connecting connections

Illustration of a honeycomb

We’re all taught history in a similar fashion: since time goes only forward, events are added to an existing timeline, making the teaching of any subject as easy as event A followed by event B, followed by C, and so on.

But if you look closer, the past rarely extends simply into the future. Gutenberg thought he would only print a few Bibles and that would be that. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone just to teach deaf people to talk. The head of IBM, Thomas J. Watson, said that the world would only need about five computers.

It’s easy to make fun of these predictions. But these predictions were reasonable — at the time! We predict the future by extrapolating from the past, constrained by the context of what we know at that time. In other words, we operate inside a box defined by our current knowledge.

The nuisance of being in such a box is that it dictates how we see the future and plan for it. But then the future turns out to be surprisingly different.

The main issue is that most major innovation comes from the gaps, and bridges, between those boxes: you’re working on an idea inside your box, and you don’t know what ideas might exist inside another box, where other people are working on their ideas. Some might have exactly the same idea, or a different take on your idea, or the missing puzzle piece you didn’t realize your idea needed.

We have to look outside of our box if we want to achieve human progress and not only technological innovation — which of course is not the same thing. This line of thinking comes from James Burke’s excellent series “Connections”, where he demonstrates how various discoveries, achievements, and events were built from one another in an interconnected way, and that everything is ultimately connected to everything else across all disciplines, rather than the single timeline we are taught.

We urgently need solutions to complex, global problems like climate change, inequality, or how to augment human intellect, and I believe that most of them already exist somewhere out there. But they are pieces of an unfinished puzzle. You might have one piece of the solution, and someone in Papua New Guinea has another piece. If those ideas find each other in ten years, they’ll have an impact, and make a difference in our lives, but if we can help those ideas find each other this year, the impact will be so much more. But what if those ideas never find each other?

Our attitude to change creates the illusion that knowledge and discovery exist in a vacuum — only within the context of our own box of ideas — when in reality they are born from interdisciplinary connections. So most of what we get is just more of the same. Our ways of thinking were defined in the past, with the technology of the past, to solve the problems of the past. We think we’re going in the right direction, but only because we’re looking backwards most of the time. This is what Marshall McLuhan meant when he said we’re steering into the future by looking in the rear-view mirror.

To look towards the future, we have to find different ideas and connect different disciplines — we have to look at the gaps between our boxes of thinking. As I see it, this not only requires a more interdisciplinary approach, but also better tools for collaborating.

The more we become experts at tiny bits and pieces of the universe, the more we need to understand how they work dynamically together. We should look at ways for our educational systems to train expert specialists while also exposing them to other disciplines. Then we all become experts at looking at gaps between the boxes, whatever they might be.

Most great innovators had a background different to the field they would innovate in — Gutenberg was a goldsmith, Bell was a teacher, and Watson was a traveling salesman of organs and pianos. No one was a computer scientist in the early days of computing. Everyone came to computing with different backgrounds, interests, and knowledge of other domains. They didn’t know anything about computers and therefore tried everything they could think of to solve their problems.

We’re also missing tools that allow us to share and find knowledge, to collaborate beyond our boxes of knowledge, or to find interesting insights in the gaps between other boxes.

I’m talking about making connections and sharing knowledge that supports deep thinking and collaboration. I’m talking about tools that spark thinking and conversations among people whose ideas might benefit each other, even though they’re working on completely unrelated topics. I’m talking about realizing that something you know might connect to something somebody else knows — in some other box or discipline or community — and that identifying these connections could bring vast benefits to all of us.

A great example of this kind of tool is Mike Caulfield’s take on networked learning.

Our history was never linear. It was always connected between disciplines, locations, and time. Everything is always connected. But if the link has not been noticed, nobody knows it’s there.

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My letters are about long-lasting, sustainable change that fundamentally amplifies our human capabilities and raises our collective intelligence through generations. Would love to have you on board.