It’s never surprised me that this exhibit doesn’t get much attention. For one thing its interactive aspects are subtle, and for another its metaphoric significance refers to a phenomenon which, in this country predominantly occurs below the level of awareness, namely interdependence. Simply put, this is the dependence of everything under the sun on everything else. This obliviousness might be expected in a culture that apparently reveres (its opposite) independence, and whose technology is based on a form of scientific study in which every object or phenomenon is typically studied independently of the context in which it occurs. It’s ironic to note, however, that truly independent non-conformists have a hard time in this country unless they invent new technology and make pots of money. Unfortunately such people end up with a lot of power and apparently little insight regarding the true effects of their innovations.
“Interdependence,” the exhibit, consists of a group of tiny magnets suspended on wires in such a way that they repel their neighbors, holding a separation from one-another of a little over an inch. A spotlight in the top of the pyramidal case casts shadows of the magnets on a sheet of ground glass, and a window in the bottom of the exhibits makes it possible to observe the magnets’ shadow movements when a visitor blows air against them by squeezing a rubber bulb. Even if the air strikes only one or two of the suspended magnets, their motion propagates through the whole group, setting them into an oscillatory jiggle that persists for several seconds.
A second feature of this exhibit, which a few people discover, is a means to move all the magnets at once by means of an external magnetic field. There’s a large coil of wire hidden in the base of the pyramid. A current flow can be directed through this coil by applying a finger to a small black sensor on the front of the Exhibit’s case. This causes the magnets to draw together just slightly, an effect that can be amplified by noting the natural frequency of their oscillation, then timing sensor touches to match it.
There’s a third feature that is sometimes difficult to bring into effect because it involves jogging the magnets with the exhibit’s rubber bulb until one of them hovers over a “Hall Effect” magnetic sensor near the back of the flock of magnets. If the switch marked “Feedback” is turned on, then it’s sometime possible to get the magnets to move continuously, triggered by the motion of one magnet over the Hall Effect sensor. The magnetic field of that magnet turns the sensor on and off, which flashes a red LED on the case, and simultaneously triggers the large coil whose fluctuating field in turn moves the magnets in a continuous rhythm.
The point of this exhibit is just what its name indicates, to demonstrate the principle of interdependence. This is to say, if you disturb one element of any system it disturbs all the rest. The implication is that everything around us affects everything else, and the effects are not always predictable.
A “system” can be almost any grouping of living things or dynamically related non-living things, such as machinery or electronic devices. Computers are a case in point. Anyone who has done troubleshooting on a car, a computer, or other mechanical system, if s/he’s at all successful, understands interdependence on that level. One malfunctioning component can undermine or affect the workings of the whole, often in unexpected ways.
Our most important blind spot regarding interdependence revolves around the ecology of the biological systems that support life on this planet, and around the social ecology of our human society. For example, past misguided wisdom has lead us to believe that when pests attack our crops, then spraying poison on the pest in question is an effective way of rectifying the problem. For a while, it works. Eventually, however, we discover that the pesticide is not only killing the pest in question, but is also wiping out organisms that live in the soil that may be beneficial to the crops we’re growing. It also might be wiping out the birds that prey on the problem pest and other pests that are, unbeknownst to us, controlled by the same birds. Sometimes the elimination of one organism that’s perceived to be a pest can lead to an infestation of other organisms kept in check by the one we’ve wiped out. All these organisms live in an interdependent web of associations, or an ecology.
It’s in the area of social systems that we most exhibit our obliviousness regarding the principle of interdependency. Having worked with various sorts of electronic technology most of my life, this is the area where, on a macro scale, I’m most conscious of that particular blind spot. It’s true that it can be nearly impossible to fully anticipate the social consequences of introducing a new technology, but the blind spot is demonstrated by the fact that there’s often very little serious discussion about it when such technology comes along. More often than not, promoters fill our ears with glowing promises regarding how the technology in question will cure all the world’s ills. Later it turns out that it brings a unique new set of ills with it, which cry for yet more technological solutions.
A new technology shakes up everything, just as a puff of air against one magnet in the Interdependence exhibit sets all the rest a-jiggling. Under some circumstances, when repairs on the Interdependence exhibit are being accomplished, the magnets can be stirred so much that they go nuts and start sticking to one-another willy-nilly. In the same way, new technologies can radically derange our whole social system. Consider how computers and automation have affected the job market and everything else in our lives, including enabling government and private corporations to spy on us to and extent and in ways we never dreamed possible.
While it can be difficult to fully anticipate how changes to systems will affect them, denying or not understanding the principle of interdependence vastly undermines our ability to cope with change. When new technologies come along, a rush to profit from them usually trumps any discussion about whether the technology might have undesirable side-effects, hence we’re woefully unprepared to deal with them in any rational manner when they occur. Ironically, one good place to look for thoughtful ideas about how new technologies might affect our future lives is in the field of science fiction writing.
When smaller-scale systems are considered, many people are only marginally conscious of interdependency effects. Where I’ve noticed this phenomenon most obviously is right here at Mindport. We’ve been in existence for nearly 19 years, and quite a number of employees have come and gone. Over that time those of us who have endured over long periods have become increasingly aware of how the problems of individual employees or the introduction of a new employee radically affects the culture of the whole group. After all this time, we’ve come to expect it. We can’t necessarily anticipate what effect the arrival or departure of a group member will have, but at least we’re prepared that there will be emotional consequences, often positive, but sometimes confusing, accruing from such changes of personnel. These fluctuation of emotional tides have taught all of us who work at Mindport a great deal about our own interdependence with our fellow workers and with our visitors as well.