Posted by: CJ | November 14, 2010

Pendulum Swings

I feel like the great pendulum of my interests is swinging again.

In college I liked learning lots of math, science, and engineering because I felt like learning those things made it easier to understand so much else in my life. Understanding new modes and structures of thinking made a wider range of interpretations of and reactions to the world possible for me.

But then, as the math and science and engineering became more esoteric, it stopped seeming like I stopped getting as much out of the effort. (Economists call this phenomenon diminishing returns. It’s a quite general phenomenon.) And I decided that, even though I was going to graduate school in my area of science, what would matter more to my personal life and growth was understanding more social science stuff. Things from economics, sociology, political science, etc.. To be fair, I also was somewhat unsatisfied with graduate school and was deciding if I would like social science better.

But now I think the pendulum is swinging. I’m starting to figure out where my little area of research fits in the larger scheme of things, which is making me more curious about it. It’s no longer just the random area that I decided best fit into my larger plans. And my larger plans are coming closer to fruition, as I get closer to graduation. So I’m naturally getting more interested in math & science stuff again.

And, maybe most importantly, I’ve stopped really believing in the promise of social science to make a substantially better society. I believe, quite firmly, that understanding basic undergraduate level social science–history, economics, psychology, political science, sociology, and anthropology–will make an individual’s life richer, more open to possibilities, less scary, and more responsible. But that’s for an individual, one who’s spent a long time thinking about the insights those areas of study possess. Society as a whole just doesn’t digest stuff like that fast.

To positively contribute to society, both in the large and to the people I know and care about, it seems like the current best ways are by improving “technology”. Where by technology I don’t mean just high-tech stuff. I mean making little black boxes that people can use by reading a small instruction manual. People can use little black boxes that don’t require them to understand what’s going on inside the black box or how it works. The black box could be a computer program, it could be a mobile device, it could be an ultra-cheap low-tech washer and dryer, it could be better business practices, it could be a new sort of steering wheel. Whatever. The important thing is that it’s pretty easy to use.

I think this is one of those “obvious” things that most people in science and technology intuitive “know” (i.e., believe) to be true. It’s just that I didn’t really believe it until I spent time mucking around in the social sciences to realize it’s hard, not impossible, but its fruits aren’t a collection of black boxes. The way that the fruits of science and engineering are. And those black boxes seem to have made a much bigger difference, in the long run.

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