Gutenberg. Curie. Mendel. Newton. Franklin. Pasteur. da Vinci. Von Braun
These are the names of individuals who changed the face, the very notion, of invention and science by themselves.
But, I can’t think of anyone in the last twenty, thirty, even forty years, who deserves to be put in the same context as the people above.
Yet, we’re progressing faster than we ever have before. It seems counter-intuitive. We’re speeding up without any visionaries to accelerate us. Why? How? And ultimately, what does it mean for the future?
I think the answer to why we’re speeding up without the input of world changing minds like the list above is because we’re spreading the problems out of a much large number of minds. In computer science, they refer to this as distributed processing. You can’t afford one massive super-computer, but you’ve got an unused lab full of computers that are a generation or two old. So, you hook up all of those old machines and make each one of them work on a very small part of the problem. A dozen average machines doing the work of one powerful one. NASA and SETI have been using distributed networks to crunch the data from their telescopes for years. Instead of blowing their budget on a new Cray machine, they rely on the good will and spare computer cycles of a million nerds.
With the rapid growth of mass digital communication, social networking and wireless data transmission, the walls that exist between academic institutions across the planet have tumbled down. This giving researches previously impossible access to new people with new ideas and perspectives on their problems. Large problems are being broken down into smaller and smaller bits, and solved by teams and project groups instead of lone Renaissance men.
The shift away from individual thinkers to groups has widened the bottle neck on the creation of new ideas. But, not all of those new ideas are ultimately useful. The problem with using groups of people instead of individuals, is that groups inherently cost more. Which means they need more funding, which means that their research is probably going to have more commercial applications than not. You’ll be getting a new super iPhone before you get your flying car or jetpack, basically.
What I wonder about is what will happen if we lose this current inter-connectivity. Will the individual genius that is now dormant awaken again? Or has that part of us atrophied completely?