dConstruct 2012 ·

As one or two of you older people may know, I’ve wasted my life as a television journalist and historian writing books and articles and making TV shows about technology and science and their social effect, and just so you get into proper perspective what I’d like to say this afternoon, let me remind you of something the late, great Mark Twain once said, when you might have been talking about people like me and my colleagues, he said, ‘in the real world, the right thing never happens in the right place at the right time. It is the task of journalists and historians to rectify this error.’ So in order to rectify the future I want to spend most of my time looking at the past because there’s nowhere else to look: (a) because the future hasn’t happened yet and never will, and (b) because almost all the time in any case the future, as you’ve heard more than once today, is not really much more than the past with extra bits attached, so to predict, I’m saying we look back. Take, for example, the fundamental active prediction that you’re operating right now; by which I mean the way at this moment you’re using your extraordinary predictive abilities to solve a highly complex dynamic, critically important, real-time problem: understanding me. And what I mean is this. If you think about the speak-listen event going on between you and me now, there is no time, is there, for you to hear what I say, go into some kind of lexicon in your head, search for the word I’ve just made, put that word on the end of the word-string so far, see that it makes sense, and come out and wait for the next word, because even if all you were accessing in there was the average sixteen year old’s vocabulary of twelve thousand five hundred words…something wrong with education there somewhere…anyway, at one millisecond per active neural retrieval, you’d be taking twelve and a half seconds to identify each word and you’re not doing that, are you? Good! So what are you doing? Well, as you know, every healthy brain on the planet has about a hundred billion neurons, each carrying up to fifty thousand connective dendrites, each of which is potentially in contact with another quarter of a million connective dendrites. So it looks as if the possible combinatorial number of ways a signal, a thought, could go through that stuff is greater than the number of atoms in the known universe, and you’ve got one. And what you’re doing with yours right now, is drawing on a moderately large database, the six hundred and sixteen thousand five hundred words in the long-term core English language that I might use, so as to perform dynamic real-time analytics on the syntax, the grammar, the content of what I’ve said so far, plus other cues you’ve already picked up, like the three thousand potential configurations of my facial muscles, my body language; the kind of stuff you kind of think I’m

and pulling all that stuff together to run simultaneous connective scenarios ahead of me. I mean. so as to identify all the probable words I will make next. ‘I wonder what it would’ve looked like up there if the sun had been going round the earth. everybody would have their own personal form of transportation to go where they chose when they chose. and kerosene. of course. The computer was made specifically to calculate artillery shell trajectories. our world. But what makes accurate prediction even more difficult are the potential secondary ripple effects. it’s 1856. there’s more free throw-away coal tar by-product than you can shake a stick at. in any given circumstance. To predict you extrapolate on what’s there already. And if you don’t find any: no problem. But note what I said at the very beginning about looking back to look forward. So. The message on the card reminds one of the attitude of the average citizen to technological change because the message on the card reads. The printing press was just supposed to print a couple of Bibles. the guy who ruined everybody’s life when he said. So the evident difficulty that ordinary people seem to have with second-guessing innovation today would seem primarily to be that the present high rates of technological change are updating the paradigm. so lighting engineers know about that. ‘If anything can be said at all. and the contemporary paradigm says the universe is made of omelettes. Well.’ The point being. ‘Yeah. or indeed anything. as philosophers often will. can keep up. given the fact that under such conditions. faster than most individuals.dConstruct 2012 · James Burke going to be talking about anyway. working within the local context from within the well-known box. James Watt’s steam engine was just supposed to drain mines. Why?’ Another problem with the future is because during the innovative process.’ Apparently. ‘Having a wonderful time. the nineteenth century German engineer. which may be why the future has so often in the past been a surprise. his psychiatrist back in the hospital gets a post-card from this holidaying depressive. it can be said clearly. somebody once went up to Wittgenstein and remarked what a bunch of morons we Europeans must have been nine hundred years ago before Copernicus told us how the solar system worked to have looked up in the sky. And this person would have laughed heartily at that because it was a contradiction in terms. is that you’re all giving this talk before I am! And…. The unintended consequences which almost always have almost nothing to do with the original reason for the innovation. yeah. No wonder the reaction of the typical consumer to today’s avalanche of new gizmos and new ways of doing things reminds one of the story of the depressive who gets a couple of days off from the clinic. and to have thought what we were seeing up there was the sun going round the earth. To which Wittgenstein is said to have replied. For example. the rules of maths change and one and one unpredictably makes three. Ludwig Wittgenstein. of course. Viagra was just supposed to be for angina. free place to look for artificial quinine. Ideas come together that never did so before. from the holidaying depressive reads. If you’re an astronomer. I mean. and the result of that process is more than the sum of the parts. used back then for oil lamps. The next day. Wilhelm Maybach puts together the antiseptic spray used back then in hospital operating theatres so surgeons know about that. what else? This boxed-in view of the future is why the average medieval person would’ve fallen off their bar stool at the lunatic notion that one day in the far distant future. What he was saying was that. and more especially. it would’ve looked exactly the same. and then power-down the wrong ones as I come on through. But…’ he said. young British chemist William Perkin decides coal tar is going to be a good.and any other talk I might have given! And anything that anybody will say at this conference. One wonders why you came. What that means. Our colonial troops in the steamier parts of the world are going down like flies from malaria and Perkin will save the day. and then working out the next set of potential alternatives and going on doing that in real-time as long as I go on doing this blahblah-blah. and comes up with the carburettor for the new car manufacturers who know nothing about either antiseptics or illumination. Instrument failure. the earth goes round the sun and you don’t have to be Einstein to get that. goes to the beach to get himself a tan. We predict the future from the past. you build instruments to search for traces of intergalactic egg. The telephone was invested by Alexander Graham Bell just to teach deaf people to talk. and thanks to gas light production. was once cogently addressed by the great modern philosopher. That whole question of paradigm constraint on the way we think about the future. what you think you’re seeing. institutions. when as anybody knows. one thing a sludge he comes up with after months . you see what your version of things at the time tells you you’re seeing. streets would become total standstill twenty-feet deep in horse shit. I mean.

reduce your view of everything down to its simplest component elements. and if he says it’s possible. Unexpected consequence of gas light: chemotherapy. If the guy tells you something’s definite. You can never do just one thing and expect just one result. Descartes’ technique locks down how we innovate. and drive us all deep into the fissures and cracks of specialist data. because pretty soon back then. we start to lose site of where we are. on which America does not appear. In the intellectual panic that follows. we’d still be talking like this…. and they’re not on Aristotle’s definitive list either. come new plants and new animals and new minerals and people that nobody had ever seen before. Triggered when Christopher Columbus did his thing.dConstruct 2012 · James Burke of noodling is not. In typically British fashion. But the biggest ripple effect perhaps of all time. can’t transcribe that bit!!). and the one that veers most closely to what we’re talking about here was the one that I would argue shaped modern innovation itself. of course. Like a . you’d stay anchored on the horse when you hit the enemy with your lance and the full weight of the horse. with rules for thinking that everybody’s going to conform to. Social media helped students find a date and then organised Obama’s election campaign and then revolutions in the Middle East. sees what it does to the water. Result: methodical doubt and reductionism kick off modern scientific method. So the French shock troops wiped the floor with us Anglo-Saxon foot soldiers. supposedly non-existent place. better military technology wins battles. The stirrup. think of it as possible. comes up with a solution. that way you’ll see how it works and if it breaks. All right. flooding in from this new. Learn more and more about less and less. empty world by the medieval maxim. this is the Bayeux Tapestry created in 1077 to commemorate the Battle of Hastings eleven years earlier. The typewriter took women out of the kitchen and put them in the office and boosted the divorce rate. The unexpected world-wide ripple effect of one little camel-loading gizmo. When the French took over England. This was going to make loading camels quick and easy. this unexpected consequence up here on the screen. however. Before Descartes. Turn the process of innovation into a noodler’s paradise. what else? Those camel loaders had never even heard of the French. how we think about innovation and how we predict from then until about now. forgive me if it’s a little over-simple. when the invading French beat us Anglo-Saxons and took over England. forget it. I’ll get back to you! We Europeans take to Descartes with all the abandon of an alcoholic and a brewery. because he’s invented the world’s first artificial aniline dye. Not discover America. when I have examined your proposition for traps. Well. After Descartes. One: apply methodical doubt. we all live happily in a slow-changing. Happens all the time. is artificial quinine. the definitive last-word authority on all knowledge is Aristotle. and that’s why millions of us around the world now speak the way we do. whose definitive last-word stuff includes a map of the world. the man I personally blame for everything. but the fact that back in 1492. The French were on horseback because they were using this thing. a German pathologist accidentally spills some of the new dye into a petri dish and discovers that it selectively stains only one kind of bacillus. A technique that ensures your data will be trustworthy. here. A new trick recently arrived from medieval Afghanistan. because he works out how to generate the kind of data that will not let you down like Aristotle’s did. he sells the idea to a German. credo ut intelligam: through belief I come to knowledge. we turn it the other way round.(sorry. so deep in the long run. The first refrigerators kept food fresh and punched a hole in the ozone layer. it was called. where it had originally been designed as a single step up. like. so he chucks it down the sink. Modern innovation is based on Descartes’ two rules. and if the English language had not become half-French. if Aristotle is wrong. a French military engineer. and becomes a millionaire overnight. Two: be reductionist. named René Descartes. If he said it’s probable. who realised that if you put one of these steps on either side of a horse and stuck your feet in them. which it is. Jeez. and then other newly discovered places around the globe. but then came the ripple effect. and not the way we would be speaking if the French hadn’t used the stirrup and won that battle. how to fix it. they also took over the language. think of it as probable. that is. So in 1492. A few years later. On a somewhat more cosmic scale. there goes the epistemological neighbourhood. because they fought on horseback and won. Anglo Saxon. As you know. Shock troop (?). Throughout the century after Columbus. I’ll paraphrase. what’s it doing there? And worse is to come. and we fought on foot and lost. Intelligo ut credam: rough translation. the reductionist mission statement becomes the one that has driven innovation and expertise of any kind ever since then. to use when you were loading a camel and short of time.

But m ore important. because as the American mathematician. and how to turn that prediction into specifically targeted innovation. for example. productive.’ As IT makes it easier to cross the line between those disciplines. Focus may turn out to be what the machine is beset at. Change is leaving us behind because along the way. because he did what reductionism requires you to do to get ahead: make your specialist niche so small there’s only room in there for you. with explosive effect. In each generation. the healthiest. they’re not making that model any more. I mean. ‘Major innovation comes most of all from the unexplored no-man’s land between the disciplines.’ I think he was referring to the linear reductionist mode of thinking. it has modified the innovation process itself. All at the same time. the effect has been to slice and dice the disciplines into hundreds of scientific and technological niche studies. head down at their work benches. which science and technology and especially business often require of their R&D troops. Not true. where intelligence is still equated with focus and specialisation. Information: the person next to you has a communicable disease. It’s a truism. Thanks to the internet. together with advances in communications technology. Descartes’ reductionist approach sets the guidelines for how to identify and evaluate the single critical contemporary problem. by the time you’ve read the manual. And then explain yourself only in your own gobbledygook. He is now Head of Department at a senior American University. the great Claude Shannon once said.dConstruct 2012 · James Burke pal of mine at Oxford who got his Doctorate in the seventeenth century poet John Milton’s use of the comma. As a result. It’s also of course why we in the industrialised nations are. People thought he was nuts. which then over time become disciplines in their own right. we’re still all taught at school. The gobbledygook stuff I mentioned before. Norbert Wiener once said. as reductionism has taken hold. My laptop could have easily and simultaneously landed Apollo 11 on the moon.’ Example: no information: you are sitting in a seat. innovative. I mean. maybe we should be looking at ways for our educational systems to add to their specialist training programmes a few programmes for training people to think cross-discipline. These days. First of all in the science and technology silos that Descartes created which became more and more specialised. This scientific drilling down into data and the emergence of stuff so arcane that nobody outside the field understands it: try asking a quantum chromodynamicist what she does for a living. in general. the nineteenth century Scots physicist James Dewar. The inventor of information theory. and then repeat the process. makes it difficult to predict what will happen when information technology causes your noodling to bump into somebody else’s noodling. he once said. It was Rosalind Franklin’s noodling around with coal crystal structures that eventually made it possible to discover DNA. ‘Information causes change. and especially as the nuts and bolts of innovation become more and more the responsibility of semi-intelligent software. because up to now. people whose area of expertise would be no-man’s land. by the way. the innovation process has changed again. . the growth rate of information technology has brought radical change to every aspect of life. and started instead coming out of R&D labs. So if we want to do better in the global market-place where you either innovate or die. look at the names of the newer sciences. the rate of innovation surges. reductionism has triggered accelerating change and the explosion of data faster than institutions and institutional thinking can handle. innovation stopped being what gentlemen amateurs. how to predict what the solution to that single problem will be. End result: cling film and the packaging industry. In this way. But the other aspect of this kind of highly focused. downloaded a movie and done my tax return. If it doesn’t. is it not. wealthiest people in history. the more that happens. And now in the early twenty-first century. And the easier information moves around. successful reductionist behaviour is the way in which a lifetime of specialist silo thinking. I mean. kept a bubble inflated for three years. They are all cross-discipline. you are incomprehensible and therefore irreplaceable. as part of his work on thin films. it is now much easier for noodlers to be exposed to other noodlers. it’s not information. reductionist innovation has triggered spectacular advances. organised a flash mob. ‘We are all born with magnificent brains which formal education then slowly destroys. so that in the twentieth century. maybe Einstein was right when he said. a small number of noodlers has achieved what the previous generation would’ve classified as miraculous. Old-fashioned values maybe now that inter-disciplinary is no longer a dirty word. like Michael Faraday did. that over the last fifty years. and a waste of imaginative human brainpower. back in the forties he came up with cybernetics. IT is networking the world.

because as I hope to show in a minute. men.OK. The young guy went off and became a millionaire. you notice it’s linked to this guy called Santa Anna who was the dictator of Mexico in the nineteenth century. idea being inside the brain are all the organs of your character. I have bigger fish to fry. reveal new relationships by taking journeys of contextual discovery across this little web to see how everything it ultimately connected to everything else across all disciplines. event or whatever. I have been working spare time for a number of years on a small on-line tool designed to get students to think more inter-discipline. armour. the names of the people involved. So take chewing gum. called Emilie du Châtelet. he’s a sort of…he’s a man with many contacts. very simple level. Important connections in a person’s creative life. A number of ways that you can get into the thing. So let’s start. one of whom was the free thinker who spent most of his life on the run. uh-hum? Easy enough. has a thousand words of biography or detail with. called Voltaire. early in their learning experience. clear off. The basis is. If they are . However. and inter-connected among themselves about thirty-five thousand ways. If you start with chewing gum. Voltaire. So the potential number of journeys you can take through this little web should be enough to keep one class busy one hour a week for one year. the further back in time. so you have to wait for volunteers: those with the time don’t have the talent. the interface is not complete. and during one spell in exile in Staten Island he introduced a young American to chewing gum. name of Wrigley. Let me see if I can get it to work there…. Owen. work with. and he was that way inclined because he had read a book by an Italian thinker about crime and punishment. So here’s Mozart. one of Santa Anna…. let’s say you go into a music lesson and you…somebody says. to help the Americans in the War of Independence against us. made up of about twenty eight hundred people. I’m sure you’ve come across that problem before.dConstruct 2012 · James Burke With that in mind. one of the things he tried to do was to get the death penalty taken off the books in the state of Virginia where he was Governor for a while. We are not for profit. and those with the talent don’t have the time. So chewing gum to Newton in six easy jumps. So. Jefferson was again a libertarian. split about equally between the humanities and the arts. this libertarian British mill owner. you name it. so as you fly in past the gateway sphere. apart from being on the run from the cops.one day. and at a very. if somebody commits a murder. and on each sphere a century and on the sphere is embedded the nodes. These connections are usually people they know. spent a lot of his time doing his best work in the chateau belonging to a lovely lady whose husband was permanently absent. without whose help they would not have won. fight.woops…not to there…hold it…to here. Now that wasn’t frightening for a kid. Mozart stole the idea for the Marriage of Figaro from a fifteenth-rate…sorry French people in the audience…called Beaumarchais. was mixed up with all kinds of people. was a pal of another similarly left-wing gentleman called Godwin. more context about the stuff they’re learning. The project is still work in progress so I can show you the plumbing but not much more. OK. and we start on the journey with Mozart. Again. He got many of his good ideas from a couple of lunatics from Vienna called Gall and Spurzheim. events and artefacts from history. cannon. you know. whatever. you start to hit people and you start to see with whom they have connections of some kind. we’re going to look at Mozart today. bells and whistles and videos and whatever else that young kids need in order to retain their attention. except for the fact that he was chosen by the King to be the man who laundered all the money across the Atlantic. One of the interfaces we’re playing with for the youngest kids are this kind of cosmos of knowledge…nested spheres: the further in you go. Anyway. guns. hate. I’d like to open a Utopian commune in your country and Santa Anna said. why in order to punish him does the State commit murder? In other words. and Godwin being the libertarian he was. The database for this little tool of mine is in the very early stage at present. The name of the game is to learn new things and find new connections. ships. the first book that ever said. Having got through that stage or decided more or less where you want to start. you then pass down…. Now…you’ve heard this apology before. They’re the guys who came up with this amazing pseudo-science called Phrenology. anti capital punishment. Beaumarchais is a total no-no. kind of proto-Socialist really. marry. and if I can find her…here she is…Emilie du Châtelet and what she was doing while Voltaire was doing his thing. each person. that kind of thinking may turn out to be critically important if we are to predict more accurately how to handle things when they start to turn scary in about forty years. So what I’m hoping to do is to encourage young users to think connectively and therefore innovatively in the one plus one equals three mode. One of the other things I want to do is to introduce this idea of inter-disciplinarity. each node. somebody called Owen came up to Santa Anna and said. as you can see. Beaumarchais was therefore a very big pal of the man who would end up being a President called Jefferson. you’ve gotta make the gateways easy for little kids who are going to be frightened if you write e=mc2. was writing a book for women on what Newton was up to.

so you know that today. One aim of this kind of approach is of course ultimately to service the innovation economy requirements of the next two or three decades by making people aware from the very beginning that something they know may be meaningfully related to something somebody else knows in some other silo or discipline or community. you’re XYZ Textiles. Another thing about the webbed approach to innovation is that apart from facilitating crossdiscipline thinking. this and that and the other.No…. before you decide which way to jump. but not necessarily how they work dynamically together. it might also lead to easier predictive capabilities. so like terrorist trackers. I included a couple of historical examples as prediction templates for the kids to try. Here you are. Because Descartes’ thinking kind of throws the world and took it apart to look at the bits. And the key thing about using these webs is as you travel.. of the global social. and ticked the right box. and there’s your company and all the guys in the office. it’s creating a world of such increasing interdependence . we’re getting there. or if you’re very criminal. through which Sikorsky was able to develop the first functioning helicopter. who in his spare time wrote the first creepy stories about stuff like the dead coming out of graves and sucking your blood and going back to the grave before dawn.that we need to be more crossdisciplined that ever before and become more aware of impending change. music. Edgar Allan Poe. So. who’s doing deals. telling you who’s doing what. and that identifying those data relationships might be easier with a network process like a web of your organisation or of your industry. we’re also discovering that in many cases the reductionist way of solving one problem at a time may not be fast enough or systemic enough any more.(applause)…. you read their skull and you find out if they need lessons in kindness or something. the more we take a systems view. politics. in the standard reductionist way information is packaged and arranged both in academia and business.anybody can do this stuff. and so on. but what kind of pathway they took across the map. On a wider level. and he’s a physics professor at….yeah. who is not in textiles. you’ve got your guys out in the field sending you in data that they’re picking up about what’s going on in the market place.dConstruct 2012 · James Burke very well developed like if you’re very kind. government. his name’s Arkwright and he’s a real historical character. OK. an assessment of talent in this web travelling exercise might no longer be a matter of just whether or not the student knew some one-size-fits-all correct answer. I think it was 1913. literature and aeronautics. But then finance. that organ grows and makes a bump in your skull. Here’s one. and the thing he ends up producing is a thing called the steam engine. What connective linkages they made when attempting a solution to a problem. and he bumped into another Russian émigré who impressed the Hell out of him. you discover one plus one equals three type relationships. Today. Social reformers jumped at this stuff. which is about not only to change your textile industry. according to pre-designed taxonomies that lock the data up in specialist silos accessible only to the people who talk that kind of gobbledygook. If you want to improve people. His name is Joe Black. So you read the skull and read the character. So Mozart isn’t just music. the reason this kind of connective learning technique seems germane right now is because if Information Technology’s doing anything. Let’s pretend that you are an eighteenth century textile company called…can I type?…. he’s a man who builds a loom. who’s talking to whom. who was at a party in Long Island one day. but the entire planet. Had you known in advance using a webbed approach like this. because all prediction involves the systemic assessment of the connective elements of a situation. law. So in my little web. Is there one here? Well. . these are the people Arkwright’s talking to. We live now in a world of such networked connectivity. From a society-wide perspective. Like you. they’re all in textiles. not generally identified. The guy’s name is James Watt. and he gave this young man five thousand bucks.think sub-prime mortgages or Greek finance . why is he talking to this guy. especially one in Germany called Vollen (?). political or commercial environment. who fell for the idea of social reform so much he went around stabbing people and was hauled up in front of a judge called E T A Hoffmann. But my point is: Mozart. criminology.. Mozart to the helicopter in ten jumps….oops…he’s a physics professor at Glasgow University. Here is your loom provider. neurology. yes. more ahead of time. you look for the anomaly. now because you’re using this kind of system. His ideas were copied to some extent by the American writer. the more we realise that reduction tells you about the bits. OK. Turns out that Black is busy explaining to the University repair man the physics of steam so that that guy can improve the performance of a drainage pump. and Poe’s ideas were picked up by a Russian composer called Rachmaninov.

Institutions manage change above all so that they can make sure that innovation doesn’t mean disruption.’ Think about the kind of information harvesting techniques we’re going to have soon. There is. Look what happened to fax machines. so we can expect the rate of disruptive game-changing innovation to accelerate. security. you could nail a mounted aristocrat at distance and nip back into the bushes. the ozone layer. and so on. Today. After a while. faster and maybe with fewer people. The status quo attitude goes all the way back to the caves and makes good sense. cheaper. The roads are so bad and so dangerous. That way. we’ve lived with a need to keep the lid on the ongoing problem of scarcity. Never enough of anything for everybody to have some. ‘You want me to predict everything? Fine: tell me everything. The US President today swears to preserve. innovate and replace. the smallest risk-taking start-up can now benefit from the kind of management and research fire-power that once only major corporations could afford. had we had the procedures back then. and to identify outcomes across a range and at a level of detail of orders of magnitude greater than ever before. And things have already become more complex than that thanks primarily to the cloud. not predict. raw materials. set up in the past with the technology of the past to solve the problems of the past. Given modern rates of innovation then. on the grounds that since we already regulate with regard say to the environment. even sometimes that might have been a good idea. even yours. he said. our backward institutions are already under considerable stress. money. Fine. camcorders. operating in many cases. And today. coming out of garages and back rooms everywhere. we’re going to be close to what Laplace was talking about. we have perfect roads and telecommunications up the Ying Yang. Representative democracy is a marvellous example. You find a couple of fools with a horse and time to spare. Except for what I said earlier about the rear-view mirror. Doesn’t matter. Kodak film. and you send them out bandit-ridden roads of the capital to represent you. and their return journeys as elections. without the need for massive start-up capital. are vulnerable to disruptive technology. these horse-owning fools become known as politicians. but not to write. asbestos. and given the extrapolating turnover rate of modern technology. why not with regard to innovation in the community? There are many examples of past technology we might well have wished to avoid or constrain. new technology so as to generate innovations that will do what they need to stay ahead. In the way that organisations and institutions look for new knowledge. along with a government censor who stood right next to it. and you’ll see that with data mining and semi-intelligent electronic agents and knowledge-webbing. water. and the same single purpose seventeenth century political process. they ain’t seen nothing yet. much the same way they did when they were set up. Single purpose organisations still around today. So institutions have always expended effort to make sure that if at all possible. Pierre Simon Laplace once said. Every social organisation in history has so far been set up primarily to handle some aspect of scarcity. With ever kind of software based…based on a pay as you go lease. Medieval crossbows were denied to peasants because with one. telling you what you could and couldn’t print. Six hundred years ago the first printing presses came. The possibility that everything I have said so far means nothing. innovation. Looking backwards. Thanks to what looks like to . For the whole of history til now. If the social institution thought they were under stress before. you name it. particularly over recent decades as information technology and communications have begun to change the world faster than they can handle. Every aspect of society today relates to that historic requirement to mitigate in some way the deleterious effect of shortfall in food. I’m thinking of stuff like DDT. medicine. one other possibility with which I’ll deal in the rest of this talk. VHS. they’re still in most cases doing what they’ve been doing since the first stone axe. CDs. but not question them. nuclear weapons. maybe within your lifetime. whatever. saying this is what we do so what can we invent to do it better. In the light of this institutional lag time. terrific. they only come back infrequently to find out if you’ve changed your mind. protect and defend. according to the values of the past. you could understand the factory rules. The great eighteenth century French mathematician. talking about this way of second-guessing things. no boats got rocked. Originally designed to handle the seventeenth century problem of scarcity of good roads and communications. with the ability to know what’s going on at the science technology social interface. however. The first nineteenth century Sunday Schools taught poor children to read. arguments are already being advanced that we should revive the old 1970s idea of an Office of Technology Assessment. and thanks to the cloud.dConstruct 2012 · James Burke you might have been able to move your mills from the mountain rivers to coal fields and cities and tripled your output ahead of the competition. Established institutions.

What’s nano-technology going to do socially and when? Now you may feel that what I’m about to say is never going to happen. a pollution-free global environment. aeroplanes. What I’m arguing is. how we get nano-technology out to the world. more than two thousand nanotech products on the market in everything from sunscreen to tennis racquets coming out of more than two thousand companies and labs all over the world. the end of the greenhouse effect and the ozone layer problem. Ever since. Exactly when. And the feedstock for this machine will be in the main dirt. Either way. Richard Feynman. bricks and mortar. nano-technology in more general terms promises extraordinary advances. Last week. This is the kind of stuff politicians and institutions drool over. thirty two. a bottle of chardonnay. e-mail and. make the construction software available on-line. No law of physics prevents it.dConstruct 2012 · James Burke be heading our way in about thirty years’ time. nobody knows for sure. sixteen. four. but certainly within the lifetime of some of the people in this room. and especially the third world. remodelling society from the bottom up. made obsolete. eight. each of us can make every material essential we need autonomously and at virtually no cost. Let’s say that in forty years or so. so hear me out and forgive me if I put it a bit too simply for some of you. clothing. Let me offer a few thoughts about what that might mean. Last month. Whether this will really add one thousand trillion dollars to the global economy. I’m not making a case for how soon this will happen. non wasteful bottom-up manufacture. so one. how many backward looking regulatory committees do we need to set up in advance to do what? In the midst of all this white hot technology blah-blah-blah. who kicked it all off fifty years ago. two million years of tool use. clean transportation systems. according to Nobel prize physicist. delivery of medication to specific individual cells in the body. There are already at the lighter end of this thing. The next big thing being discussed in nano-technology is what’s called a personal nano-factory. because although the first manufacturing instructions will be proprietary and will cost money and may open a temporary digital divide. working out in time for the event. you’ll be able to make it. Abundance. sitting in your garage or garden shed. every day there’s news about some new nanotech advance. you read almost nothing about the elephant in the room. With a nano-factory. Virtually free energy. and semi-intelligent machines of all kinds at all scales. If it’s atoms and molecules. the nano-factory makes a copy of itself. The problem of intellectual property right. and then the thing about it is. as I mentioned earlier. new rules for everything. Nanotech has recently been suggested as the next medium for storage and retrieval of data on an astronomically large scale. What comes then is something for which our one hundred thousand years of talking. Thirty or forty years from now. with a nice piece called Plenty of Room at the Bottom. one for everybody on the planet in a matter of months. the guess is. food for everybody delivered in intelligent packaging. I think it was 1990. so let’s say that happens. somebody came up with a single phosphorus atom working as a transistor. whatever. that even forty years isn’t much to turn around an entire social and commercial infrastructure. a car. will nano-robots escape in the form of grey goo and eat the planet? Will neuro-morphic engineering turn us all into cyborg monsters? How do we get public opinion on board and above all. virtually free ultra-high bandwidth. gold. And all the talk and all the government and industry and think-tank reports on nano-technology is about how long it’s going to take. Call it four scholastic generations. clean drinking water planet-wide. silent. the first nano-machine shop was announced. and what isn’t. How we pay for the research and how we train enough specialists to make it happen. assembling and processing stuff at the molecular level to produce anything you want: fresh water. Why we need to get it first and what will happen if we do. Viagra. from inside the box that was also once said about going to the moon. because everything will be changed. air and water and there’ll be the cheap. you’re totally autonomous. the Mona Lisa. of course you can make yourself. X-Rays. etc. Every aspect of our social existence like our institutions has always been shaped by the culture of scarcity in which we’ve lived since the . Well. lunch. free hacker versions will inevitably come. gold nano-clusters succeeded in diffusing laser light enough to think it’s possible to create transmittable 3D holograms. carbon-rich acetylene gas which once you’re up and running. medication. when IBM wrote IBM with thirty five xenon atoms. sixty four. and there’s a ton of it. that it will come does not seem to be in doubt. two. Short range solutions to immediate and specific problems of scarcity that will come in time to get you re-elected or made chairman of the board. In a coming two or three decades. or better still of course. ubiquitous zeta-byte computers on a chip. our millennial backward-looking obsession with survival in the face of scarcity have not prepared us. Three weeks ago.

hey: so far. But. and if so. and when each of us does live a geographically separate. clothing. sixth two million. will only work if in the next four scholastic generations.working all this out in advance will not be easy. The business-as-usual approach. technology is used to give people the means to benefit from a new cross-disciplinary kind of thinking. especially if we hide behind avatars? Will any institution or organisation of any kind survive in its present form? Will the last act of nation states before they turn off the lights and leave the building be to provide emergency free downloads for nano-manufactured essentially. each with their personal nano-factory ready to download software and spit out dreams. I am basically optimistic about all this. There may well be social disruption on a massive scale unless we can accurately predict how to get there from here. Scarce equal valuable. The old future. water. unless we can at least decide whether or not we really do want to live in an entirely Facebook world. the one in the rearview mirror: we have no paradigm for this new future. transportation and medication. go on doing that until their group opinion stops moving and then use that to base your decision on. there were. And then will nine billion people. or goods going up and down the road. Or. Before then. does anything have any value. who knew they needed a biscuit? So. Genius is rare. because this is not the future we’re used to dealing with. the first one was the Uneeda Biscuit Company. But any exercise. Just as well we have the tools to do that. what happens to the organisations satisfying these needs when people with personal nanofactories don’t need? What happens to all the jobs in those organisations. Get the name? Uneeda. Property is private. there is no longer any we? We’ve no need to grab or protect raw material resources: is that the end of war? Will the cities empty when we can live and live comfortably on anywhere on the planet. do you need an infrastructure? Or anything else the government does? Will politics survive at all with virtually no need to tax and spend? If people don’t work to live any more. we may find ourselves in the same position as the man who falls off the top of a skyscraper. the like of which we’ve never seen before. so good. And unless we tackle the biggest question of all: what will individuals become when for the first time in history. involving nine billion autonomous individuals. All our values and ethics and beliefs and standards and behaviour patterns relate to scarcity. somebody calls out to ask him how he’s doing. how do we prevent that. truly independent life. creating perceived scarcity. but of nine billion autonomous individuals. if you no longer need power coming off the grid. We’ve never been there before. and to all the taxes they provide the economy with so Governments can create and manage the national infrastructure. there is no need to conform to any rules or standards of any kind about anything…. how do they define themselves? Does abundance remove the trigger of scarcity that used to stimulate our creativity? How do we organise a global community composed not of one hundred and ninety six countries. PhDs are special people. what happens to the culture we once shared. most of them unused! All of them capable of helping. and a new more direct access form of democracy. and we may have no more than forty years to predict what those answers will need to be. In 1898 America. He shrugs and now falling past the fifty-fifth floor says. Let me end with a short tale from my own work to illustrate the kind of uncharted waters that lie . and what will that do to the way we socialise. six hundred and forth one thousand brains. if for no other reason than that pessimists jump out of the window. I think the last thing we want to do about the challenge of nano-technology and abundance. Every organisation and institution in the world is in some way or other dealing with the problem of scarcity. starting with the magic predictor I began at the beginning. for example. If there is no scarcity. Diamonds are expensive. and are no longer involved. even as simple as that. would be to respond to the challenge in the way usually favoured by the present short-term political and social paradigm with which we live. And speaking of jumping.dConstruct 2012 · James Burke beginning. or will we achieve that through the use of real-time 3D holograms. since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the beginning of advertising. and then repeat the question so they can change their view if they want to. like food. you know. to help them make the complex social decisions about how to set up and then let lose a kind of global balanced anarchy. maybe in some kind of planet-wide Delphi-experiment. where you ask people their opinion and then tell all the others what they said. because if we do take that approach. when in one sense. represent the greatest individually customised consumer goods software market that history has ever seen? The amount of innovation that such a marketplace could sustain might be limited only by the global imagination. here in the UK. shelter. and what does worth mean? Will DIY nano-weapons trigger guerrilla terrorism. But what will we use to pay for it? There are a million more questions which abundance throws up to be answered. Last count. As he’s falling past the seventy-seventh floor.

he sells to the Americans and the French.dConstruct 2012 · James Burke ahead. Napoleon sets up a prize to encourage French invention. Looking ahead to guess at the effects of the nano-factory as if we were the sailors on Shovel’s sinking flagship being required to predict the toilet roll. for a new continuous process. that’s my ten cents’ worth. So a Yorkshire clock-maker called Huntsman goes looking for better steel for clock springs because. and that tells you where you are on the planet. which in spite of the fact that in 1776 we’re at war with both of them. and start the empire. In 1810 with France lagging way behind our industrial revolution. Well. so an iron maker called Wilkinson uses it to re-mount thin walled. wallpaper making technique. no longer what it used to be. you need to know exactly what time it is back home and here. A little bit later on. which eventually allows these guys to return to London. and a champagne bottler called Nicolas Appert steps forward with a great idea. Napoleon uses these lightweight British cannon barrels to develop mobile horse artillery. and to modify their continuous process wallpaper making technique. thank you for giving this talk before I did. lightweight cannon barrels. because the difference will tell you how much earlier or later the sun or whatever rose. Boil up some food in a sealed champagne bottle and kill the germs that nobody knows exist. It is a dark and stormy night in 1707. so that’s sorted. This at the time matters a great deal. and Admiral Sir Cloudesley-Shovel is bringing the great English fleet back home. This is where we are today. and win all his battles. All those predictions driving us forward throughout history have brought us finally to the unexpected realisation that the future is. Unsurprisingly. suddenly. Well the steel Huntsman invents is great for clock springs. Huntsman’s steel however is also great for doing something else. You can stop now! ADMIRAL SHOVEL AND THE TOILET ROLL It begins to look as if we might have been wrong. An English company ten years later is doing it in tins. because we Brits at the time are going east to west to rape the planet. . He’s not quite sure where he is. he decides to turn right. they also come across and buy another patent that nobody seems to want. this causes Parliament to offer a prize for better navigation techniques. In the Paris Patent Office that day. to know where you are going east to west. except the last one. Oops. so as to produce the world’s first toilet roll. the problem of longitude. and he hits the rocks off the end of France and the entire fleet goes down and everybody drowns. where advances in ceramic pipe technology are making possible extensive new sewerage works. It cuts metal like butter. Nothing changes. because they have bought Appert’s patent.

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