Civilization and the Technium

9 October 2012


The “technium” is a term coined by Kevin Kelly in his book What Technology Wants. The author writes that he dislikes inventing words, but felt he needed to coin a term in the context of his exposition of technology; I, on the contrary, don’t mind in the least inventing words. I invent words all the time. When we formulate a new concept we ought to give it a new name, because we are not only expanding our linguistic vocabulary, we are also extending out conceptual vocabulary. So I will without hesitation take up the term “technium” and attempt to employ it as the author intended, though I will extend the concept even further by applying some of my own terminology to the idea.

In What Technology Wants the technium is defined as follows:

“I dislike inventing new words that no one else uses, but in this case all known alternatives fail to convey the required scope. So I’ve somewhat reluctantly coined a word to designate the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us. I call it the technium. The technium extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections. For the rest of this book I will use the term technium where others might use technology as a plural, and to mean a whole system (as in “technology accelerates”). I reserve the term technology to mean a specific technology, such as radar or plastic polymers.”

Some time ago, in some earlier posts here, I started using the term “social technology” to indicate those artifacts of human invention that are not particular pieces of hardware. In making that distinction I did not think to further subdivide and extrapolate all possible kinds of technology, nor to unify them all together into one over-arching term (at least, I don’t remember having the idea). This is what, as far as I understand it, the technium means: the most comprehensive conception of technology, including social technologies and electromechanical technologies and biological technologies and so forth.

Neolithic flint mining at Grimes Graves.

Although we usually don’t think of it like this, technology is older than civilization. Lord Broers led off his 2005 Reith Lectures with an account of the “Grimes Graves” flint mining site, which virtually constituted an entire Neolithic industrial complex. While Grimes Graves is contemporaneous with agriculture, and therefore with a broad conception of agricultural civilization, there were probably other such industries dating to the Paleolithic that are lost to us now.

Lithic technology: older than civilization.

With the emergence of human cognitive modernity sometime about fifty to sixty thousand years ago, human beings began making tools in a big way. Of course, earlier hominids before homo sapiens made tools also, although their toolkits were pretty rudimentary and showed little or no development over hundred of thousands of years. Still, it should be observed that tools and technology are not only older that civilization, they are even older than human beings, in so far as we understand human beings narrowly as homo sapiens only (though it would be just as legitimate to extend the honorific “human being” to all hominids). What this means is that the technium is older than civilization.

What hominids are we going to call human beings, and to what hominids will we deny the honorific? All hominids have been tool users, but so are otters.

If we take the technium as an historical phenomenon and study it separately from the history of human beings or the history of civilization, we see that it is legitimate to identify the technium as an independent object of inquiry since it has a life of its own. At some points in history the technium has coincided fully with civilization; at other points in time, the technium has not precisely coincided with civilization. As I have just noted above, the technium preceded the advent of civilization, and therefore in its earliest stages did not coincide with civilization.

The technium already extends significantly beyond the technosphere of the Earth.

At the present moment in history, with our technological artifacts spread across the solar system and crowding the orbit of the earth, the technium again, in extending beyond the strict range of human civilization, does not precisely correspond with the extent of civilization. The possibility of a solarnet (this term of due to Heath Rezabek, and the idea is given an exposition in my Cyberspace and Outer Space) that would constitute an internet for a human civilization throughout our native solar system, would be an expansion of the technium throughout our solar system, and it is likely that this will proceed human spacesteading (or, at least, will be at the leading edge of human spacesteading) so that the technium has a greater spatial extent than civilization for some time.

If, at some future time, human beings were to build and launch BracewellVon Neuman probes — self-replicating robotic probes sent to other solar systems, at which point the self-replicating probes employ the resources of the other solar system to build more BracewellVon Neuman probes which are then sent on to other solar systems in turn — when, in the fullness of time, these probes had spread through the entire Milky Way galaxy (which would take less than four million years), the technium would then include the entire Milky Way, even if we couldn’t properly say that human civilization covered the same extent.

It is an interesting feature of a lot of futurism that focuses on technology — and here I am thinking of Kevin Kelly’s book here under consideration as well as the extensive contemporary discussion of the technological singularity — that such accounts tend to remain primarily terrestrially-focused, while it is another party of futurists who focus on scenarios in which human space travel plays a significant role in the future. Both visions are inadequate, because both technological advances and space travel that projects civilization beyond the Earth will play significant roles in the future, and in fact the two will not be distinguishable. As I have noted above, the technium already extends well beyond the Earth to the other planets of our solar system, and, if we count the Voyager probes now in deep space, beyond the solar system.

One way in which we see technologically-based futurism focusing on terrestrial scenarios is the terminology and concepts employed. While the term isn’t used much today, there is the idea of a “technosphere” which is the technological analogue of those spheres recognized by the earth sciences such as the geosphere, the hydrosphere, the biosphere, the lithosphere, and so forth — essentially geocentric or Ptolemaic conceptions, which remain eminently valid in regard to Earth-specific earth sciences, but which when applied to technology, which has already slipped the surly bonds of earth, it is misleading.

More contemporary conceptions — which, of course, have a history of their own — would be that of a planetary civilization or, on a larger scale, the idea of a matrioshka brain, which latter could be understood as part of a human scenario of the future or part of a singularity scenario.

Michio Kaku has many times referenced the idea of a planetary civilization, and he often does so citing Kardashev’s classifications of civilization types based on energy uses. Here is Kaku’s exposition of what he calls a Type I civilization:

Type I civilizations: those that harvest planetary power, utilizing all the sunlight that strikes their planet. They can, perhaps, harness the power of volcanoes, manipulate the weather, control earthquakes, and build cities on the ocean. All planetary power is within their control.

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Impossible, Chapter 8, “Extraterrestrials and UFOs”

Of course, anyone is free to define types of civilization however they like, and Kaku has been consistent in which characterization of civilization across his own works, but this does have much of a relationship to the schema of Type I, II, and III civilizations as originally laid out by Kardashev. Kardashev was quite explicit in his original paper, “Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations” (1964), that a type I civilization was a, “technological level close to the level presently attained on the earth.” The earth’s energy use has increased significantly since Kardashev wrote this, so according to Kardashev’s original idea, we are today firmly within the territory of a Type I civilization. But Kardashev’s conception is not what Kaku has in mind as a planetary civilization:

“As I’ve discussed in my previous books, our own civilization qualifies a Type 0 civilization (i.e., we use dead plants, oil and coal, to fuel our machines). We utilize only a tiny fraction of the sun’s energy that falls on our planet. But already we can see the beginnings of a Type I civilization emerging on the Earth. The Internet is the beginning of a Type I telephone system connecting the entire planet. The beginning of a Type I economy can be seen in the rise of the European Union, which in turn was created to compete with NAFTA.”

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Impossible, loc. cit.

In his Physics of the Future, Kaku devotes Chapter 8, “Future of Humanity,” to the idea of a planetary civilization, in which he elaborates in more detail on the above themes:

The culmination of all these upheavals is the formation of a planetary civilization, what physicists call a Type I civilization. This transition is perhaps the greatest transition in history, marking a sharp departure from all civilizations of the past. Every headline that dominates the news reflects, in some way, the birth pangs of this planetary civilization. Commerce, trade, culture, language, entertainment, leisure activities, and even war are all being revolutionized by the emergence of this planetary civilization. Calculating the energy output of the planet, we can estimate that we will attain Type I status within 100 years. Unless we succumb to the forces of chaos and folly, the transition to a planetary civilization is inevitable, the end product of the enormous, inexorable forces of history and technology beyond anyone’s control.

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future, p. 11

And to put it in a more explicitly moral (and bifurcated, i.e., Manichean) context:

There are two competing trends in the world today: one is to create a planetary civilization that is tolerant, scientific, and prosperous, but the other glorifies anarchy and ignorance that could rip the fabric of our society. We still have the same sectarian, fundamentalist, irrational passions of our ancestors, but the difference is that now we have nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

Michio Kaku, Physics of the Future, p. 16

For Kaku, the telos of civilization’s immediate future is the achievement of a planetary technium. The roots of this idea go back at least to the Greek architect and city planner Constantinos Doxiadis, who was quite famous in the middle of the twentieth century, authored many books, formulated a theory of urbanism that I personally find more interesting than anything written today (although he called his theory “ekistics” which is not an attractive name), and drew up the plans for Islamabad. Doxiadis forecast an entire hierachy of settlements (which he called ekistic units), from the individual to the ecumenopolis, the world-city.

Here is how Doxiadis defined ecumenopolis in his treatise on urbanism:

Ecumenopolis: the coming city that will, together with the corresponding open land which is indispensable for Man, cover the entire Earth as a continuous system forming a universal settlement. Term coined by the author and first used in the October 1961 issue of Ekistics.

Constantinos A. Doxiadis, Ekistics: An Introduction to the Science of Human Settlements, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968, p. 516 (Doxiadis, like me, had no compunctions about inventing his own terminology)

In What Technology Wants Kelly explicitly invoked ecumenopolis as both unsettling and possibly inevitable:

The technium is a global force beyond human control that appears to have no boundaries. Popular wisdom perceives no counterforce to prevent technology from usurping all available surfaces of the planet, creating an extreme ecumenopolis — planet-sized city — like the fictional Trantor in Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi stories or the planet Coruscant in Lucas’s Star Wars. Pragmatic ecologists would argue that long before an ecumenopolis could form, the technium would outstrip the capacity of Earth’s natural systems and thus would either stall or collapse. The cornucopians, who believe the technium capable of infinite substitutions, see no hurdle to endless growth of civilization’s imprint and welcome the ecumenopolis. Either prospect is unsettling.

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, First published in 2010 by Viking Penguin, p. 197

Now, I am not saying that the scenarios of Kevin Kelly and Michio Kaku avoid the human future in space, but it doesn’t seem to be a particular interest of either author, so it doesn’t really receive systematic development or exposition. So I would like to place the technium in Copernican context, i.e., in the context of a Copernican civilization — although it should be obvious from what I wrote above that a Copernican technium will not always coincide with a Copernican civilization.

Some of this will be familiar to those who have read my other posts on Copernican civilization and astrobiology. In A Copernican Conception of Civilization (later refined in my formulations in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, based on Joshua Lederberg’s concepts of eobiology, esobiology, and exobiology) I formulated the following definitions of civilization:

● Eocivilization the origins of civilization, wherever and whenever it occurs, terrestrial or otherwise

● Esocivilization our terrestrial civilization

● Exocivilization extraterrestrial civilization exclusive of terrestrial civilization

● Astrocivilization the totality of civilization in the universe, terrestrial and extraterrestrial civilization taken together in their cosmological context

Now it should be obvious how we can further adapt these same definitions to the technium:

● Eotechnium the origins of the technium, wherever and whenever it occurs, terrestrial or otherwise

● Esotechnium our terrestrial technium

● Exotechnium any extraterrestrial technium exclusive of the terrestrial technium

● Astrotechnium the totality of technology in the universe, our terrestrial and any extraterrestrial technium taken together in their cosmological context

The esotechnium corresponds to what has been called the technosphere, mentioned above. I have pointed out that the concept of the technosphere (like other -spheres such as the hydrosphere and the sociosphere, etc.) is essentially Ptolemaic in conception, and that to make the transition to fully Copernican conceptions of science and the world we need to transcend our Ptolemaic ideas and begin to employ Copernican ideas. Thus to recognize that the technosphere corresponds to the esotechnium constitutes conceptual progress, because on this basis we can immediately posit the exotechnium, and beyond both the esotechnium and the exotechnium we can posit the astrotechnium.

A strict interpretation of technosphere or esotechnium would be limited to the surface of the earth, so that all the technology that is flying around in low earth orbit, and which is so closely tied in with planetary technological systems, constitutes an exotechnium. If we define the boundary of the earth as the Kármán line, 100 km above sea level, this would include within the technosphere or esotechnium all of the highest flying aircraft and the weather balloons, but would exclude all of the lowest orbiting satellites. Even if we were to include the near earth orbit so saturated with satellites as part of the esotechnium, there would still be our technological artifacts on the moon, Mars, Venus, and orbiting around distant bodies of the solar system. farthest out of all, already passing out of the heliosphere of the solar system, into the heliopause, and therefore into interstellar space, are the spacecraft Voyager 1 and Voyager 2.

One question that Kelly left unanswered in his exposition of the technium is whether or not it is to be understood as human-specific, i.e., as the totality of technology generated and employed by human beings. In the nearer-term future there may be a question of distinguishing between human-produced technology and machine-produced technology; in the longer-term future there may be a question of distinguishing between human-generated technology and exocivilization-produced technology. In so far as the idea of the technological singularity involves the ability of machines to augment their own technology, the distinction between human industrial-technological civilization and the post-human technological singularity is precisely that between human-generated technology and machine-generated technology.

There is a perfect parallel between the Terrestrial Eocivilization Thesis and, what is implied in the above, the Terrestrial Eotechnium Thesis, which latter would constitute the claim that all technology begins on the Earth and expands into the universe from this single point of origin.

At this point we might want to distinguish between an endogenous technium, having its origins on the Earth, and any exogenous technium, having its origins in an alien civilization. Another way to formulate this would be to identify any alien technium as a xenotechnium, but I haven’t thought about this systematically yet, so I will leave any attempted exposition for a later time.

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5 Responses to “Civilization and the Technium”

  1. […] Δοξιάδη) vision of Ecumenopolis – the world city or universal city (which I wrote about in Civilization and the Technium) [10] – than to Kardashev’s scientifically-inspired quantification of civilization. If you read […]

  2. Sam said

    The term human is expanded to include those who share a similar biological and psychological format in Fred Saberhagen’s Beserker tales and Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels.

    The use of the astrotechnium created by an alien civilization that was never utilized by them but is by humanity is the premise of SGU.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I haven’t read either Saberhagen or Banks (during my science fiction reading years I kept busy with Heinlein, Poul Anderson, and Clifford Simak, inter alia). Several times recently I have been told that my writing resembles that of Olaf Stapledon, whom I also have not read. But I am getting curious about the comparison, so I may yet look into Stapledon.

      Best wishes,


  3. […] environments—a radiation that transhuman beings would be especially well placed to effect. The technium is an artificial environment into which human beings could radiate, and which would expand and […]

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