Sunday, January 6, 2008

The ether of knowledge

From the beginning of human kind, populations have given special status to certain members so they perpetuate the population's growing knowledge. We suggest today these people's job has become much more complex and they must also be extraordinary harvesters.

In the earliest days, an extraordinarily gifted member of a population would be seeked out and trained to become a shaman. Shamans hold the population's accumulated wisdom on their ecosystem — what can be eaten, how a disease can be cured, when climatic events happen, etc. As shamans age, they accumulate experience, increasing the population's wisdom, and pass it on to their successor. This wisdom also includes the spiritual knowledge.

When populations become more complex, this job becomes more institutionalized and is organized in a formal school. An example are the monastic orders introduced by the Egyptian dynasties. The Egyptians also documented how a special school is invented to groom future Pharaohs and make them become seemingly super-human — the school of leadership.

Today this social role is fulfilled by the scientists. In most societies the spiritual wisdom has been factored out and assigned to a separate job line, but scientists are still formed in a formal educational system consisting of universities. However, the amount of scientific knowledge exchange has increased exponentially over the past millennium (see here for a fictional account).

Indeed, we can write that today the rate of scientific exchange has become so dense, that scientific knowledge constitutes an ether (of course, formally this is known as an emergent property).

One phenomenon that has long vexed scientists is anthropocentricity. In the 1960s, biology was finally able to overcome its anthropocentric views, encouraged mostly by the new understanding of the cell's functioning and in particular the proteonome of human cells being controlled by mitochondria, living beings hosted in our cells.

This has changed our views of diseases, which from then on are no longer seen as a sinister bacterium or virus attacking the human body, but instead as a living being harnessing another living being to propagating itself. At that time the joke became popular, that the chicken and egg problem has an easy solution, namely that the egg was first and it invented the chicken to propagate itself in time.

In the 1970s, in some countries like Switzerland this led to a radical change of how medicine was practiced. It was recognized that it would be absurd for a disease to kill its host because it would also kill the disease. So more emphasis was put in understanding how the disease and the human body interact, so that the human body can be strengthened to be able to fight off the invader. A new class of medicines was invented and, after a hiatus of over two millennia, the concept of psychosomatic diseases found a new revival.

Back now to the ether. We can similarly postulate that due to the dense communication, new inventions and discoveries mature in humanity as a whole and are present without human intervention. The scientist's role is to detect an invention or discovery when it is ripe and harvest it. As noted above, this is variously called emergent property, paradigms shift, or technology disruption.

This ether theory can easily be proven by looking at the pharmaceutical industry. Contemporaneous pharmaceutical research is extremely difficult, expensive, and takes 20 or more years for a new cure. Therefore, pharmaceutical research is conducted in the greatest secrecy.

Yet, when one looks at patent applications, one sees that several independent research teams invent similar pharmaca within a few days from one another. Given the duration, complexity, and secrecy of the process, this can only be explained that collective understanding has reached a point where everybody can detect the invention in the ether.

The corollary is that the best scientists are the ones with the best antennas (and the least noise in the form of distractions), and also that location is important. For example, even if everything can be found on the Web, here in the Silicon Valley we have the competitive advantage of a denser ether. You cannot go to a party or dinner without being exposed to new knowledge in your field.

This is what I meant to contribute in my purpose statement in the green box on top of this page. From my window I have an extraordinary view of the ether and I am sharing it with you. Just aim your antenna correctly, then take action.