This essay is a companion piece to an episode of Radiolab, titled The Interstitium. You don’t need to have heard it for this essay to make sense, but listening to it will no doubt enrich your understanding.
IN 2018, SCIENTISTS discovered a new organ (?) in the human body. You’d think after centuries of cutting ourselves open, we’d know the intimate details of the structures within us by now. Strangely, this body part wasn’t missed because it was invisible; it was overlooked because of what our belief systems wouldn’t let us perceive.
Until quite recently, if doctors wanted to study human tissue from a living person, they had to remove it first. Then they’d essentially mummify it: drying, freezing, slicing, and fixing it on a slide so they could peer at its shriveled dead form under a microscope to ascertain what was happening at a cellular level. As a result, scientists and doctors were taught in medical school that collagen tissue is essentially a dense wall: a barrier.
But a new endoscope, a microscope that snakes into the body through one of two holes (pie- or butt-), now enables us to see and study living tissue inside a breathing body with a beating heart. And once this special endoscope shone its light just below the skin into the collagen layer, it revealed something much more like a sponge than a wall, with fluid rushing between a fractal, honeycombed network.
The ‘they,’ here, of course doesn’t include everyone. Where Western, allopathic medicine focuses on isolating and treating symptoms, Traditional Chinese Medicine has for 2,500 years looked at the body as a dynamic, fluid-oriented system, and takes a more holistic approach to understanding root causes of discomfort and disease. Western doctors and scientists have often lacked the rubric to appreciate the efficacy of acupuncture, despite studies by reputable bodies like the NIH showing its measurable benefits.
Nor have Western doctors come to fully understand and appreciate the role of fascia — the dense collagen network that supports the structure of our musculature and keeps our bones and body aligned. Rolfers, Osteopaths, myofascial workers have been working for years with fascia structure and the fluid within it, looking at the health of the entire body through a lens of interconnection, dependent relationships, and movement.
We now have a shared language, or at least a word, for this system — or this organ, or this infrastructure (depending on whom you ask) — that’s been revealed as a fluid-filled superhighway spanning the entire body. It’s called: the interstitium. It’s such a new word that my autocorrect feature keeps wanting me to change it to “interstitial.”
Here’s just a glimpse of what’s becoming known about it. The structure of the interstitium is fractal; it exhibits the same pattern at various scales. It’s unified. While scientists had seen glimpses of this mesh-like network before, they had not realized that it connected the entire body — just underneath the skin, and wrapping around organs, arteries, capillaries, veins, head to toes. It’s juicy. It moves four times more fluid through the body than the vascular system does. The fluid isn’t blood, it’s a clear and “pre-lymphatic” substance, carrying within it nutrients, information, and new kinds of cells that are only just being discovered. It’s also a conduit for cancer spread. Turns out that cancer cells moving through the interstitium’s channels are fast.
The interstitium (Illustration: Arthur Jones)
In short: it’s very important. And it’s wild that, although the interstitium can be seen with the naked eye during surgery, it wasn’t really noticed until now. There is an entire scientific revolution set to unfurl as more studies are peer-reviewed and more science books and classrooms integrate its existence into their cosmologies. We are at the beginning of it all.
I FIRST LEARNED about the interstitium from a friend, Jessica Clark, who does not work in science or medicine. She runs her own business, fittingly called “Dot Connector Studio,” which does work weaving insights across technology, media, futurism, philanthropy, and climate solutions, to name a few domains.
She and I have a lot in common. We do not function well with rigid job descriptions or within organizations. We’re misfits who work on a systems level, transcending any one function and making no sense in a world that wants to explain and contain everything into discrete categories. It’s hard for us to sum ourselves up on LinkedIn or at a dinner party. Whereas job titles are nouns, we’re verbs. This means we get overlooked, and wrongly, sometimes disparagingly, classified as dilettantes, or as Jackie’s of all trades, masters of none.
It turns out, we’re interstitionaries. That is, our work is on all things in between — connecting insights, people and resources between sectors, industries, companies, projects and individuals. Here are two quick illustrations: during early COVID, my company Hearken created infrastructure (technology) and a process to connect public and private institutions including churches, truck companies, hospitals, local businesses as well as individual volunteers to the city of Chicago’s emergency response. The city was able to collect invaluable resources from the network of locals — like N95s, goggles, surgical gloves, hotel rooms for hospital overflow, and people who wanted to volunteer sewing masks and doing contact tracing. And in the journalism and democracy space, we saw the need to connect the best-of resources for reporters on what they can do to combat democratic backsliding, and created The Democracy Toolkit. I can’t give you a number of how many lives were helped or saved by these actions. That’s the nature of field catalyst work: it’s impossible to track the impact, it’s very hard to find flexible funding to do it, but absolutely it’s necessary.
The interstitium’s existence — this golden metaphor rooted in our own biology — has finally given me words for the role I play, and what I’ve been noticing others doing everywhere, but couldn’t articulate. And if anthropomorphizing a body part is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
Just as scientists can now see the interstitium everywhere they look, I see these people everywhere who are bridging, connecting and serving as conduits, keeping systems in communication, operable, healthy. Most of these people I see doing this interstitionary work are women. None of them get paid (or paid enough) for the tremendous value they generate in the world. Their kind of genius would never win a MacArthur fellowship, as their expertise is in the magic of how they do, not just what they do. Their impact transcends any one area, and has been essentially hidden from how we organize, track, measure and reward people in our economy and society.
They aren’t just weirdos like Jessica and I who are attempting to build movements and bridge sectors with our work. Interstitionaries show up everywhere. They’re the auntie who knows everyone’s birthday, favorite foods and friends. They play the role of that invisible glue holding the relationships within a company together — knowing everyone from the CEO to the custodial staff. They are block club captains, organizers, hosts — people who are looking at the whole picture, making sure goods, services or information is getting where it needs to go, and that things work.
THE REASON I’M so hyped about this discovery, despite my last science class having been decades ago, is that the interstitium is a conceptual skeleton key, unlocking a more sophisticated, accurate way of seeing everything in the environment.
In the early modern period, Western scientists conceived of the world in terms of parts, of individuals. Everything was seen as a unit. A molecule, a cell, an organ, a person, a … noun. That’s no accident. The microscope plays an outsized role.
Before microscopes were invented, the composition of the body was a matter of philosophical debate. Aristotle, for instance, believed that the heart was the seat of intelligence and that the brain was a cooling mechanism for the blood. There were long-held beliefs attributed to divine influences, and diseases and recoveries were due to the favor or wrath of deities.
And if anthropomorphizing a body part is wrong, I don’t want to be right.
But once the microscope came along, it ushered in a worldview premised on individual identity. The first eyes to peer through those early eyepieces spotted what looked like empty boxes. English scientist Robert Hooke in 1665 coined them as “cells” because they reminded him of the small rooms where monks lived in monasteries. This formative moment led to a worldview called “cell-doctrine” — focusing on things — cells, this basic unit of life from which all living things are composed. Similar cells bundle to form tissues, which then cooperate to form organs, which then carry out the functions necessary to sustain the life of an organism, was how the thinking has gone.
We didn’t pay attention to all of the dynamic, fluid phenomenon, unseen and in between, which connects the organs to one another, and allows the whole system to communicate and stay in homeostasis.
And we grafted this same thinking onto how we organize labor and society. Similar people bundle to form departments, which then cooperate to form companies, which then carry out the functions to sustain our collective communities, countries and world. The enforcement of this model starts young. We ask children, “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, not “how do you want to be when you grow up?” We divide knowledge into subjects, disciplines, majors, then sectors and industries and specific job titles.
We need more navigators skipping between these constructed categories to subvert and replace a perspective of separation that has reached its limits and logical conclusion.
AT A RECENT conference for a movement I accidentally co-founded which is now woven into the economic policy of Japan, I met a fellow named Arthur Brock, who, in his own words “builds targeted currencies which shape the social dynamics of our emerging post-industrial economy.” Before I even mentioned the interstitium, Arthur said: “We’re in a paradigm shift. We’re moving away from the scientific way of looking at the world as objects, to seeing a system-based world that’s all about fluid, currents, connections and relationships.”
Exactly. This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, after all, when the mystics tell us we “shift from matter to spirit; from egotistic materialism and hope for personal redemption to shared feelings and aspirations; from the long ago matriarchal/patriarchal tensions to an age of equality and androgyny.” It’s all about that third thing that envelops the spaces between any two nodes: the relationship, the dynamic, the warm data and the energy that animates their movement, direction, and leaves everything changed through the very act of connection.
Other fields are revealing this same truth, seemingly all simultaneously. Ecologists now perceive the trees in forests as connected to one another, trading information and nutrients across long distances, calibrating an ecosystem’s health. Mycelial networks are now part of conversations of people who, until recently, knew nothing about mushrooms. Cooperative businesses and mutual aid are experiencing a resurgence as more people recognize their own interdependence and trade value with one another.
The National Science Foundation is, for the first time, investing in dialogues between Indigenous knowledge and Western science. A friend in Chicago is trying to create a civic interstitium to connect and cultivate more interstitionary talent to work between agencies and grassroots organizations, improving overall city health. There’s a whole field emerging called Community-based Participatory Action Research for Health, which focuses on understanding community health through studying the network effects of relationships. This focus on relationality and connection is one way out of what our surgeon general calls an epidemic of loneliness and isolation.
Just as happened with the body’s interstitium, technology plays a role in revealing what we can now plainly see, albeit with the help of social graphs and data. Social media companies have mapped, and now essentially own, the complex web of our relationships and movements online to exploit our societal interstitium. With this recognition of our interconnectedness and by providing the tech infrastructure for our information flows, they’ve been able to sell us products, capture our attention, exert power on our systems of thought, governance, and being. Alongside the good information flowing through this infrastructure, they’ve also made it far easier to introduce and spread exploitative sentiments through the interstitium like a cancer in the form of misinformation.
“WE PERCEIVE ONLY that part of nature that our technologies permit,” writes Scott F. Gilbert, Jan Sapp, and Alfred I. Tauber, “and so too, our theories about nature are highly constrained to what our technologies enable us to observe.” In other words, our cosmologies, worldviews, conceptions of the environment and how it works, are limited or expanded by what we can perceive. Our experiences then transmute into the metaphors and grammar that organize our thoughts. New language gives us new worldviews.
The Potawatomi plant ecologist, writer and an actual MacArthur fellow, Robin Wall Kimmerer, writes in Braiding Sweetgrass, “Science can be a language of distance which reduces a being to its working parts; it’s a language of objects.” And in Orion she writes, “The relationship between the structure of a language and the behavior characteristic of a culture, is not a causal one, but many linguists and psychologists agree that language reveals unconscious cultural assumptions and exerts some influence over patterns of thought.”
She wonders, “Can we make a new world with new words?”
Which makes me wonder, how can we activate and apply this new word, interstitium, to harness its meaning and power beyond biology? What will it take to find ways of seeing, languaging and remunerating interstitionary work, so our systems have a chance at correcting and finding balance? No one sector, industry or organization will be able to solve the wicked problems we face in challenges like climate or poverty or corruption. So my last questions are, when can we start, and are you in?