STEM cycle epiphenomena 10

In my post The Industrial-Technological Thesis I proposed that our industrial-technological civilization is uniquely characterized by an escalating feedback loop in which scientific discoveries lead to new technologies, technologies are engineered into industries, and industries produce new instruments for science, which results in further scientific discoveries. I have elaborated this view in several posts, most recently in The Growth of Historical Consciousness, in which latter I noted that I would call this cyclical feedback loop the “STEM cycle,” given that “STEM” has become a common acronym for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” and these are the elements involved in the escalating spiral of industrial-technological civilization.

industrial technological civilization

Elsewhere, in Industrial-Technological Disruption, I considered some of the distinctive ways in which the STEM cycle stalls or fails. In that post I wrote, in part:

Science falters when model drift gives way to model crisis and normal science begins to give way to revolutionary science… Technology falters when its exponential growth tapers off and its attains a mature plateau, after which time it changes little and becomes a stalled technology. Engineering falters when industries experience the inevitable industrial accidents, intrinsic to the very fabric of industrialized society, or even experience the catastrophic failures to which complex systems are vulnerable.

The last of the above items — failures of engineering and industrial accidents — I have further elaborated more recently in How industrial accidents shape industrial-technological civilization.

industrial technological civilization destructive cycle

This is not at all to say that these are the only ways in which the STEM cycle falters or fails. As I noted in Complex Systems and Complex Failure, complex systems fail in complex ways, and industrial-technological civilization is by far the most complex system on the planet. (Biological systems are extremely complex, but industrial-technological civilization supervenes upon biological complexity, and therefore, in the most comprehensive sense, includes biological complexity in its own complexity.)

industrial accidents

In several of my posts on what I now call the STEM cycle I have called this cycle driving industrial-technological civilization a “closed loop.” I now realize that the STEM cycle is only a closed loop under certain “ideal” conditions (I will try to explain below why I put “ideal” in scare quotes). The messiness and imprecision of the real world means that most structures that we impose upon the world in order to understand it are simplified and schematic, and my description of the STEM cycle has been simplistic and schematic in this way. The actual function of science, technology, and engineering under contemporary socioeconomic conditions is far more complex, and that means that the STEM cycle is not a closed loop, but rather an unclosed loop, or an open feedback loop in which extrinsic forces at times enter into the STEM cycle while much of the productive energy of the STEM cycle is dissipated into extrinsic channels that contribute little or nothing to the furtherance of the STEM cycle.

Not every scientific discovery leads to technologies; not every technology can be engineered into an industry; not every industry produces new scientific instrumentation that can be employed in further scientific discoveries. Industrial-technological civilization produces epiphenomenal scientific knowledge, epiphenomenal technologies, and epiphenomenal engineering and industry — but enough science, technology and engineering participate in the STEM cycle to keep the processes of industrial-technological civilization moving forward for the time being.

I noted above that the STEM cycle is a closed loop only under “ideal” conditions, and these “ideal” conditions for the STEM cycle are not necessarily the “ideal” conditions for anything else — including the development of the features we value most highly in civilization. Pure science often results in little or no technology, and only rarely does it produce technologies in the near term. Many if not most technological innovations emerge from a long process of technological development that has scientific research only as a distant ancestor. The purest of the pure sciences — mathematics — has recently shown itself to have important applications in computer science, which has a direct impact on the economy, but it would be easy to cite numerous branches of mathematics which seem to have little or no relation to any technology, now or in the future.

Many perfectly viable technologies remain as mere curiosities. The history of technology is filled with such “hopeful monsters” that never caught on with the public or never found an application that would have justified their mass production. An interesting example of this would be the Einstein-Szilárd refrigerator, designed by Albert Einstein and Leo Szilárd. Both were to have much more “commercial” success with the atomic bomb, though I suspect both would have rather been successful with their refrigerator.

A great many industries, perhaps most industries, fulfill and respond to consumer demands that have little or no relationship to producing new scientific instruments that will lead to new scientific discoveries. And when industries do change science, it is often unintentional. The mass production of personal computers has profoundly affected the way that science is pursued, and has greatly stimulated scientific discovery (as has the internet), but little of this was the direct result of attempting to produce new and better scientific instruments.

It is entirely possible that a shift in social, economic, cultural, or other factors that influence or are influenced by the STEM cycle could increase the amount of epiphenomenal science, technology, and engineering, thus decreasing the efficiency of the STEM cycle. A permanent or semi-permanent change in social conditions (i.e., the social context in which the STEM cycle is played out) could introduce sufficient friction and inefficiency into the STEM cycle to retard or cease development and thereby to induce permanent stagnation (one of the categories of existential risk) into industrial-technological civilization.

There are, today, no end of prophecies of civilizational doom and stagnation, and it is not my intention merely to add one to their number, but it is an occupational hazard of the study of existential risk to consider such scenarios. The particular scenario I contemplate here is based on a particular mechanism that I believe uniquely characterizes industrial-technological civilization, and therefore demands our attention as it directly bears upon our viability as a civilization.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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An idea that has had a great influence despite being at very least misleading and more often completely wrong is that of recapitulation — also called embryological parallelism or the biogenetic law (the latter by Ernst Haeckel, who was also the originator of ecology). Recapitulation was most famously summed up in the phrase:

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.

The idea here is that the development of the individual organism recapitulates, or reproduces in miniature, the phylogenetic history of the species to which the individual belongs. The often mistaken idea of recapitulation as it has been applied to biology, however, did have fortunate although unintended benefits, because in looking for evidence of recapitulation biologists began seriously studying developmental processes. Early on this primarily took the form of experimental embryology, but later become more sophisticated. This developmental interest eventually led to the study of evolutionary developmental biology, which is now usually referred to as evo-devo.

Quine took up the theme of recapitulation in order to cleverly skewer metaphysics in the best tradition of Post-Positivist Thought, which he formulated as follows:

Ontology recapitulates philology.

In other words, ontology, in presuming to detail the structure of reality, just gives us back again the structure of language by which we have attempted to describe the world, however imperfectly. The implied corollary here is that different languages with different philologies will yield different ontologies (an idea better known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis).

So what has evo-devo and Quinean post-positivism to do with biology in relation to cosmology? We can understand the traditional recapitulation idea as a variation on another ancient human idea, that of the microcosm as a mirror of the macrocosm: the development of the individual as the microcosm mirrors the development of the species as the macrocosm. Similarly, terrestrial biology, as a complex ecological system on Earth, can be understood as the microcosm of the complex ecological system of cosmology, which here becomes the macrocosm. Thus as biology is the microcosm and cosmology the macrocosm, is it the case the biology recapitulates cosmology?

But do we even know, can be even say, what biology is or what cosmology is? Is it possible to make any generalization as sweeping as this without falling into incoherency? Generalizations are made, of course, but there is a question as to the legitimacy of any such generalization. The most common generalization about the whole of biology or cosmology is that they exhibit progress. Because this is one of the most common overall interpretations, it is only the interpretation that has been most refuted and has come under the heaviest attacks.

Stephen J. Gould has most memorably be associated with a consistent refusal to see progress in the history of life, and he expressed this forcefully in one of his later books, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, in which he returns time and again to the theme that life is overwhelmingly simple, and the human tendency (which we would now call anthropic bias, following Nick Bostrom) to see progress in this history of life is to distort the history of life by interpreting the whole of life in terms of a thin tail of complexity that emerges merely because life has a minimal bound of complexity. Since life cannot become less complex and still remain life, the essential variability of life will, with time, eventually blunder onto greater complexity because there is nowhere else for life to go. But that does not make greater complexity a trend, much less a driving force that results in ever more complex and sophisticated life forms.

Gould wrote:

“…I can marshal an impressive array of arguments, both theoretical (the nature of the Darwinian mechanism) and factual (the overwhelming predominance of bacteria among living creatures), for denying that progress characterizes the history of life as a whole, or even represents an orienting force in evolution at all…”

Stephen J. Gould, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

Gould writes a bit like Darwin, who called his own Origin of Species “one long argument,” so it can be difficult to get just the right quote from Gould to illustrate his argument and his point of view, so the quote above should not be considered definitive. Thus the following quote also cannot be called definitive, but it does give a sense of Gould’s “big picture” conception of his work, and even suggests an approach to cosmology consistent with Gould’s ideas:

“…this book does have broader ambitions, for the central argument of Full House does make a claim about the nature of reality… I am making my plea by gentle example, rather than by tendentious frontal assault in the empyrean realm of philosophical abstraction (the usual way to attack the nature of reality, and to guarantee limited attention for want of anchoring). I am asking my readers finally and truly to cash out the deepest meaning of the Darwinian revolution and to view natural reality as composed of varying individuals in populations — that is, to understand variation itself as irreducible, as ‘real’ in the sense of ‘what the world is made of.’ To do this, we must abandon a habit of thought as old as Plato and recognize the central fallacy in our tendency to depict populations either as average values (usually conceived as ‘typical’ and therefore representing the abstract essence or type of the system) or as extreme examples…”

Stephen J. Gould, Full House: the Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

Gould, as the great enemy of progressivism (and, as we see in the above passage, a passionate advocate of nominalism), may be contrasted with Kevin Kelly’s explicit defense of progress in his recent book What Technology Wants (which I have written about in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium). In Chapter 5 of his book, “Deep Progress,” Kelly takes the bull by the horns and against much recent thought and much well-justified cynicism, argues that progress is real. Aware of the difficulties his argument faces, Kelly states up from the expected objections:

“Any claim for progressive change over time must be viewed against the realities of inequality for billions, deteriorating regional environments, local war, genocide, and poverty. Nor can any rational person ignore the steady stream of new ills bred by our inventions and activities, including new problems generated by our well-intentioned attempts to heal old problems. The steady destruction of good things and people seems relentless. And it is.”

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Chapter 5

Despite these difficulties, Kelly soldiers on finishes his chapter on progress as follows:

“…there will be problems tomorrow because progress is not Utopia. It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except Utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as unsoiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expanding possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now.”

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants, Chapter 5

It is admirable that Kelly makes a distinction between progress as a direction of development and progress as an end or aim. What Kelly is doing here is to posit non-teleological progress, and this is an idea that deserves attention. Non-teleological progress only partially blunts the force of Gould’s determined opposition to finding progress in history, because Gould often assumes without stating that progress implies a goal toward which a progress of development is developing, but whether or not it answers all of Gould’s objections, it deserves attention if for no other reason than that it confounds expectations and assumptions about historical thought.

Kelly, in arguing for increasing complexity against a tradition denying historical progress or trends as anthropocentric, is himself part of another emerging tradition, that is the growing discipline of Big History. In the works of David Christian, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Fred Spier, inter alia, the central theme of history conceived as a whole from the big bang to the present day is the theme of increasing complexity.

Does the universe, on the whole, exhibit increasing complexity? We could bring to cosmology essentially the same arguments that Gould used in biology, especially since Gould wrote that he had wider ambitions for his ideas. It would be easy to argue that the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium, in the same way that life is overwhelmingly composed of bacteria. Just as life has a minimal bound of complexity, and only blunders into higher complexity because it has nowhere else to go, so too matter has a lower bound of complexity — ordinary baryonic matter composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons doesn’t get any simpler than hydrogen — and it could be said that it is only with accidental variation over time that complexity emerges in the universe because matter has nowhere else to go except in the direction of greater complexity.

Thus we can admit the existence of greater complexity in biology or cosmology, but it would be a mistake to argue that this complexity is the telos of the whole, or that it is a trend, or that it is even predominant. In fact, we know that bacteria predominate in life and that hydrogen predominates in cosmology. The later emergence of complexity does not alter the overwhelming predominance of the simple, and to judge of the whole by a long and very narrow tail of complexity is to allow the tail to wag the dog.

Between the inner intimacies of biology that transpire unnoticed within our bodies, and the distant and impersonal life cycles of stars and galaxies and the cosmos, unnoticed by us because it is too large and too slow to play a role in human perception, there lies the broad ground of human history. Even if biology and cosmology can be interpreted in terms of overwhelming simplicity and the absence of any trend or progress, does this have any relevance for human affairs?

It should be evident that human history, the macroscopic doings of human beings on a human scale of time, can be interpreted either according to the Gould model or according to the model of progress that one finds in Kevin Kelly and Big History.

I have mentioned in an earlier post, Taking Responsibility for Our Interpretations, how I came to realize that history can be a powerful method of conveying an interpretation, and it is wrong to understand history in the sense of a list of names, dates, and places in the spirit of what might be called histoire vérité.

This is a sense of historiography most famously attributed to Leopold van Ranke, who wrote:

“History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the account for the benefit of future ages. To show high offices the present work does not presume; it seeks only to show what actually happened [wie es eigentlich gewesen].”

Later historians have endlessly debated what exactly Ranke had in mind when he mentioned showing that actually happened; even if Ranke thought (as he is usually interpreted) that there is a single unique and correct account of history, there is no single and unique account of Ranke.

There is an Hegelian interpretation of Ranke’s much-discussed aside on showing what actually happened (“wie es eigentlich gewesen,” which has, of course, been translated in varying ways), according to which “gewesen” must be understood in an essentialist sense, so that to say what really happened is to give the essence of what happened — and this, I hope you will agree, can be very different from giving “the facts, just the facts.”

This Hegelian-essentialist interpretation of Ranke is illuminated by a famous aphorism of Hegel’s such that, “The real is the rational and the rational is the real.” When this is read through contemporary spectacles it doesn’t make any sense at all, because we tend to think of the “real” as that which really is or really happened, and we know very well that the world as it is has no end of irrationality in it, so that to say that for Hegel to say that the real is the rational makes Hegel look like a fool or worse. If, however, we understand the “real” to be the essentially true, or even the genuine — so that Hegel’s aphorism can be rendered, “The genuine is the rational and the rational is the genuine” — it suddenly becomes clear how the real and the rational might be systematically interrelated.

Here we encounter the deeper ontological substratum of these divergent interpretations of history, whether natural, human, or cosmological. The difference between the orientation of Gould and the orientation of Kelly and others is the difference between nominalism and essentialism. Nominalist historiography can give us all the facts, but ultimately cannot do anything more than sum up the facts. If you sum up the totality of life or the totality of matter in the universe, you are forced to acknowledge that life is overwhelmingly bacteriological in nature, and the universe is overwhelmingly composed of hydrogen and helium.

There is, for the nominalist, nothing to say beyond this. The essentialist, however, finds a narrative buried within the mountain of facts, but there are many essentialists, and they all have their own narratives. And essentialism is weakened by the one thing that can never touch nominalism: underdetermination. All essentialist accounts are underdetermined by the evidence. Nominalist accounts on principle never go beyond the evidence, and for that reason they are not underdetermined by the evidence, but they are also unable to say anything relevant about the meanings and values that constitute the daily bread and butter of human life. And so our strict conscience may suggest to us that we ought to stop with nominalism, but our less-than-strict human conscience suggests to us that there is something more than an undifferentiated mountain of facts.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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In his Notes on the Dynamics of Human Civilization: The Growth Revolution, Part I, T. Greer of Scholar’s Stage proposed what he called a growth revolution in conscious contrast to earlier historiographical attempts to identify periods of revolutionary change in history. For example, in reference to the Industrial Revolution, Mr. Greer says that it has been, “grossly mischaracterized,” and furthermore, “The industrialization of the world economy was the result, not the cause of modernization. The nature of this radical transformation is captured better by a different title: The Growth Revolution.”

I was thinking about this today and I realized that there are several periods of exponential growth in history of which our current world can be considered a consequence, that these occur at different orders of magnitude of history, and as such we can identify a self-similarity across different orders of magnitude of history that gives to this history a fractal structure.

At the level of history where geological time meets biological time — that is to say, the longest horizon of biological time — there is what is called the Cambrian Explosion. Most of the multi-billion year history of life on earth is little more than pond scum. For billions of years the earth was essentially covered in blue green algae and stromatolites, and the development of more complex forms of life was painfully slow. Then the Cambrian explosion occurred and suddenly there were seas teaming with an astonishing variety of life. Since that time, the earth has seen increasingly complex forms of life emerge, and, with the exception of periodic mass extinctions, growing numbers of species and biodiversity. It would seem that, once having passed a certain threshold of complexity, life’s capacity of grow exponentially was actualized.

Now we move in closer to history, thinking not in terms of millions of years of tens of millions of years, but thinking of terms tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of years. Here we find the first exponential growth spike in specifically human history, and this is the agricultural or neolithic revolution. Colin Renfrew in his Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind, emphasizes that this cannot be connected to the evolution of the genotype or the emergence of anatomically modern human beings. It would seem that our speciation event occurred somewhere on the horizon of 150,000 years ago, more or less (give or take some tens of thousands of years), but for most of this time modern human beings lived as hunter-gatherers with no larger social structure than the tribe or the clan. Then the agricultural revolution occurs, cities emerge, social differentiation and hierarchy emerge, settled societies emerge, human beings live in much greater density and organized state societies emerge. This occurred between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, i.e., about a tenth of the total history of our species. Once again, it looks like we idled along for a long time without much happening, and then — Bang! — suddenly things started happening with much greater rapidity. As the Cambrian explosion saw life passing a threshold of complexity, the agricultural revolution saw human societies pass a threshold of complexity.

Now we move in even closer to history, approaching to the point where we look not at hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of years, but only at hundreds of years. We are now considering a far shorter portion of time than that between the Cambrian explosion and the agricultural revolution. History at this level of magnification reveals to us another period of exponential growth, this time the growth represented by the Industrial Revolution. Just over two hundred years ago, beginning in England, spreading to Europe, and eventually making its way even today to Asia and Africa in the twenty-first century, societies that had had a stable form for thousands of years began to change much more rapidly. The Industrial Revolution uprooted stable societies and replaced them with something radically different. But this process, rather than taking hundreds or thousands of years, tends to transform traditional, stable societies within a period of decades, turning an acculturation to absence of change into a way of thinking when individuals expect to see dramatic changes within their lifetime and we say that “change is the only constant.”

Move in closer to history once again and look only at the last few decades. The oldest societies that had experienced the industrial revolution developed a pattern of stability. It is stable growth to be sure — the populations of industrialized nation-states have grown so accustomed to increasing standards of living that they rebel when the economy does not grow several percentage points per year — but it is a kind of stability within the chaotic growth and breakneck change that is the industrial revolution. Just in the past few decades even this stable growth has been given another jolt forward. The twin developments of high speed global transportation (the passenger jet) and high speed global communication (telecommunications and the internet) mean that human lives are changing at an accelerated rate of growth — yet another growth revolution in which a threshold has been crossed that allows growth across a number of other sectors.

What more could follow in this fractal structure of exponential growth? Will we need to consider the changes that will take place in human life — and, more generally, in life on earth — at a level of months, weeks, days, hours, or seconds? While I have written several posts that were highly skeptical of the so-called technological singularity (and I retract nothing that I have said in these posts), this is about the only thing that I can imagine that could once again spike the growth chart and produce yet another exponential growth curve, this time on an even shorter time scale corresponding to an extrapolation of the fractal structure of previous growth revolutions.

Human beings, however, live at a particular level of time consciousness and historical consciousness. We cannot perceive the vast periods of time studied by cosmology, though we can come to understand them through science, and we would not be able to perceive a fractal structure of exponential growth that disappeared into ever smaller periods of time. Thus one possibility is that something like the technological singularity could occur, but it would just as rapidly disappear from our view. We would go on devoting an hour to a leisurely lunch, even while at far higher magnifications of time further revolutions of exponential growth were going on unseen by us. We might come to understand these smaller periods of time through science, but they would mean as little to us in the present as the ultimate fate of the cosmos as contemplated by cosmology.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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