Probable Causes

iStock_000008641273XSmallIn his book At Home, Bill Bryson describes how the English clergy system, through the 18th and 19th centuries produced a local renaissance in the sciences and arts.  By that time period, the English were not an especially pious bunch, and as such the clergy system fostered a generation of well-educated and financially comfortable young men who ended up with a great deal of time on their hands. According to Bryson, most of these sons of the gentry studied classics rather than divinity and many of them were not expected to do much more for their rural parishioners other than recite an unoriginal sermon on Sunday mornings.  As a result, many of these otherwise idle hands produced a flowering of discovery, ideas, inventions, and creative works.  Or as Bryson describes, “Never in history have a group of people engaged in a broader range of creditable activities for which they were not in any sense actually employed.”  This period yielded, among other things, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy; the power loom; the Jack Russell terrier; numerous first works on botany, paleontology, and other natural sciences; the economic principles of Thomas Malthus; the first aerial photography; the invention of the submarine; and the theorem of Mr. Thomas Bayes.  All the result of time, financial security, and curious minds.

There is a lot of discussion lately, including comments on this blog, about open access, which was of course central to the activism of Aaron Swartz; and the subject got me thinking about this particular revelation in Bryson’s book.  In a sense, we could think of the English clergy system as an incubator much in the same way we’re meant to think of digital technology today as a catalyst for innovation.  There is even a parallel in the democratic aura in which these rectors and vicars became the amateur, DIY scientists, authors, and inventors of their time.  In simple, idealistic terms, recreating this phenomenon on a global scale appears to be a foundation upon which the principle of open access is based — that the next life-altering idea might come from anywhere and, therefore, keeping a running spigot of data is of paramount importance.  To quote the start of Swartz’s manifesto, Information is power…

But is it?

What, for example, would the aforementioned Bayes’ Theorem tell us about the probability of achieving some of the more utopian aims of open access?  (Let’s be clear, I’m personally on the side of allowing especially publicly funded data to flow to the public; but this is a different question.)  Bayes provides a means to predict probabilities based on limited data, and as Bryson points out, the theorem was intriguingly of little use at its conception given that there were no computers to perform the calculations.  Today, Bayes is applied to work like climate change models and financial markets, but could it predict the probability that is the underlying question of this entire blog — i.e. will more access to more data produce more social benefit?

Naturally, we’d have to agree on what social benefit looks like, but assuming we’re using western notions of freedom, social justice, well-being, and enlightenment, does it stand to reason that adding more content into the pipeline must inevitably serve as a catalyst to improve or increase these humanistic goals?  It seems clear that there are far too many variables to accurately make such a prediction.  Even in a broad sense, consider how polarized the U.S. is, then spend about five minutes on the Web searching any number of topics. It becomes self-evident that data aren’t even data — that one man’s fact is another’s government conspiracy and vice-versa.  Or as Big Think posts here, even one man’s exercise can be another’s road to perdition.

Aside from the fact that data interpretation on a macro scale is a total crap shoot — we still have school boards fighting evolution for crying out loud — we might keep in mind the three conditions that were necessary to produce the innovations described by Bill Bryson:  they were education, financial stability, and time to indulge. There are ways in which digital-age tools provide more time, as in the Kurzweilian sense of adding additional brain power; but I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel that sometimes the constant flow of disparate information and social media ephemera can also become an obstacle to focused contemplation.  Additionally, there are aspects of the open access idea that are disruptive to existing economic models, particularly affecting the financial well being of some of the leading producers of quality information and cultural content.

I think the principles of open access are fundamentally good, and often principle alone is reason enough to demand support for a social agenda.  But the principle should not necessarily be confused with the reality that application in this case does not guarantee a renaissance. (The new era could look like 4Chan, too, which is the Web equivalent of the Dark Ages.) History is full of unintended consequences; and while the next big idea can indeed come from anywhere, this includes the possibility that it will originate in the mind of an individual as removed from our digital wellspring as an 18th century English clergyman.

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