In the fall of 1982, my sixth grade Science teacher lowered the lights and turned on a reel-to-reel film. I remember vividly the sound of the spinning spools and the flickering effect as the film began. Within 20 seconds, all else receded and we were transported on a journey to the outer edges of the Universe and then inward, to the center of a carbon atom. For the next 9 minutes we were transfixed. When it was over and the lights came on there the room was silent. The film was called "Powers of Ten" and it changed the way I thought about everything from that day forward.
The full film is below. It was made in 1968 by the renowned husband and wife design team of Charles and Ray Eames and inspired by the work of Dutch educator Kees Boeke, father of the "Sociocracy" movement . Whether you watch before finishing reading this post, I hope you'll find it both as humbling and wonderful as I do.
Yesterday's post about the OneCosmos project discussed the concept of Space; how it has inspired great curiousity, audacious ambitions and sometimes, folly. Today, I hope to take things a little further by using the Eames film as a guide. My goal is to look at how science has impacted our perspective, quite literally. More importantly, I plan to explore how the of the concepts of scale in "Powers of 10" might be applied in the decades to come.
Our obsession exploration of space has been based partially on curiousity - to answer questions about "What lies beyond". In the process of peering outwards, we've learned volumes about the origins of the Universe. We've also had more pragmatic ambitions, seeing space as a possible solution to problems here on Earth - a frontier to develop, a place for future colonies where we could harvest raw materials and preserve the species. And this made sense. Especially assuming we keep pushing Earth to its natural breaking point.
I believe that in the short to mid-term, Outward Expansion is a waste of time. I can already anticipate the blowback I'll get from everyone from my Space-Enthusiast friend to Trekkies of various stripes. Easy guys. I'm not saying I'm thrilled NASA is getting its funding slashed, but dollar for dollar, I'd rather spend it elsewhere. Specifically, on "Inward Exploration".
My argument for "Inward Expansion" is about pragmatism and philosophy, about how we view our immediate surrondings and short-term challenges. Specifically, how we see natural resources. Since the beginning of civilization, humans have focused on developing resources; food, water, energy - they've been neceassry to help us live longer and more happily. This struggle for resources has driven scientific progress and control of resources sparked exploration, technology, power, exploration, and imperialism.
What I'm suggesting is that in 2011 we're nearing the end of resource abundance. This is a major theme of this series; that discipline, rethinking and trimming the fat is what we need. Either we need fewer people, more energy, better medicine or more enlightened views on how to share what exists. Perhaps we need wholesale recalibration in terms of our goals for lifespan, quality of life and culture.
Could it be that we need to adapt about standards regaring about materialism - something I've thought much about of late. (as a side note, it seems like much of financial system is built on a faulty and dated concept of manufacturing). I'd say that a healthier trend seems to be brewing - one biased towards systems that recycle, reuse and redistribute resources rather than relying on making new ones. Things EBay for everything, Etsy for handmade crafts, Airbnb for Hotels etc. This even applies to finance with peer-to-peer lending with emerging well in the Est, using principles pioneered by Dr. Mohammed Yunus at the Grameen Bank in India.
But back to "Inward Expansion". Let me define what I mean. The problem is that we're a species living in a confined space. Population is growing and we're, living longer making the planetary box ever tighter. An excape pod packed with movies, Tang and a seriouly good wifi might sound be an appealing fantasy, but back on planet earth. . .
The most interesting parts of the Powers of Ten film occurs once the camera reverses its course and moves within the skin, tunneling through red blood cells, down to DNA. DNA, the 23 strands that make us . . . .. . well . . us. When we plan the future journey of the species, we should start with a good understanding of our source code. What might happen if we could engineer the strands that control our origins, aging and our future?
(There's a lot of innnovation happening at a smaller scale too, around the quark level I'd guess, but I'll leave that to those of you who actually understand these things.)
Carl Sagan's COSMOS connected past, present and future brilliantly. In it, he draws some great parallels between the Hitsory of Expansion and space exploration, between argonauts and cosmonauts. It's remembered as a series about Space, but I always found the episode called "The Dutch Golden Age" particularly memorable. In it, he describes Holland in the early 1600's as a enlightened society that had recently declared its independence from the Spanish empire. Over the next 200 years, Holland built a staggeringly successful empire despite (and perhaps because of) its lack of domestic natural resources and lack of access to Spanish ports. What the Dutch realized was that they needed to innovate and they did so by sailing beyond the horizon.
Two things were key to Holland's success;. it's attidtudes to thought and philosophy and towards financing innovation. Holland became a hotbed for the European Enlightenment Movement and the combined commercial and governmental Dutch East India company ,or VOC , as it was called.
The VOC is near to my heart, as I spent 3 summers in high school helping my mother excavate an archaeological site she discovered in South Africa, a VOC fort where 3 soldiers would be dropped off to wait while theirs comrades sailed to the East Indies, returning years later to pick them up. Below is a picture of me sieving in 1986, age 15. This was a special day because John Coetzee was visiting us (he didn't win the Nobel Prize for Literature until many years later). On this day, I think I must have been on my best behavior - on another I accidently lit the camp on fire and had 1 months wages docked.
So here we were, digging up bones (mainly fishbones , they ate lots of fish), beads (for trading with the native South African Khoi), dice for gambling (to pass the time) and other odds and ends. It's funny to think about why we were there - both the outward facing and inward looking aspects of the Dutch empire. We were studying them because of their sailing prowess to expand yet examining what we found with a microscope, atool invented by Von Leuvonhoek. At fifteen, I remember passing a crumbled bone to an archaology student and watch as they peered through Von Leuvonhoek's lens to identify the item at hand.
If the past was about argonauts exploring distant lands, the cosmonauts shooting into space, the present and future will be about Micronauts. The frontier of the future will have street signs marked with negative exponents. Not so long ago, Krick and Watson discovered DNA. More recently, the Genome was sequenced and now commercialized Genetic Engineering is beginning to meet the market. And the names Aubrey de Grey, Jaron Lanier, William Gibson, Neal Stevenson, Cory Doctorow and Ray Kurzweil will all get more interesting.
And all this rides on a substrate of silicon chips and high storage databases, wired together in a network that contains nearly all data about life on every, second by second. It is accelerating, that is clear. But how fast and in what direction, to what end?
Before answering, let's begin back asking why inward expansion is so important? I'll argue over the next several days that by journeying into, we'll discover the keys to a sustainable future marked by genetic innovation, cybernetics, life-extension technologies, philosophy, medication and religion, to name a few.)
Tomorrow we'll turn to money and discuss the financial innovation that allowed these transformative historical explorations.. I'll begin with the first proper Venture Capitalists: The Dutch and the VOC. The more you learn about them, the more you realize that Amsterdam in 17th century was an earlier version of Silicon Valley with Boats and Gold and swords and way better hats and pipes.
So tomorrow's will be called " Betting on the Future: the first VC's". I hope things will start getting even more interesting.
Till then, keep hitting me up with comments, retweets, @replies, phone calls, skywriting. Also, please help me spread the word by telling your friends. Building an audience hasn't been easy but passed 100 regular daily readers three days ago! Not bad for 9 days work. Let's push it now.
Finally, here's a post-script for those of you who want a real treat. I think it fits within the theme of Inward Expansion in terms of focusing on what we have and sustaining the resources we have. This is my dear friend Douglas Gayeton's project. called the Lexicon of Sustainability. This film series and the work that has gone into making the first 2 episodes are impressive. The heartfealt storytelling is very special and needs your awareness and support. Visit http://www.lexiconofsustainability.com
As Douglas says, Words can change the World. Well said, Douglas. Well said.