A sociological case for scientific innovation

A physicist makes a sociological case for innovation in the sciences:

So, here is a general, sociological case for why we researchers should always be ahead of our time, even at the cost of frustrating ourselves trying to solve insoluble problems. Suppose that the tank of a given field has another 10 or even 15 years of gas left in it. Why should we abandon the field and try to train our students in a different area? Good training in science doesn’t depend on the subject. But more important, why not enter a new field in which, like almost any subject in the life sciences, the time left to have fun does not have a foreseeable upper bound?…

Scientists are conservative even when their job description could be succinctly summarized as “innovator” because the culture in which we operate is chock full of traditions that represent the opposite of innovation and intellectual freedom. We are still afraid of making mistakes—even simple terminology mistakes!—even though in the age of Google those can be corrected in an instant! We are still organizing our institutions of higher learning around power centers (the departments) that are built like fortresses meant to divide people instead of bringing them together!…

In conclusion, let me offer a note of hope, but of caution, too.

Many of the scientific questions that await answers will, I hope, be solved in the second part of this century. Then, having solved the last of the big puzzles—that is, having explained the origin of life—scientists will turn their attention and the power of their quantitative tools toward explaining the sociological complications that arise when these very complex machines called Homo sapiens interact with each other. Let us hope the fruits of that research will respect the freedom of our minds—and of our bodies too!

Sounds good: a physicist arguing that once some of the big natural science issues are solved, attention should be turned to studying human interaction. However, does this suggest that the view from physics that disciplines that study human interaction, like sociology, aren’t doing an adequate job?

It would be interesting to see a companion piece here that summarizes research regarding scientific innovation: how many scientists do switch fields or even subfields of study, how many feel like they could actually do this, and what do they feel are barriers to this.

Asking if digital technology leads to increasing loneliness

Amongst people with whom I regularly interact, this would be a good question with which to start a conversation: does recent digital technology make us lonelier or bring us closer together? A sociologist at MIT has been investigating this for years and has some thoughts:

And what’s so dangerous about a made-to-measure relationship?
People would rather text than talk, because they can control how much time it takes. They can control where it fits in their schedule. When you have the amount of velocity and volume [of communication] that we have in our lives, we have to control our communications very dramatically. So controlling relationships becomes a major theme in digital communication. And that’s what sometimes makes us feel alone together — because controlled relationships are not necessarily relationships in which you feel kinship…

So these kids yearn for attention, but then, as you said, the idea of a phone conversation is too intimate for them — they’d rather text and chat.
They feel confused. That’s why I called the book Alone Together — because they shimmy back and forth. On the one hand, they’re so together that all they can do is text. And I identify with these teenagers, because it’s the way we’re all living our lives: you wake up in the morning, and you have 500 e-mails or 100 messages, and you say, “I don’t have time to do anything but respond to this.” So your life becomes completely reactive — you don’t feel alone, but you don’t feel connected.

What you certainly don’t have time to do is experience solitude. One of the most important things that we’re really losing is the ability to just be alone in a restorative way.

It sounds like the answer is that we are both more connected and more alone than before. In the end, perhaps what will change is how society defines relationships. Right now, we have traditional understandings of relationships (they require time, commitment, etc.) alongside digital understandings of relationships (they take place when you choose and more on your terms). In fifty years or even a decade or two, what’s to say that these digital relationships won’t be the primary form of human interaction in the world?

This reminds of a recent cell phone commercial that illustrates this “alone together” idea. This particular cell phone unit has a form of Windows operating system with an interface where you can quickly see if you have any emails or Facebook news. But the commercial suggests why this is necessary is so that you can quickly return to the really important things in life. In these commercials, the technology is treated as an accessory (and perhaps even an annoyance) – but a necessary accessory since you really need to stay up to date with those emails and personal news updates.