Shift!: The Unfolding Internet - Hype, Hope and History

Shift!: The Unfolding Internet - Hype, Hope and History

by Edward Burman

Discovery is a process that must unfold in time. Drawing on colourful vignettes from the scientific past to inform his vision of the technological and cultural future, Edward Burman uses the 'paradigm' thinking explored by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (over a million copies sold) to assess the Internet as a breakthrough like any other.

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Discovery is a process that must unfold in time. Drawing on colourful vignettes from the scientific past to inform his vision of the technological and cultural future, Edward Burman uses the 'paradigm' thinking explored by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (over a million copies sold) to assess the Internet as a breakthrough like any other. Dismissing its attempted hijack by business as cynical and doomed to failure, he cuts through uncertainty to point out how far we have come - already we take instant connection for granted, and the Internet is embedded deep in our personal and working lives.

The problem, he explains, is that as we undergo a Shift! of this magnitude we are unable to see where we are going. Thus we persist with old terminology and models in the new paradigm. Companies continue to place 'tollbooths' in a world designed to offer freedom of movement. People still see the Internet as the province of the young and gifted. There is not even general agreement as to what the Internet is really for. Shift! unravels the past and predicts a time close ahead when capability becomes usability, benefits outweigh costs, and the public embraces the Internet as wholly as the electric light, the telephone and the car.

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"…a well-researched argument…will be interesting tore-read in a year’s time to see how the argument stands thetest of time…" (The Shetland Times, 19 September 2003)

“… Burman’s eloquence is more than enough toinduce me to turn the page…”

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The Unfolding Internet - Hype, Hope and History
By Edward Burman

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-470-85078-7

Chapter One

Thomas Kuhn and the Internet

'When we forget which colour this is the name of, it loses its meaning for us; that is, we are no longer able to play a particular language-game with it. And the situation then is comparable with that in which we have lost a paradigm which was an instrument of our language.' Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, §57

If we take the very first sentence of Kuhn's introduction and substitute 'Internet' for 'science', it will be immediately obvious how it provides the framework for the ideas developed here: 'History, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could produce a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed.' For it might be argued that we are literally possessed of an image of Internet which limits us to an imperfect perception of the full spectrum of colours available, which in turn leads us to misuse it in business strategies. But before developing this argument it will be helpful to review some of the key concepts which underpin Kuhn's theory, in particular those of scientific revolution, novelties of fact and pre-paradigm.

Scientific revolution

Kuhn argued that scientific work and thought are defined by 'paradigms' consisting of formal theories, classicexperiments and trusted methods. Scientists use the resources of paradigms to refine theories, to explain puzzling data, and then to establish increasingly precise measures of standards and phenomena. This process of explaining and measuring is the real business of science. But the confidence of scientists in the underlying paradigms that define their work can be eroded by unresolvable theoretical problems or experimental anomalies. Over time these problems and anomalies accumulate until they reach a point of crisis, which can be resolved only by a revolution in which new paradigms are formulated to replace the old. The overthrow of Ptolemaic cosmology by Copernican heliocentrism, and of Newtonian mechanics by quantum physics and the general theory of relativity, are examples of such scientific revolutions, in which the resolution of long-unresolved problems and anomalies led to fundamental paradigm shifts.

One of the many examples Kuhn uses concerns the science of optics. I shall quote the paragraph in full, since such a clear example will facilitate the development of our argument:

Today's physics textbooks tell the student that light is photons, i.e., quantum-mechanical entities that exhibit some characteristics of waves and some of particles. Research proceeds accordingly, or rather according to the more elaborate and mathematical characterization from which this usual verbalization is derived. That characterization of light is, however, scarcely half a century old. Before it was developed by Planck, Einstein, and others early in this century, physics texts taught that light was transverse wave motion, a conception rooted in a paradigm that derived ultimately from the optical writings of Young and Fresnel in the early nineteenth century. Nor was the wave theory the first to be embraced by almost all practitioners of optical science. During the eighteenth century the paradigm for this field was provided by Newton's Opticks, which taught that light was material corpuscles. At that time physicists sought evidence, as the early wave theorists had not, of the pressure exerted by light particles impinging on solid bodies.

After a long period in which the theories, experiments and methods intrinsic to the optics paradigm were unable to resolve problems and anomalies, a scientific revolution led to the adoption of the new paradigm based on the photon which proved immensely fruitful. In simple terms, a mistaken or inadequate paradigm had led scientists for centuries to ask the wrong questions.

But how exactly does the transformation which leads to such revolutions begin? For the everyday aim of normal science - a highly cumulative enterprise whose main function is problem-solving - is not the discovery of mould-breaking facts or theories, especially when the current paradigm appears to be successful. Within the aura of success, minor problems or anomalies might be set aside for some time - especially where the success leads to commercial applications. In order to explain the process of transformation, and the introduction of new elements which disturb an existing paradigm, Kuhn defines the relative importance of fact and theory by distinguishing between what he calls novelties of fact and novelties of theory; in his terms, the former concern discoveries while the latter concern inventions.

Novelties of fact: discoveries

How does this process of transformation actually occur? As far as the process of discovery is concerned, Kuhn explains as follows:

Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly, i.e., with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science. It then continues with a more or less extended exploration of the area of anomaly. And it closes only when the paradigm theory has been adjusted so that the anomalous has become the expected.

This is a lengthy process, since assimilating a new sort of fact requires more than a simple change in theory. Only when the transformation is completed, and the scientist has learned to see nature in a new way, does the new fact become a scientific fact. This process of conceptual assimilation is necessarily complex. Kuhn's example is the history of the discovery of oxygen, with an interesting kick in the tail which stimulates a reflection on Internet.

In the 1770s at least three scientists working independently in different countries discovered oxygen more or less at the same time: C.W. Scheele in Sweden, Joseph Priestley in England, and Antoine Laurent Lavoisier in France - just as more recently various research centres, companies and universities invented digital and mobile communications independently but simultaneously. This simple fact gives rise to questions which every discovery or novel phenomenon (including Internet) prompts: to whom can the discovery legitimately be attributed, and when exactly was it discovered? Scientific schools of thought and nations hotly dispute important discoveries, wishing to share in the glory. This might seem an irrelevant issue. But Kuhn argues that while a ruling about priority and date is not particularly interesting, 'an attempt to produce one will illuminate the nature of discovery, because there is no answer of the kind that is sought'. For the fact that these questions are asked is a symptom that something is wrong in the image of science which assigns such a fundamental role to discovery - which is never precisely identifiable in time. This is where the details of the discovery of oxygen present a case remarkably similar to that of Internet business, with enormous confusion generated by the simple fact that the problems of discovery and definition occupy a very short time span. When the 'image' remains undefined, uncertainty and confusion are inevitable.

Briefly, to follow Kuhn, Priestley's claim to have discovered oxygen is based on the fact that he isolated a gas which was later seen to be a distinct species, yet his sample was not pure and impure oxygen is really simple atmospheric air - which is not exactly a great discovery. Moreover, Priestley's own perceptions changed: in 1774 he believed that he had obtained nitrous acid, while a year later he thought his 'new' gas was dephlogisticated air (phlogiston was 'the inflammable being' then believed to be found in all burnable objects, and indeed the reason why objects burned). In the same year, 1775, Lavoisier identified oxygen as the 'air itself entire', and always insisted that oxygen was 'an atomic "principle of acidity" and that oxygen gas was formed only when that "principle" united with caloric, the matter of heat'. So had oxygen been discovered or not? For while the principle of acidity lingered as a concept in chemistry until after 1810, and caloric until the 1860s, oxygen had long since been accepted as a standard chemical substance. It had not been discovered in 1774, but was certainly known sometime around 1777.

But the real, and much more interesting, problem is not who was the real discoverer but the fact that 'we need a new vocabulary and concepts for analysing events like the discovery of oxygen'. And thus, implicitly, also for events like the 'discovery' of digital and mobile services. Discovery is a process, and must unfold in time as first we recognize that something has come into being that did not previously exist and then we begin to understand exactly what it is. To do both at the same time is necessarily to generate confusion. But the key observation here, the kick in the tail mentioned above with implications for an understanding of Internet, is that what 'Lavoisier announced in his papers from 1777 on was not so much the discovery of oxygen as the oxygen theory of combustion', which in turn was the keystone for a reformulation of chemistry so vast that it is usually called the chemical revolution. For the consequences of a paradigm shift of this nature can only be seen over a longer period of time. A more recent historical example was the discovery of the double helical structure of DNA by James D. Watson and Francis Crick, published in 1953. In a recent review article, the Oxford zoologist Mark Ridley observed that while Watson and Crick are already the two greatest biologists of the twentieth century, in the event that some of the most optimistic predictions concerning gene technology should come true they would become a posteriori two of the most important people of their time in a much broader sense. As far as the original discovery was concerned, Ridley observes that it 'was a masterly piece of science in itself, but Watson's (and Crick's) place in history come from its influence rather than from the scientific act of discovery itself' (Ridley, 2001). The way in which the full impact of this 'discovery' is only now becoming apparent some 50 years afterwards will later lead us to examine the implications of such a process in the case of the 'discovery' of Internet by the business world.

Novelties of theory: invention

The next step in the development of Kuhn's argument concerns the much larger shifts that result from the invention of new theories. Such a shift is usually announced by a more profound awareness of anomaly, and because the emergence of such important new theories requires large-scale paradigm destruction and major shifts in the problems and techniques of normal science, it is 'generally preceded by a period of pronounced professional insecurity'. An obvious failure of the existing rules is the prelude to a search for new ones.

Here the classic example, drawn from Kuhn's earlier historical studies, is the emergence of Copernican astronomy. At the time of Copernicus' birth, in 1473, the science of astronomy had for many centuries been mainly concerned with explaining minor discrepancies in the existing paradigm, which had been established by Ptolemy at Alexandria in the second century AD. This was a perfect instance of 'normal science' at work, measuring, adjusting and refining a paradigm until it reached an exaggerated complexity and became manifestly incapable of providing a satisfactory theoretical interpretation of observable facts.

Copernicus himself provides an exemplary account of radically rethinking a paradigm in his 'Dedication' to Pope Paul III in The Revolution of the Heavenly Bodies (De Revolutionibus Orbitum), where he criticizes those 'who have devised systems of eccentric circles, although they seem in great part to have solved the apparent movements by calculations which by these eccentrics are made to fit, have nevertheless introduced many things which seem to contradict the first principles of the uniformity of motion' (Copernicus, 1910) while being unable to 'discover or calculate from these the main point, which is the shape of the world and the fixed symmetry of its parts'. Their procedure, he adds with a certain contempt and a marvellous metaphor, 'has been as if someone were to collect hands, feet, a head, and other members from various places, all very fine in themselves, but not proportionate to one body, and no single one corresponding in its turn to the others, so that a monster rather than a man would be formed from them'.

Disgusted that there should be no 'more consistent scheme' to explain the movements of the universe (or to use Kuhn's terms, that normal science was inadequate), Copernicus went back to study ancient authors such as Cicero and Plutarch 'to see whether any one ever was of the opinion that the motions of the celestial bodies were other than those postulated by the men who taught mathematics in the schools'. Encouraged by the fact that some authors had suggested that it was the Earth that moved rather than the Sun, he took his first step towards breaking the paradigm when, 'although the idea seemed absurd', he was led to postulate that 'more reliable conclusions could be reached regarding the revolution of the heavenly bodies, than those of my predecessors' if it were indeed the Earth that moved. Thus, although the idea seemed absurd, Copernicus set out to discover new rules after the manifest failure of the existing theory to explain the anomalies he had observed.

Kuhn provides two more examples: the crisis that preceded the emergence of Lavoisier's oxygen theory of combustion and the crisis in late-nineteenth-century physics that led to the theory of relativity. The result in each case was identical: 'a novel theory emerged only after a pronounced failure in the normal problem-solving activity'. Moreover, the novel theory was a direct response to a crisis and emerged (unlike the case of Copernicus) within a decade or two of the proliferation of theories which preceded the new paradigm. There is one final observation by Kuhn that will be extremely interesting when we come to consider the case of Internet:

Finally, these examples share another characteristic that may help to make the case for the role of crisis impressive: the solution to each of them had been at least partially anticipated during a period when there was no crisis in the corresponding science; and in the absence of crisis those anticipations had been ignored.

As we shall see, this part of Kuhn's argument will be of seminal importance for the interpretation of what we shall call the Internet revolution.


Excerpted from Shift! by Edward Burman Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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