I’m arranging some files for a long planned novel. More immediately, I am planning a website that I would like to be vital in 20 years. And even more close is the Future of Storytelling event I will be investing in. All three of these present a problem in guessing narrative futures.
I am aware that technology — when stirred up by cultural urges and commercial exploitation — is working in cycles that are ever shorter than our growing lifespans. And that this is going to break in some profound way, producing a class of folks that ride the latest trends for advantage, costs be damned. And at the same time spinning out a potentially large class that likes the alternatives.
A question is: how will the best scientific minds be working 20 years hence?
I think that few would deny the general trend. People seem to prefer things labelled natural, handmade or artisanal. Nostalgia has always been attractive, but it seems more so now, as whole subcultures form around the fiction that the past was simpler and simple is better.
Fundamentalist religions are surging in the US and elsewhere. We are talking huge numbers here and I think much of this is an appeal to the personal, the simple truth. Heck, in the US, we have an entire, powerful political party whose primary tenet is that will have nothing of science when it colors dogma. I even connect much of the massive rush to tattoos to this.
All of these are further connected by a common drive toward a personal narrative that folks think they can get a handle on. Utility is secondary; there are many examples where deliberate failure to understand life and nature has immediate personal penalties.
This is a dynamic trend. I think the basic energy behind it will only increase, because it is fueled by avoidance of complexity. Though it is questionable whether the world is actually becoming more complex, information flow is making that complexity ever more obvious. The expression is likely to be squirrelly, though; the religious angle will continue I think but evolve. Political narrative is always fickle so elective illiteracy will shift somehow. Events that no one can predict can have profound effect.
But there is one trend that I will predict, one that fascinates me: artisinal science, and I couple that with what I think is a universal drive in life and narrative involving foundations, tools and introspection.
Tools, Simple and Otherwise
This one is easy to describe in a few domains, but I will take it in an unexpected direction.
If we are talking about kitchens and woodworking shops, even fishing and photography setups or music, then the desire to set up your own work environment is clearly strong. People like to be creative and they like their creative tools to be powerful and personally tailored.
Yes, I acknowledge the pressure to follow the crowd. But the desire to be unique and to do unique work is balanced against that in equal measure.
The examples I study the most are in two areas: computer tools and movie-watching tools.
We want our tools to be effective and fluid. Market forces govern some of this; the computerized tools that work best have a large enough user base to be refined and extended, so there is a balance here between mass acceptance and tailorability. For some tools, that critical mass or users can be a small number.
The computerized tools I’ve used happily have mostly been significantly tailorable and many of these can fit the definition of artisinal. The definition I use for artisinal software:
- it has personality distinct from the default toolbuilding frameworks;
- that personality in the software is coherent in the same way (we imagine) that the creator's personality is coherent; and,
- the tools do something that the creator wants done and feels creative fire to satisfy.
I’m going to be building new computerized tools. I want them to fit this definition. A separate, possibly unrelated goal is to allow them to be moldable to individual use. I’d be thrilled to learn that something I build is being productively used in a way I never imagined.
Deeper than this are the conceptual foundations on which these tools are built. A simple example is the vocabulary of concepts that people draw on in defining a religion. Let’s call those ontological tools, ideas. Things like: everyone is special; justice manifests in unknown dimensions; or, someone (or force) is looking out for you.
There is power in these, but for now we’ll dive a little deeper. I spend a lot of time working in film, looking at how they adapt to what viewers want and trying to understand what viewers really do want. I think they are hungry for new tools.
Beneath the distracting qualities of effects and romance (which I’ll put at the ontological level) are structural trends that are visible and evolving quickly. Many people watch movies while inhabiting multiple personalities; one persona escapes into the story while others stand outside the story in a sort of metawatching. Tropic Thunder, for instance depends on the viewer skipping among many narratives about the movie, about acting, about noir, and some other more exotic meta-narratives — all of the levels interacting with one another. And this is only one example of hundreds I’ve noted.
These tools have to do with situation, relationship, time, being and similar primitives in complex constructions. Sure, they are motivated by the higher level narratives, but the point is that masses of people including young people are innovating and evolving these complex narrative structures using basic building blocks.
This drives a huge industry; in turn it has a huge effect on natural patterns of thinking about the world.
Now let’s skip a bit.
Science is about understanding the world in ways that allow us to do useful things. We want to understand gravity, material science and aerodynamics because we want to fly places; we want (or want someone else) to understand biology and chemistry so that we can have medical practices that make us hurt less and live longer.
Science has a few basic requirements. (In this, I am talking about devising theories rather than the clerical task of collecting data and registering it in known categories.) The obvious ones are:
- facts must be accommodated;
- underlying principles must be expressible;
- predictions have to be true (as appropriate); and,
- outcomes need to be reproducible in a way that engineering practices can be sustained.
All this is good.
It doesn’t necessarily follow, but a reasonable approach is modeling the world by abstractions and the ordering of these abstractions into mathematical expressions. This is good too, but what we have is more arbitrary than usually supposed. For instance, we assume that the fundamental quality of existence is stuff, and that stuff has properties like mass and momentum. To explain what we observe, we invent fields and forces with properties and laws such that when you put them all together, it works as science (according to the requirements listed above). But it gives us precious little real insight.
Except for the fact that we see and bump up against stuff frequently, these are rather arbitrary starting points. The further you get into the open issues in science, the more they get in the way of sublime theories that may work much better. In fact, there are a host of concepts that the best theoretical scientists question: things like logic, time, agency, causality and composition. And there are a variety of mathematical tools we can bring to bear on problems that have different freedoms than what we normally are constrained by: set theory.
Good science requires good tools and the ones we’ve used in the past may not be good enough. Said another way, the next generation of scientific insights will require the next generation of conceptual tools.
And it isn’t like we are finished with science either. A naive view of science is that we have all the basic laws in hand; what we need is more data to fit the unknowns into these laws or slight extensions of them. In reality, we understand only a small part of what is around us. The mystery of dark matter; the nature of mass; the effect of system imperatives in living systems are the ones that get the most press, but blind spots surround in profusion.
We don’t even have a workable theory of gravity. Gravity! We can measure it and rather exactly navigate through it. But we have no idea what it is. We don’t know what mass is. We understand some qualities of some of it but know that most of the universe is some sort of mass that is beyond our frameworks. Space? Time? Parallel influences? Even the list is hard to make with current abstractions.
We have a long, long way to go and it will involve reinventing science as thoroughly as it has been reinvented in the past, perhaps more.
About Artisinal Science
Put all this together and I think we have a future where some theoretical scientists develop their own abstractions and mathematical tools for advanced work. Most likely, this will first be for medical research where our models of multilayer system dynamics (that integrate with the molecular level) are visible, known impediments to improved health. Particle and astrophysics are essential candidates as well. Don't forget often overlooked nanoscale material science.
I think there are opportunities to build frameworks for these artisans of concepts. Yes, it will involve some mathematics, and functional programming code. It likely will require some better ontological description languages and expanded logics. As I make the list, I am of course listing my selections in this process, my tailoring of reality to work best with it.
How does this tie in with stories? I think it does in three ways.
The first is straightforward. Creative souls thrive when the fire in their belly is congruent with the ability to allow their mind to flow. I'll add the cognitive harmony of having a narrative of self as a creative artist that uses the same models as used for how that self models all the things that are not him/her. Narratives are about situations, so is discovery and so is maintaining one's creative energy.
A second you might have to take on faith. Science currently depends on logic to build unambiguous descriptions of steps, each that cause the next. A larger logic will have to meet certain very strict formal requirements but still build causal models: this made this happen; this influenced this in that way. The basic material for sequencing things by complex cause is by narrative. It is the way our mind works and the way scientific exposition will evolve.
The third tie-in? I am convinced that we are evolving new ways of managing complex narrative. This is at a pure enough level that it can apply to, say, Nurse Betty, or Inception or Tropic Thunder just as well as the rest of the world. Our next generation of creative artists, scientists and mathematicians are exercising these new tools in film; some are extending them. Our new models, narratives, sciences and yes films will come from this.
Many levels, parallel causality, folded agency.
Master these. make good stories.