The Oxford Protocol : Modules

Stuckness

When Francis Bacon described his plan for advancing knowledge in the early seventeenth century, he started from the premise that knowledge was “stuck.”  He did not claim to be smarter or better than his predecessors.  What mattered was his “good fortune” in living in a moment of different “resources” than they did. The resources that he cited were “mechanical things”: printing, gunpowder, and the nautical compass.  Today knowledge is once again stuck, but in a strangely different way than it was in Bacon’s time.  He looked to his new resources as the solution to Scholasticism’s dead end.  But our new resources—the electronic, the digital, and the algorithmic—are the source of our current problem as well as of possible solutions.  Not only have they extended knowledge in terms of what is known, but, crucially, they have extended our knowledge of what can be known—what might be called “knowable space.”  When, for example, the immunologist Carl Nathan says that his field is stuck in a “chemical space” of 103 even when our new resources tell us it’s 1069, he is not asserting the absence of progress in the smaller space.  The problem of being stuck arises when we can see that the dependence on the tools, financing, and institutions that enable that small-scale exploration are actually obstacles to scaling up into the larger space.  Similarly, when the biologist Carl Woese argued—in the words of the physicist Freeman Dyson—for “the need for a new synthetic biology based on emergent patterns of organisation rather than on genes and molecules,” he was not suggesting that there wasn’t important work being done in genetics.  The question is what work is being precluded by the very success of that focus. This is the crucial twist to how we experience stuckness today: “STUCK” DOES NOT MEAN WE ARE NOT DOING GOOD WORK—diseases are being cured, new theories devised.  Progress has not ceased, but a key marker of stuckness now is that—in every field of knowledge—progress itself gets in the way of potentially more consequential advances.

Oxford Group, January 2014: Academy Turned Inside Out | Apotheosis | Core Technology | The Dedisciplinary Environment | Explanatory/Descriptive? | Fiction | Good Explanation | Mediation | Platform | Polemic | Portal | Problems | Protocol | Protocol (II) | Search*/Know* | Sciences/Humanities | Stuckness | Threshold Effects | Topology | Touchstones