution, and is a director / member of the Board of Directors for the Genetics Society of America (GSA).
The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
You can learn more about Brandon’s work via his linktree: linktr.ee/chike98 or follow him on Twitter at @big_data_kane
Now it’s your turn! Have a hunch that’s on your mind? Come set it free at ShareYourHunch.org! And remember to stop back into the Hunch Room to see what kind of gear-turning hunches can inspire! Share Your Hunch is a project of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its Pioneering Ideas for an Equitable Future team.