One Human’s Minutiae is Another’s Munificence

For thirty years, Albert Einstein struggled to produce a unified theory that would provide an explanation for everything in the physical universe. This quest for a single blueprint for life would accompany him to his grave and in his last years he admitted, “It is so difficult to employ mathematically that I have not been able to verify it somehow, in spite of all my efforts.” He finally conceded, “Someone else is going to have to it.”

For several decades in the 1500s Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe diligently recorded the positions of the planet Mars. Every day at the same time  he observed its position and noted it, and while this might have seemed like a trivial acquisition, qualifying it as minutia even, he eventually observed that Mars drifted from west to east, “but every two years roughly the planet would take a brief diversion, slowing down, going backward and doing a loop, before regaining its senses and continuing its normal motion.” (The Social Atom)

After Brahe’s death, Johannes Kepler studied Brahe’s notebooks, and eight years later he concluded that Mars and Earth were rotating on elliptical tracks around the sun, with Earth on the inside track. This served as the foundation for Issac Newton’s laws of gravity and motion.

The scientific method for gathering data, identifying patterns and finding a mechanism to explain them is the same one that social scientists today are using to find solutions to problems such as global warming and the spread of infectious diseases.  People, like the physical world, fall into very explainable patterns and these patterns reveal regularities that the seemingly complicated just isn’t so.

There are some patterns that are not so common, not so regular, not so obvious in their occurrence and therefore are more difficult to understand. Acts like the “random” campus shooting that took place at Virginia Tech could be considered one of these anomalies, not easy to predict given the paucity of data about the shooter and lack of similar events to which to compare it. I’m curious what a stream of this shooter’s life would have looked like in Twitter, what it would have revealed and what we could have learned from it. Given a large dynamic system like Twitter, where small variations of a initial condition can be captured, would a butterfly effect emerged? Clive Thompson compared Twitter to “proprioception, your body’s ability to know where your limbs are.” I consider Twitter a tool for social omniscience, in which the identification of natural laws of patterns can lead to the possibility of prediction.

What’s so intriguing and exciting about social patterns is the ability to change them – social behaviors are often dictated by mutable and constructed norms. However, because social patterns are influenced by norms, social etiquette “black holes” can present great barriers to revealing true patterns and ultimately presenting solutions. When I hear how I should conduct myself, what I should and should not say, by entities as imposing as the United States government and as intrusive as the “family order” – I immediately object. These formal and informal gag rules are exactly what will prevent us from solving the most complicated of issues – the ones that keep me from saying I smoked an entire pack of cigarettes this weekend, or I think the industry I work in is inherently doomed for failure and virtually no one understands this, or I do look at porn on occasion, or I like illegal aliens because they work jobs that “Americans” don’t want but I get annoyed when they don’t learn/speak English.

I laugh at the notion that technology alone will ever solve a problem; even if we lived in a world in which every person could contribute to one global database, these invisible barriers would still exist. The fact is I am regularly surprised by what I say has meaning to whom and while I myself don’t want to read every single thing a person does or thinks, I’d be willing to bet the farm that the compilation of this minutiae, coupled with other sources of data, would reveal patterns never obvious to us before and present answers to questions that have eluded humankind for ages. To do this however would require a lot of data, a lot of minutiae, all the minutiae you don’t want to hear. And yet the more information we make available, the greater our ability to understand our world and change it.

I believe with enough data, we can discover the truth in everything – and we will unveil an artisan’s masterfully ordered structure and achieve what Einstein simply did not have enough minutiae to achieve.

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  1. I hope one day that our minutia becomes just that. A world where all of those details are recorded for us, freeing us to think creatively and explore adventurously without having to worry about the minutia.

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