Monday, April 03, 2006

Scientific and Technological Development = Removal of Constraints

Some fairly quick sketching...

I think that scientific, and particularly technological, develolpment can be seen as the removal of constraints.

By that, I'm not trying to make some broad rhetoical statement about science and technology giving humanity greater freedom.

What I mean is something more specific. I'll talk about technological development first, then consider the case with science.

When you want to undertake a task, such as being able to communicate with others, there are various constraints that apply.

When communicating by unaided voice, you're constrained to communicating to those within earshot.

Communication technologies remove constraints (and can also add constraints of course). For example, a telephone removes the distance constraint to some extent, and SMS and email remove the constraint that the receiver is currently available to take your communication.

There is a kind of platonic ideal for each type of task, free of all of the possible constraints that could apply to it. Constraints restrict this platonic ideal.

I'm not suggesting that the platonic ideal is a real thing, but just an ideal that we might be able to get very close to but never reach.

For communication, it is being able to instantaneously, perfectly and effortlessly transmit your information to anybody at any time, or something along those lines.

As a particular type of technology develops, constraints are relax or removed and, as a whole, it moves towards the ideal.

I think the utility of this picture of technological development is that it gives you a good way to think about future technological development.

You can think about what the unconstrained version of the task would be like, and thus what the various types of constraints are, and thus the ways that the current state of the technology can move, and what it could end up like.

I get the impression that many people see it as a mystery as to where 'technology could go next'. But the answer is: look at what constraints there are and could potentially be removed.

The story with scientific development is similar - the more you understand about the world, the more you can reason about it and the more powerful you technological capabilities can become.

Ultimately, it's about realising our intentions and removing potential constraints to that.

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