The Technological Frontier

12 December 2014


wanderer above the technological frontier

An Exercise in Techno-Philosophy

Quite some time ago in Fear of the Future I employed the phase “the technological frontier,” but I did not follow up on this idea in a systematic way. In the popular mind, the high technology futurism of the technological singularity has largely replaced the futurism of rocketships and jetpacks, so that the idea of a technological frontier has particular resonance for us today. The idea of a technological frontier is particularly compelling in our time, as technology seems to dominate our lives to an increasing degree, and this trend may only accelerate in the future. If our lives are shaped by technology today, how much more profoundly will they be shaped by technology in ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years? We would seem to be poised like pioneers on a technological frontier.

How are we to understand the human condition in the age of the technological frontier? The human condition is no longer merely the human condition, but it is the human condition in the context of technology. This was not always the case. Let me try to explain.

While humanity emerged from nature and lived entirely within the context of nature, our long prehistory integrated into nature was occluded and utterly lost after the emergence of civilization, and the origins of civilization was attended by the formulation of etiological mythologies that attributed supernatural causes to the manifold natural causes that shape our lives. We continued to live at the mercy of nature, but posited ourselves as outside nature. This led to a strangely conflicted conception of nature and a fraught relationship with the world from which we emerged.

The fraught human relationship to nature has been characterized by E. O. Wilson in terms of biophilia; the similarly fraught human relationship to technology might be similarly characterized in terms of technophilia, which I posited in The Technophilia Hypothesis (and further elaborated in Technophilia and Evolutionary Psychology). And as with biophilia and biophobia, so, too, while there is technophilia, there is also technophobia.

Today we have so transformed our world that the context of our lives is the technological world; we have substituted technology for nature as the framework within which we conduct the ordinary business of life. And whereas we once asked about humanity’s place in nature, we now ask, or ought to ask, what humanity’s place is or ought to be in this technological world with which we have surrounded ourselves. We ask these questions out of need, existential need, as there is both pessimism and optimism about a human future increasingly dominated by the technology we have created.

I attach considerable importance to the fact that we have literally surrounded ourselves with our technology. Technology began as isolated devices that appeared within the context of nature. A spear, a needle, a comb, or an arrow were set against the background of omnipresent nature. And the relationship of these artifacts to their sources in nature were transparent: the spear was made of wood, the needle and the comb of bone, the arrow head of flint. Technological artifacts, i.e., individual instances of technology, were interpolations into the natural world. Over a period of more than ten thousand years, however, technological artifacts accumulated until they have displaced nature and they constitute the background against which nature is seen. Nature then became an interpolation within the context of the technological innovations of civilizations. We have gardens and parks and zoos that interpolate plants and animals into the built environment, which is the environment created by technology.

With technology as the environment and the background of our lives, and not merely constituted by objects within our lives, technology now has an ontological dimension — it has its own laws, its own features, its own properties — and it has a frontier. We ourselves are objects within a technological world (hence the feeling of anomie from being cogs within an enormous machine); we populate an environment defined and constituted by technology, and as such bear some relationship to the ontology of technology as well as to its frontier. Technology conceived in this way, as a totality, suggests ways of thinking about technology parallel to our conceptions of humanity and civilization, inter alia.

One way to think about the technological frontier is as the human exploration of the technium. The idea of the technium accords well with the conception of the technological world as the context of human life that I described above. The “technium” is a term introduced by Kevin Kelly to denote the totality of technology. Here is the passage in which Kelly introduces the term:

“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.”

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants

I previously wrote about the technium in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium.

The concept of the technium can be extended in parallel to schema I have applied to civilization in Eo-, Eso-, Exo-, Astro-, so that we have the concepts of the eotechnium, the esotechnium, the exotechnium, and the astrotechnium. (Certainly no one is going to employ this battery of unlovely terms I have coined — neither the words nor the concepts are immediately accessible — but I keep this ideas in the back of my mind and hope to further extend, perhaps in a formal context in which symbols can be substituted for awkward words and the ideas can be presented.)

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

● Esotechnium our terrestrial technology

● Exotechnium the extraterrestrial technium exclusive of the terrestrial technium

● Astrotechnium the technium in its totality throughout the universe; the terrestrial and extraterrestrial technium taken together in their cosmological context

I previously formulated these permutations of technium in Civilization and the Technium. In that post I wrote:

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, i.e., geocentric, 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.

We can already glimpse the astrotechnium, in so far as human technological artifacts have already reconnoitered the solar system and, in the case of the Voyager space probes, have left the solar system and passed into interstellar space. The technium then, i.e., from the eotechnium originating on Earth, now extends into space, and we can conceive the whole of this terrestrial technology together with our extraterrestrial technology as the astrotechnium.

It is a larger question yet whether there are other technological civilizations in the universe — it is the remit of SETI to discover if this is the case — and, if there are, there is an astrotechnium much greater than that we have created by sending our probes through our solar system. A SETI detection of an extraterrestrial signal would mean that the technology of some other species had linked up with our technology, and by their transmission and our reception an interstellar astrotechnium comes into being.

The astrotechnium is both itself a technological frontier, and it extends throughout the frontier of extraterrestrial space, and a physical frontier of space. The exploration of the astrotechnium would be at once an exploration of the technological frontier and an exploration of an actual physical frontier. This is surely the frontier in every sense of the term. But there are other senses as well.

We can go my taxonomy of the technium one better and also include the endotechnium, where the prefix “endo-” means “inside” or “interior.” The endotechnium is that familiar motif of contemporary thought of virtual reality becoming indistinguishable from the reality of nature. Virtual reality is immersion in the endotechnium.

I have noted (in An Idea for the Employment of “Friendly” AI) that one possible employment of friendly AI would be the on-demand production of virtual worlds for our entertainment (and possibly also our education). One would presumably instruct one’s AI interface (which already has all human artistic and intellectual accomplishments storied in its databanks) that one wishes to enter into a particular story. The AI generates the entire world virtually, and one employs one’s preferred interface to step into the world of the imagination. Why would one so immersed choose to emerge again?

One of the responses to the Fermi paradox is that any sufficiently advanced civilization that had developed to the point of being able to generate virtual reality of a quality comparable to ordinary experience would thereafter devote itself to the exploration of virtual worlds, turning inward rather than outward, forsaking the wider universe outside for the universe of the mind. In this sense, the technological frontier represented by virtual reality is the exploration of the human imagination (or, for some other species, the exploration of the alien imagination). This exploration was formerly carried out in literature and the arts, but we seem poised to enact this exploration in an unprecedented way.

There are, then, many senses of the technological frontier. Is there any common framework within which we can grasp the significance of these several frontiers? The most famous representative of the role of the frontier in history is of course Frederick Jackson Turner, for whom the Turner Thesis is named. At the end of his famous essay on the frontier in American life, Turner wrote:

“From the conditions of frontier life came intellectual traits of profound importance. The works of travelers along each frontier from colonial days onward describe certain common traits, and these traits have, while softening down, still persisted as survivals in the place of their origin, even when a higher social organization succeeded. The result is that to the frontier the American intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom — these are traits of the frontier, or traits called out elsewhere because of the existence of the frontier.”

Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which constitutes the first chapter of The Frontier In American History

Turner is not widely cited today, and his work has fallen into disfavor (especially targeted by the “New Western Historians”), but much that Turner observed about the frontier is not only true, but more generally applicable beyond the American experience of the frontier. I think many readers will recognize in the attitudes of those today on the technological frontier the qualities that Turner described in the passage quoted above, attributing them specially to the American frontier, which for Turner was, “an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward.”

The technological frontier, too, is an area of free space — the abstract space of technology — the continuous recession of this free space as frontier technologies migrate into the ordinary business of life even while new frontiers are opened, and the advance of pioneers into the technological frontier.

One of the attractions of a frontier is that it is distant from the centers of civilization, and in this sense represents an escape from the disciplined society of mature institutions. The frontier serves as a refuge; the most marginal elements of society naturally seek the margins of society, at the periphery, far from the centers of civilization. (When I wrote about the center and periphery of civilization in The Farther Reaches of Civilization I could just as well have expressed myself in terms of the frontier.)

In the past, the frontier was defined in terms of its (physical) distance from the centers of civilization, but the world of high technology being created today is a product of the most technologically advanced centers of civilization, so that the technological frontier is defined by its proximity to the centers of civilization, understood at the centers of innovation and production for industrial-technological civilization.

The technological frontier nevertheless exists on the periphery of many of the traditional symbols of high culture that were once definitive of civilizational centers; in this sense, the technological frontier may be defined as the far periphery of the traditional center of civilization. If we identify civilization with the relics of high culture — painting, sculpture, music, dance, and even philosophy, all understood in their high-brow sense (and everything that might have featured symbolically in a seventeenth century Vanitas painting) — we can see that the techno-philosophy of our time has little sympathy for these traditional markers of culture.

The frontier has been the antithesis of civilization — civilization’s other — and the further one penetrates the frontier, moving always away from civilization, the nearer one approaches the absolute other of civilization: wildness and wilderness. The technological frontier offers to the human sense of adventure a kind of wildness distinct from that of nature as well as the intellectual adventure of traditional culture. Although the technological frontier is in one sense antithetical to the post-apocalyptic visions of formerly civilized individuals transformed into a noble savage (which usually marked by technological rejectionism), there is also a sense in which the technological frontier is like the post-apocalyptic frontier in its radical rejection of bourgeois values.

If we take the idea of the technological frontier in the context of the STEM cycle, we would expect that the technological frontier would have parallels in science and engineering — a scientific frontier and an engineering frontier. In fact, the frontier of scientific knowledge has been a familiar motif since at least the middle of the twentieth century. With the profound disruptions of scientific knowledge represented by relativity and quantum theory, the center of scientific inquiry has been displaced into an unfamiliar periphery populated by strange and inexplicable phenomena of the kind that would have been dismissed as anomalies by classical physics.

The displacement of traditional values of civilization, and even of traditional conceptions of science, gives the technological frontier its frontier character even as it emerges within the centers of industrial-technological civilization. In The Interstellar Imperative I asserted that the central imperative of industrial-technological civilization is the propagation of the STEM cycle. It is at least arguable that the technological frontier is both a result and a cause of the ongoing STEM cycle, which experiences its most unexpected advances when its scientific, technological, and engineering innovations seem to be at their most marginal and peripheral. A civilization that places itself within its own frontier in this way is a frontier society par excellence.

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