Complaints about civilization are as old as civilization itself. Each generation gives fresh voice to ancient concerns about the decline of manners and mores, of humanity’s headlong rush to forsake the very things that brought us to where we are today.
The latest lament comes from Sherry Turkle, a professor of psychology at MIT. In a cover story in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times titled “The Flight from Conversation,” Turkle decries how cell phones and computers are leading us to replace deep conversation with shallow text messages. She writes:
“We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection. … Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.”
She also notes: “Connecting in sips may work for gathering discrete bits of information or for saying, ‘I am thinking about you.’ Or even for saying, ‘I love you.’ But connecting in sips doesn’t work as well when it comes to understanding and knowing one another.”
If we concede Turkle’s point, we’re left to wonder: Why have billions of people around the world adopted communication technologies during the last decade or two that seem to undermine our ability to understand and know one another? Are they simply ignorant of her arguments? Have they failed to perform a cost/benefit analysis of their choices? Or is our behavior guided by deeper, inexorable forces powerful enough to lead each generation to ignore such cultural complaints?
The answer to that last question is yes. It is rooted not just in culture or politics but physics. Once we factor that into our thinking, we gain fresh insights not only into communications but also the nature of free will and what it means to be human.
Physics encompasses everything. Its laws are obeyed by rivers and trees, bacteria and people. One such law, the constructal law, accounts for the tendency of anything that moves to generate designs that flow more easily, over a greater area, faster. River basins, lightning bolts and the circulatory systems in our bodies, for example, have a tree-like structure because this is a good design for moving current (water, electricity, blood) from an area to a point and vice versa.
These designs evolve with a direction in time: They configure and reconfigure themselves to generate better and more efficient flow.
Communication is an evolving flow system for ideas. Its design — whose channels include verbal and nonverbal symbols and technologies to disseminate them — has evolved to allow us to spread more information, more efficiently around the globe.
Cognition, technology and communication are integral parts of the evolving design of our movement on the landscape. Each of us is much larger and more powerful than the naked body sketched in anatomy books. We are the constantly evolving “human and machine species.”
In pre-history, the rise of language greatly expanded the range of things we could express as compared with the more limited choices of nonverbal communication. Over time, innumerable tribal languages and dialects have been supplemented by a lingua franca (Greek, Latin, French, English) that has eased the flow of communication among people around the world.
The design of written language has evolved from limited pictographic alphabets to our current system of 26 letters that enable us to create millions of words to capture our thought. The evolution is in one direction: toward greater and easier flow. Whose flow? Our flow.
The rise of technology used to spread communication tells the same story. Just as river basins naturally generate channels that allow them to move more water more easily, human beings have instinctively created and attached themselves to devices — from papyri and printing presses to telephones and fax machines — that have empowered us to move more, and more efficiently. This is why billions of people around the world, school children and senior citizens, have adopted cell phones and computers.
New modes of communication do not obliterate old ones. The invention of photography did not eliminate painting — on the contrary, it made painting even more special. We still draw pictures to express deep and casual thoughts; despite the rise of computers, we use pencils and pens or even carve our names on trees. A quick visit to a restaurant, pub or family dinner table confirms that conversation is in no danger of disappearing.
A scientific principle, the constructal law does not address the idea of free will or human agency in philosophical terms. Instead, it alerts us to the fact of physics that people are not distinct from but a part of nature. As such, we are governed by the laws of nature. It empowers us to understand why civilization is always changing — and attracting complaints from cultural critics — and to predict the direction of this inevitable evolution.
Adrian Bejan, J.A. Jones Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University, and J. Peder Zane, Chairman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine’s College, are the authors of “Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization” (Doubleday 2012).