What we see is not what we are


Only 4% of the universe is matter as we know it. The other 96% is made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy,” about which not a heck of a lot is known other than it’s invisible. I won’t bore you with the astrophysics; it’s all pretty complicated.

Suffice to say that what we see is not all there is. We see only a small portion of light, for example. The visible spectrum runs from infrared to ultraviolet. We don’t even know exactly what light is, so scientists have come up with a combination of particles and waves in “packets” to explain the phenomenon, and in doing so invented quantum physics. Quantum physics is all about determining probabilities, and it’s based on the observation that particles can apparently wink in and out of existence.

Okay, so why should you care? Well simply put, everything we do is the direct result of light, so it’s a rather important to our survival. Every time you fill up your tank with gasoline, you’re using up sunlight that’s been stored underground for millions of years. Right up to 150 years ago, all work was done using sunlight in real time. The sun provided light for photosynthesis, which allowed the grass to grow to feed the horses that plowed the fields to grow the food that our forebears harvested and ate. As we use up finite reserves of fossil fuel, our grandchildren will have to figure out how to collect more energy from the sun.

There is still lots of fossil fuel left, of course. We’ve only used half the supply, so we have some time to figure it out. And there are still new oil discoveries, like the recent find near Greenland, which some experts are predicting will supply us with 90 billion barrels of oil. That seems like a lot. How much? Well, the world currently uses 30 billion barrels a year, so that’ll give us another three whole years.

Of course there are options. But making use of new options will require major changes in our thinking. We might have to abandon highways and personal vehicles. We may need to “desktop” energy generation on our rooftops and load it back into the grid. We may have to start thinking about integrating processes such as energy storage and metallurgy (which Dr. Dan Sadoway at MIT is working on). We may have to rethink our entire infrastructure—physical and social—if we want to maintain some semblance of our current standard of living.

Options are the keys. Jared Diamond talks about this in Guns, Germs and Steel. His basic premise is that the most successful societies were and are those with the most resources, a sufficient population density, the ability to grow lots of food, enough leisure time to be creative, and proximity to other, similarly endowed societies with whom they could trade and compete.

At the end of the book he summarizes the two other determinants for healthy, long-term societies: fragmentation and unity. He compares the histories of China and Europe. China, which led the world in technology for more than a 1000 years has always enjoyed a geographic predisposition toward unity. It was a single, large land-mass with few geographic barriers. As such it was relatively easy to maintain as an empire. Europe, on the other hand, was smaller with more geographic barriers. This created a more fragmented set of social systems, and a lot more competition. China fell behind Europe due to its unity. About 500 years ago, China’s small ruling class decided to isolate the empire from the rest of the world, allowing its technology to stagnate. At the same time Europe provided adventurers such as Columbus with lots of options for financing their exploration. This abundance of fragmented options gave individuals the resources they needed to find a wealth of riches in new frontiers.

The last 500 years has been a giant leap forward in technology. Diamond’s theory of fragmentation and unity resonates with innovative business leaders, too. The new business model is based on small, competitive, highly communicative units working within a larger context—think about small “experience design” units at Apple computer competing with Microsoft and Google. The entire business model has evolved over the last 30 years. It’s a new micro-macro creative model.

Theories of evolution have changed too. Dr. Mark Pagel in England thinks that species evolve in response to rare environmental events—such as shifts in climate. He and others, including geneticists, are beginning to view evolution as a series of leaps.

Creativity works the same way. Being creative is not a steady state process. Inspiration and passion come in fits and starts, as does the creative work. And it requires specific ingredients: social openness and curiosity, competition, resources and options and more.

All this makes me question whether our little corner of the world has enough of these key options on which to build a vibrant knowledge-based economy. As much as I’d like to say we do, my recent experience tells me I’m not so sure. How many options do we really have?

Maybe, like dark matter, there's more going on than we can see.


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