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by Michael Nielsen on March 1, 2008

I’m really excited – in a couple of weeks I’ve got an opportunity to talk with and ask questions of an incredibly diverse and interesting group of 100+ people at SciBarCamp. So I’ve been thinking about what sorts of big picture questions I find most interesting, and trying to prime myself in preparation. I decided to write a few down, mostly outside the list of familiar standards – how did life begin, how did the Universe start, and so on. I’ve written the post with a view towards SciBarCamp, but of course I’m interested in hearing everyone’s thoughts! If you are coming to SciBarCamp, I’d also love to hear about some of the things you’d like to hear about at SciBarCamp.

What role can science play in public policy?

This question bugs the heck out of me, since loads of important public policy decisions are made without an appreciation of relevant scientific input. There’s a standard litany of solutions people offer to this problem – “more focus on science literacy”, “more outreach”, “educate the decision makers”, “run for office”, and so on. All these answers are worthwhile, but none seem to me to get to the core issue: either we need to find a system that works differently and better than democracy, or else we need to find some way of integrating science into the heart of the polity. I don’t know how to do either of these things, but I’d like to know what other people think about it.

What are the best ways to organize groups for collective creativity?

Kevin Kelly has a couple of mind-expanding stories about collective creativity:

In 1990 about 5,000 attendees at a computer graphics conference were asked to operate a computer flight simulator devised by Loren Carpenter. Each participant was connected into a network via a virtual joy stick. Each of the 5,000 copilots could move the plane’s up/down, left/right controls as they saw fit, but the equipment was rigged so that the jet responded to the average decisions of the swarm of 5,000 participants. The flight took place in a large auditorium, so there was lateral communication (shouting) among the 5,000 copilots as they attempted to steer the plane. Remarkably, 5,000 novices were able to land a jet with almost no direction or coordination from above. One came away, as I did, convinced of the remarkable power of distributed, decentralized, autonomous, dumb control.

About five years after the first show [...] Carpenter returned to the same conference with an improved set of simulations, better audience input controls, and greater expectations. This time, instead of flying a jet, the challenge was to steer a submarine through a 3D under-sea world to capture some sea monster eggs. The same audience now had more choices, more dimensions, and more controls. The sub could go up/down, forward/back, open claws, close claws, and so on, with far more liberty than the jet had. When the audience first took command of the submarine, nothing happened. Audience members wiggled this control and that, shouted and counter-shouted instructions to one another, but nothing moved. Each person’s instructions were being canceled by another person’s orders. There was no cohesion. The sub didn’t budge.

Finally Loren Carpenter’s voice boomed from a loudspeaker in the back of the room. “Why don’t you guys go to the right?” he hollered. Click! Instantly the sub zipped of to the right. With emergent coordination the audience adjusted the details of sailing and smoothly set off in search of sea monster eggs.

Collective creativity is at the beginning of a long boom (look at Wikipedia go!), and it seems there are lots of new opportunities for collective creativity in science, the arts, and other areas. I’d love to hear good ideas about collective creativity at SciBarCamp, perhaps from a programmer like Reg Braithwaite, whose experiences seem to me to blend much of what it means to be creative in both science and art, or maybe from a Jazz musician like Isaac Ezer.

How is the web going to impact the process and institutions of science?

This is, of course, a question of great personal interest to me; I think we’re at the start of a major revolution in the processes and institutions of science. It seems like nearly all the participants are going to have interesting things to say about science and the web, including people like science blogger (and SciBarCamp co-conspirator) Eva Amsen, synthetic biologist (and promoter of open biology) Andrew Hessel, and Troy McConaghy, who does all sorts of amazing science-related stuff in Second Life.

I have about 50 other questions I’d like to add to my list, but if I do so this post will stop being a blog post, and will instead turn into a rather peculiar book, so perhaps I should stop there. One final question that I can’t resist because it’s so personally important for me: how do people manage their creative lives? This includes things like finding the discipline to do creative work, keeping the wolves of distraction and unfortunate obligation at bay, and managing all the information and decisions we seem to labour under. I’d sure like to hear other people’s experiences and ideas about all these things.

From → SciBarCamp

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