For months now, I’ve been trading letters with Doug Robertson, author of two impactful books in the philosophy of science: The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization (1998) and Phase Change: The Computer Revolution in Science and Mathematics (2003).
For Doug, too, the present is a second Renaissance. If we want to appreciate the full significance of the time we’re now living in, we need that historical context. I owe Doug a deep debt for helping me grasp that context, as it pertains to science and innovation.
It is fashionable among economists to argue that innovation is slowing down. (I published an article challenging economists who hold this view a few months ago.) The slow-down argument is only true if one measures innovation as an economist does, using GDP growth statistics. But science itself is flourishing.
As Doug eloquently puts it,
If the print revolution of the Renaissance was the lighting of a single candle in a pitch-black field at midnight, then today’s digital revolution is the sunrise.
Doug’s analogy is not mere poetry; it’s an accurate description of the difference in scale between the impact of print and the impact of digital upon civilization’s information resources.
All big breakthroughs in, say, astronomy over the last few decades were impossible in the pre-digital age. But now we’ve determined the age of the universe. We’ve discovered thousands of planets around other stars. We’ve discovered gravity waves. All pre-digital astronomical findings, from the Mayan calendars to Copernicus’ sun-centric universe, were obvious in comparison. Says Doug: “It is no exaggeration to say that astronomy begins with the invention of the computer.”
The same can be said in almost every branch of science and math. The sun is just now peeking over the eastern horizon. In a very real sense, we are witness to the dawn of civilization.
No wonder we’re unsure about the future.