261 –What is silent transformation? (I)

Posted on October 24, 2013 by

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Everything changes – yet we do not see it happening. The seasons around us change. Crops and trees grow. Mountains are eroded. Climate changes. We age. Looking backward we can discern the transformation. We do not experience it.[1] Is not this a fascinating observation?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=JRqPJdgdnIM

And here is another example – straight from the blog of ESA (European Space Agency):

 261a

This is an example of 3D printing – the newest kid on the casting block.

“3D printing builds a solid object from a series of layers, each one printed on top of the last. This ‘additive manufacturing’ technique produces exceedingly complex structures with minimal waste and maximum flexibility.

Never before have titanium structures been so flexible. Leaving traditional casting techniques aside, the AMAZE team printed its logo in titanium as an intricate net shaped to millimeter precision. The project is working with materials that can withstand temperatures up to 3500°C.”

For about 6’000 years, humans casted three-dimensional objects by means of mold process: “Casting is a manufacturing process by which a liquid material is usually poured into a mold, which contains a hollow cavity of the desired shape, and then allowed to solidify. The solidified part is also known as a casting, which is ejected or broken out of the mold to complete the process.”[2]

This tedious, time-consuming and laborious four-step process is now replaced by just one step: stacking exactly shaped nanolayers atop each other to yield unerringly the desired design. The savings in time will be enormous, and the precision beyond expectations.

If you think this is amazing, think again, for this is old hat. 4-D Printing is on its way already: it includes “self-assembly”. Here is what one can expect: “A 50-foot-long strand of coded mystery material will be dumped into the water-filled tank, and transform–without benefit of human hands!–into a sweet little 8-inch square Hilbert curve”. This is nothing new, of course: nature has been at it for the last 4 billion years or so –at the molecular level. We are just getting the knack of it.

This is but one example of a flood of enablers that have come on stream in the last twenty years or so. No one senses their import as they appear, and soon we take them for granted.

Still unconvinced? The solar system is commonly viewed as a mechanical system going on forever and ever under Newtonian laws. Or is it? A recent article in the National Geographic has exploded this view.[3] The solar system was is, and shall be “wild, wild” – with planets smashing into each other, comets bombarding us, and Jupiter tugging Mercury slowly, but surely, out of its current orbit. Come back in a billion years, and you will have to learn the planetary system of the sun from scratch.

Technology is not the only source of silent transformations. Social behavior evolves silently, yet relentlessly. One only needs to look at life in the 60es – the hair-do, the set of mannerisms, the clothing – to see how people were subtly different. For the first time, we are able to document silent transformations in the social realm.

Silent transformations are the mainstay of relentless change.

If silent transformation are so pervasive, why do not we even have a language for it? My conjecture is that we in the West dug ourselves into a hole.

Greek philosophers had the most challenging time with the concept of transformation. Having decided early on that “what is, is – and what is not, is not” they were caught in the wise of their own making: the “principle of non-contradiction,” which was the “essence” of all things (alas, transformation is precisely something “in between”). Plato got stuck in statics, aka as “essence.”

Aristotle tried to bridge the unbridgeable: he developed teleology to bring in dynamic change. What he did was to wrap “transcendental direction” inside the “essence” like the wisdom in a Chinese cookie. Alternatively, I’m told, he defined change as something “in between α and Ω.” Change was defined with reference to the beginning and the end. It reminds of the story of the old lady, arguing that the world rested on a turtle – and “it is turtles all the way down.”

Mind you, Greek sculpture glorified the “pregnant moment” – the moment of transformation – one only needs to look at the discobolus:

261b

It is a body “in transformation,” which goes to prove that even the Greeks did not take philosophers too seriously. Roman statues, on the other hand, all strove, relentlessly. It was a society on the make and take.

The next blog should have been on silent transformation in Chinese thought, but I want to introduce a new way of looking at silent transformation – niche construction – and I’ll return to China after this detour.


[1]           For an insightful discussion see: François JULLIEN (2011): The silent transformations. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

[2]           http://bit.ly/H9Ow7k

[3]           http://bit.ly/1bVrRG8

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