Took part in a panel on the next 10 years of science to celebrate Centre for Life’s 10 year anniversary. I was thrilled and terrified all at the same time as people with a significant impact on how science is perceived were taking part in this panel. People who fund science, write books about science, or write about technology in the media and have radio shows about science. I’d like to think I was on the “doing” side of that conversation even if I have a background in Pure and Applied Science education (before I became a designer).
I’m more and more careful about making predictions as the amount of future-casting done in my field (already a nebulous one) could fill books. I think the future is best defined by what we do now, that’s the only hope we have really. The rest is speculation, which I often leave to trends publications, bankers, science-fiction writers, palm readers & scientists (who actually know what they are talking about).
My esteemed panelists were decidedly careful too and so at the last minute, I thought I’d make some bold statements.
Dystopian Internet of Things (or of people)
I started by talking a little bit about a pre-panel encounter with some brilliant young 17-18 year olds from the North East. Around some tea and scones, they were asked to make their own predictions and we sat in and challenged them a little.
Mostly young men, they were perfectly happy to look me in the eye and ascertain that they didn’t understand why people in the future should interact face to face. Texting and Facebook was replacing things surely!
I gasped, alarmed about our future as a society and then remembered that 17-18 year olds live in an environment of constant contact with each other in school already. Once out of that environment, face to face will become incredibly important again. I have to believe that this will be the case, otherwise the burden we will place on personal technologies will be one of not only helping us be more efficient, but to help us retain our human qualities. Non-verbal communication and face-to-face interactions are what makes us social creatures to begin with. If we lose that contact and lose our ability to understand and read social signals, interact socially, argue, fight, flirt, etc, then we will have become like the ever-charismatic founder of Facebook: sufferings from slight Aspergers syndrome. The internet-of-things will become a way for us to avoid talking to each other because our objects do all the talking for us. I’d like to think we are smarter than this and this is a dystopian point of view. But we have to be prepared for every scenario right?
Sharing the Science Journey
Out of the corner of my eye, I’ve been keeping an eye on things like Pink Army, Nobellini, spacehack.org, galaxyzoo, and other citizen scientist projects and there’s something there that scientists and science funding do not understand: the expert is not the only one engaged in a conversation about science.
The expert is of course the guy in the lab, but his peers can be people “out there” and I believe there are economic models which can be explored where instead of sending spam to earn some pocket money or putting pamphlets through the door, the less wealthy could earn money by helping out on science research. This would do wonders for communication of the value of science as it would be tied to economic growth instead of being perceived as national R&D. It could become part of science lessons in school. Mechanical Turk for science 101. I don’t think it’s new to anyone who has been using the internet for a while, but it’s not an easy conversation to have with universities who are desperate for funding, science communication bodies who don’t know where to put their money and other publicly funded projects who will suffer in the next fortnight.
This comes back to the idea that scientists should feel comfortable sharing process with the outside world and in science, that’s not really done. Publication is what you share, not work-in-progress. Not unlike the magazine and newspaper industries, journals have their flaws: old and elitist models of distribution. Right now, after finding someone to publish your article, paying for the article to be published and then having it published, it’s still behind the journal’s paywall so the work is only shared with that readership. Kind of old school in light of the Internet Age. I’d like to think that publishing your work was always based on the idea of retaining your rights and share the work with others in your field and beyond. If Creative Commons-like licences start developing for science research and publication, the work wouldn’t suffer, and people would share more and cross-pollination would be happening more frequently. The type of cross-disciplinary conversations that fosters innovation and allows companies like ours to exist and come up with new things to talk about. Peer-reviewed content and curation will still exist as it does with online content generally, but it’s focus will be on quality content and not feeling pressured to print on dead trees and distribute to all the scientific libraries of the world. Again, all this felt familiar to me, but there were some frowns on the panel.
If anything the next 10 years of science has to be about the world of science embracing the technologies its own people helped develop and for us to keep being human with technologies there to support us, not to be used as crutches.