Thursday


capital in the 21st century

I‘ve just finished Thomas Piketty’s much talked about book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. There is much that could be said about this rather long book, but I will not attempt a review. Piketty’s theme is the concentration of capital at the top of the income hierarchy. Income inequality has become a political issue of some importance, and Piketty’s book speaks directly to this interest, which partially explains its popularity.

One point that Piketty does not make explicit in his book, but which could be said is implicit throughout, is the transition to an economic paradigm that could only be called a “winner-take-all” model. Many have commented on this. Skyrocketing executive pay is only only symptom of this social transition. It is arguable that the upward skewing of income and expectation is a function of what has been called the “attention economy” (and which in terms of the internet specifically is sometimes called “clickbait”). In a world flooded with a cacophony of voices competing for attention, those who can best capture the interest of others have an advantage. In each field of endeavor — music, sports, entertainment, industry, government, media, etc. — there are a handful of superstars who disproportionately command public attention and the rewards that follow therefrom. They are the winners, and they have scooped up the pot and left nothing on the table.

Kevin Kelly discussed the winner-take-all aspect of contemporary society in The Technium: A Conversation with Kevin Kelly [2.3.14] (I previously discussed this interview in Science, Knowledge, and Civilization). Kelly said in this interview:

Another point about this winner-take-all phenomenon is that at first we have a natural reaction saying, “Well, winner take all; there can only be one winner,” but here’s what technology is doing: technology is increasing the number of races in which you can win. There are more and more niches and more and more places in which the technology creates new ways in which one can win. There isn’t a finite number of winners, there’s an infinite number of winners as long as you’re not trying to win someone else’s race. The way everybody can become a winner is to continue to increase the number of ways to play, even though you have these winner-take-all phenomena. There’s only going to be one search winner, but there are so many other ways to race and to win other than in, say, search. In most cases, trying to compete against a winner is not going to succeed in this kind of dynamic. What you want to do is make up a new way to win.

I suppose that you could call this the “long tail” argument for a winner-take-all economy, and Kelly is arguing that technology is increasing the length of the tail and therefore the number of individuals who can find some place to call their own along this long tail. But the long tail is a tail only, and not the bump in the statistics that identifies the explosive growth of attention (and therefore income earning potential) that takes place at the center of things. Sure, if there’s an infinitely long long tail there could be an infinite number of “winners,” and each of these winners will take all that is at stake in the miniscule region they dominate, but the share of society’s total wealth available in the infinitely long sections of the long tail is also infinitesimally thin. Being a “winner” in this sense is like the boast of being “big in Japan.”

What will we do with the losers in a winner-take-all economy? Keep in mind that most of us are “losers” — including those who are “winners” along some thin segment of the long tail. Most of us are neither rich nor famous nor well-connected and influential. What is to be done with us? are we to be quietly forgotten? Are we to go gentle into that good night of poverty and obscurity?

There is a well-known quote from Boswell’s Life of Johnson about the condition of the poor in relation to those better off:

He said, ‘the poor in England were better provided for than in any other country of the same extent: he did not mean little cantons, or petty republics. Where a great proportion of the people,’ said he, ‘are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization. Gentlemen of education,’ he observed, ‘were pretty much the same in all countries; the condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination.’

For Dr. Johnson, then, the mitigation of poverty is a civilizational issue. This is, moreover, the differentia that marks the distinction between true and false civilization. The condition of the well-to-do is pretty much the same everywhere. That is still true. Indeed, it is likely to be even more true today than when Johnson said this to Boswell. The technocratic elite of global society have access to similar resources, they shelter their wealth in similar ways, they travel in the same circles, gather in the same hotels, eat at the same restaurants, and send their children to the same schools. What continent they happen to come from is much less important than their bank account, or what tax haven they happen to use as their address — or the address for their offshore bank accounts.

One of the ways in which individuals become impoverished, marginalized, and socially invisible is through unemployment. While growing income inequality is a complex problem with many historical forces driving it, the problem of unemployment — a problem intrinsic to industrial-technological civilization that can never be “solved,” but only managed — may be significantly exacerbated in the near future (by which I mean within the next 50 years). If technological unemployment becomes a major economic factor in the coming decades, this could drive an already widening social gap to dangerous levels that are not socially sustainable. This may happen anyway, but my point is simply that technological unemployment could make this happen more rapidly.

In several posts on technological unemployment (“…a temporary phase of maladjustment…”, Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment, Automation and the Human Future, Addendum on Automation and the Human Future, Technological Unemployment and the Future of Humanity, and Addendum on Technological Unemployment) I have pointed out that, not only is our society not making the transition to an economic regime in which the structure of employment realistically mirrors the nature of industrialization, but rather the prevailing attitude is punitive. Unemployment is seen as a personal failure, and even as a moral failure — a moral failure deserving of social disapproval. The poor are widely viewed as requiring discipline, regulation, and oversight by the professional classes.

Is it possible to find a way to compensate the losers in a winner-take-all economy when losing is seen as a sign of moral failure and winning is ascribed to meritocratic success? These social attitudes exacerbate rather than mitigate the damage of extreme income inequality. And social attitudes cannot be easily changed. Piketty in his book makes a case for a global tax on capital, but honestly calls it utopian. He probably understands all-too-well that nothing like this is politically possible. But changing policies is much easier than changing social attitudes. Social attitudes do change, but they change with glacial slowness, and while they are ever so incrementally adapting to changed conditions, generations are being effectively lost.

As Dr. Johnson rightly observed, this is a civilizational concern. If we care to pay attention, we can see this before our very eyes. The homeless live the life of nomadic foragers within the interstices of civilization. They have ceased to participate in civilization as we know it; they have given up on civilization, and civilization has given up on them. Of course we know that many of the homeless are mentally ill, and that many are alcoholics and drug addicts. Even today there are a few individuals who devote their lives to trying to help even those who spurn help and who abuse those who seek to help them. This is a thankless task, and it is only done out of love if it is done at all.

That many of these individuals who have gone from merely being unemployed to being utterly destitute have serious deficits that require significant intervention to overcome is an indication that they come at a price that even the destitute are unwilling to pay. We have all heard stories of the indignities visited upon the impoverished and the helpless. Some of these stories are horrific, and, somewhat disturbingly, cultural Foucauldianism is sometimes invoked in order to excuse the failure to intervene in the lives of those who have suffered from the tender mercies of institutionalized “kindness.” I can both understand and sympathize with a desire to live free as an urban forager rather than to be subject to the discipline of some “total institution.” But are these our only choices? Are there not ways to intervene without insisting on control, regulation, and discipline conceived as a moral corrective?

Compensating losers in a winner-take-all society is something that must be done with our eyes wide open, understanding the mistakes that we have made in the past, but understanding also that we are not limited by the mistakes we have made in the past. And if we do not find some constructive way to address the glaring inequity of our society, before the end of the century even the most pleasant lives will not be able to be fully insulated from the growing masses of marginalized and impoverished individuals whose only failing is that they are not good at making money.

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The Technological Frontier

12 December 2014

Friday


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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Thursday


Joseph Wright orrery

Scientific civilization changes when scientific knowledge changes, and scientific knowledge changes continuously. Science is a process, and that means that scientific civilization is based on a process, a method. Science is not a set of truths to which one might assent, or from which one might withhold one’s assent. It is rather the scientific method that is central to science, and not any scientific doctrine. Theories will evolve and knowledge will change as the scientific method is pursued, and the method itself will be refined and improved, but method will remain at the heart of science.

Pre-scientific civilization was predicated on a profoundly different conception of knowledge: the idea that truth is to be found at the source of being, the fons et origo of the world (as I discussed in my last post, The Metaphysics of the Bureaucratic Nation-State). Knowledge here consists of delineating the truth of the world prior to its later historical accretions, which are to be stripped away to the extent possible. More experience of the world only further removes us from the original source of the world. The proper method of arriving at knowledge is either through the study of the original revelation of the original truth, or through direct communion with the source and origin of being, which remains unchanged to this day (according to the doctrine of divine impassibility).

The central conceit of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization to be based upon revealed eternal verities has been so completely overturned that its successor civilization, industrial-technological civilization, recognizes no eternal verities at all. Even the scientific method, that drives the progress of science, is continually being revised and refined. As Marx put it in the Communist Manifesto: “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air…”

Scientific civilization always looks forward to the next development in science that will resolve our present perplexities, but this comes at the cost of posing new questions that further put off the definitive formulation of scientific truth, which remains perpetually incomplete even as it expands and becomes more comprehensive.

This has been recently expressed by Kevin Kelly in an interview:

“Every time we use science to try to answer a question, to give us some insight, invariably that insight or answer provokes two or three other new questions. Anybody who works in science knows that they’re constantly finding out new things that they don’t know. It increases their ignorance, and so in a certain sense, while science is certainly increasing knowledge, it’s actually increasing our ignorance even faster. So you could say that the chief effect of science is the expansion of ignorance.”

The Technium: A Conversation with Kevin Kelly [02.03.2014]

Scientific civilization, then, is not based on a naïve belief in progress, as is often alleged, but rather embodies an idea of progress that is securely founded in the very nature of scientific knowledge. There is nothing naïve in the scientific conception of knowledge; on the contrary, the scientific conception of knowledge had a long and painfully slow gestation in western civilization, and it is rather the paradigm that science supplants, the theological conception of knowledge (according to which all relevant truths are known from the outset, and are never subject to change), that is the naïve conception of knowledge, sustainable only in the infancy of civilization.

We are coming to understand that our own civilization, while not yet mature, is a civilization that has developed beyond its infancy to the degree that the ideas and institutions of infantile civilization are no longer viable, and if we attempt to preserve these ideas and institutions beyond their natural span, the result may be catastrophic for us. And so we have come to the point of conceptualizing our civilization in terms of existential risk, which is a thoroughly naturalistic way of thinking about the fate and future of humanity, and is amenable to scientific treatment.

It would be misleading to attribute our passing beyond the infancy of civilization to the advent of the particular civilization we have today, industrial-technological civilization. Even without the industrial revolution, scientific civilization would likely have gradually come to maturity, in some form or another, as the scientific revolution dates to that period of history that could be called modern civilization in the narrow sense — what I have called Modernism without Industrialism. And here by “maturity” I do not mean that science is exhausted and can produce no new scientific knowledge, but that we become reflexively aware of what we are doing when we do science. That is to say, scientific maturity is when we know ourselves to be engaged in science. In so far as “we” in this context means scientists, this was probably largely true by the time of the industrial revolution; in so far as “we” means mass man of industrial-technological civilization, it is not yet true today.

The way in which science enters into industrial-technological civilization — i.e., by way of spurring forward the open loop of industrial-technological civilization — means that science has been incorporated as an integral part of the civilization that immediately and disruptively followed the scientific civilization of modernism without industrialism (according to the Preemption Hypothesis). While the industrial revolution disrupted and preempted almost every aspect of the civilization that preceded it, it did not disrupt or preempt science, but rather gave a new urgency to science.

In several posts I have speculated on possible counterfactual civilizations (according to the counterfactuals implicit in naturalism), that is to say, forms of civilization that were possible but which were not actualized in history. One counterfactual civilization might have been agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization undisrupted by the scientific or industrial revolutions. Another counterfactual civilization might have been modern civilization in the narrow sense (i.e., Modernism without Industrialism) coming to maturity without being disrupted and preempted by the industrial revolution. It now occurs to me that yet another counterfactual form of civilization could have been that of industrialization without the scientific conception of knowledge or the systematic application of science to industry.

How could this work? Is it even possible? Perhaps not, and certainly not in the long term, or with high technology, which cannot exist without substantial scientific understanding. But the simple expedient of powered machinery might have come about by the effort of tinkerers, as did much of the industrial revolution as it happened. If we look at the halting and inconsistent efforts in the ancient world to produce large scale industries we get something of this idea, and this we could call industrialism without modernity. Science was not yet at the point at which it could be very helpful in the design of machinery; none of the sciences were yet mathematicized. And yet some large industrial enterprises were built, though few in number. It seems likely that it was not the lack of science that limited industrialization in classical antiquity, but the slave labor economy, which made labor-saving devices pointless.

There are, today, many possibilities for the future of civilization. Technically, these are future contingents (like Aristotle’s sea battle tomorrow), and as history unfolds one of these contingencies will be realized while the others become counterfactuals or are put off yet further. And in so far as there is a finite window of opportunity for a particular future contingent to come into being, beyond that window all unactualized contingents become counterfactuals.

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An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby

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I have written more on the nature of scientific civilization in…

David Hume and Scientific Civilization …and…

The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization

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Wednesday


Saint Augustine made a distinction between progress for the City of Man and progress for the City of God.

Recently I wrote about progress in Biology Recapitulates Cosmology where I contrasted Stephen J. Gould’s explicit anti-progressivism to more recent forms of progressivism found in futurism and technological thought. Western thought has a long history of finding both progress and decadence in its own historical record. Even as St. Augustine was writing while the Roman Empire was falling apart and there were barbarians literally at the gates of Hippo where Augustine was Bishop, Augustine acknowledged that the City of Man was in a bad way and likely to get worse, but the City of God was going from triumph to triumph as divine providence led the way — thus rescuing a kind of progress from the ruins of a civilization in the process of collapsing around him. Augustine’s was a brave gambit, and later attitudes tended to be more narrowly progressive or declinist, not making the distinction that Augustine made.

Is Augustine’s thought an example of smuggling progress into human history by way of divine providence, or are contemporary conceptions of progress a secularized formulation of divine providence, as Karl Löwith would have argued? This is an interesting question, but I am not going to try to answer it here. I have strong views on this, and I want to write a detailed post (or several posts) specifically about this question (though I have already written some specifically about the idea of secularization, in addition to citing Löwith’s influential work in several posts, such as Addendum on ontological extrapolation, Addendum on Incommensurable Civilizations, The Feast of Saint Nicholas, and Marxist Eschatology).

In any discussion of progress one must carefully distinguish between the kinds of progress that are possible. For example, we can distinguish at least technological progress and moral progress and aesthetic progress, just for starters. One might explicitly argue for technological progress, and all those measures of quality of life directly attributable to technological progress like per capita GDP, access to clean water, and so forth, while saying nothing about moral progress or aesthetic progress (as seems to be the case with Kevin Kelly’s explicit argument for progress in What Technological Wants). I don’t think that many people today would assert that the pictures painted today are obviously better than the pictures painted in the past even if our technology seems obviously superior. Therefore aesthetic stagnation might go hand-in-hand with technological progress. I also doubt that many today would argue that we are becoming obviously more ethical with the passage of time and the growth of technology.

It would also be a good idea to distinguish between stagnation and retrogression, so that we are thinking in terms of a continuum that runs between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression, with stagnation as the “golden mean” between the two (as it were). It is common to use the term “stagnation” not only to indicate a socioeconomic system that is moving neither forward nor backward, but also for socioeconomic systems that are losing ground and moving backward. Thus making the distinction between stagnation and retrogression, and placing both in relation to progress, allows us to differentiate societies that are static from societies that are declining. For lack of a better term, we can call the continuum between the polar concepts of progress and retrogression the continuum of progress.

To gain a proper appreciation for the role that the continuum of progress has played in human affairs we must further distinguish the perception of progress, stagnation, or retrogression from any quantifiable measure of progress, stagnation or retrogression. If we want to think about economics in isolation (i.e., in isolation from other possible social measures of progress), we can immediately see the significant role that perceptions play, as it is often claimed that the collective action of declining consumer confidence can cause an economy to go into recession even if there is no other trigger for an economic downturn. Keynes’ remarks about the role of “animal spirits” also has a role to play in economic perceptions in contrast to economic reality.

Human beings being what they are, a significant divergence between appearance and reality can be maintained for some period of time if enough people are prepared to delude themselves. This is am important point, so I want to go into it in more detail, and most especially I want to elucidate economic appearance and reality in terms of two philosophical ideas: self-deception and the sorites paradox.

I have mentioned in other posts that I think the role of self-deception in human affairs is greatly underestimated. Self-deception is simply lying to oneself, and it is especially associated with the thought of Jean-Paul Sartre. People lie to themselves all the time, and for a variety of motives. If you approach life as though everyone was always on the up-and-up, you will soon find yourself disabused of that illusion, for it is illusion rather than reality that is the order of the day in human affairs. Human society only exists in virtue of a complex tapestry of fine-crafted duplicity that people teach themselves to believe in as the price of being part of any society.

The sorites paradox is an ancient idea associated with the ambiguous use of terms. If you have a heap of grains of sand, and take away one grain of sand at a time, when does it cease to be a heap? Contrariwise, if you begin adding one grain of said to another, when does it begin to be a heap? The same paradox is also formulated in terms of baldness: if you pluck the hair off a head one by one, when does the head qualify as being bald?

So, what do self-deception and the sorites paradox have to do with the continuum of progress as it applies to economic appearance and reality? Economic progress is one of the most quantifiable forms of progress of all human endeavors. Whatever economic measure we care to take — GDP, per capita GDP, steel production, potable water, and so forth — we can measure these and monitor progress based upon them. If you decide that progress is a nation-state in which there is a chicken in every pot, you can measure if there is a chicken in every pot, and how often, etc. So it would seem, given these relatively discrete measures, that the measurement of economic progress would be difficult to fudge.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and much of this has to do with the predominant role that human perception plays in large economies that can only be measured statistically. Because of the potential divergence between economic perception and economic reality, a population might believe itself to be experiencing progress even while it is moving backward. Or a population might believe itself to be moving backward even while objective measures demonstrate progress (of whatever sort of progress is defined as progress by that society).

Statistical measures of a large economy bear a strong resemblance to the sorites paradox. You might be able to demonstrate that a population is incrementally growing wealthier, but since a heap of wealth is always just a heap of wealth, and you don’t notice a few dollars more or a few dollars less, any more than you would notice a few grains of sand more or less on a heap of sand, it is entirely possible that even as a society grows wealthier, it might believe itself to be growing poorer, or even as a society is growing poorer, it might believe itself to be growing richer. Such counter-factual perceptions, if maintained by collective self-deception, can make an entire nation believe that it is going in the right direction when it is not, or vice versa.

Schumpeter noted that the growth of mature industrialized economies usually hovers about two percent, and although this modest two percent growth will double the size of the economy every 35 years — which is an impressive achievement if we think of the long history of stagnation of agricultural civilization — it probably isn’t enough to satisfy those who believe that they are getting a bad deal from the system. Schumpeter might have also noted that a two percent growth rate wouldn’t be noticeable from year to year, even if it is noticeable in the longer term — being noticed is different from being measurable. And if we add the difficulty of noticing two percent growth to the possibility of collective self-deception that growth is not happening, well, people may well believe that they are going backward even when the economy doubles in size every generation.

What I wrote in the above paragraph about growth also holds for economic decline: a decline of two percent per year might never be noticed year-on-year, even if it is obvious over the longer term. And if there is a collective self-deception that things are getting better, because we want to believe that things are getting better, people can easily delude themselves that the world is improving even as they are impoverishing their descendents.

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Monday


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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Wednesday


Addendum on Civilization and the Technium

in regard to human, animal, and alien technology


One of the virtues of taking the trouble to formulate one’s ideas in an explicit form is that, once so stated, all kinds assumptions one was making become obvious as well as all kinds of problems that one didn’t see when the idea was just floating around in one’s consciousness, as a kind of intellectual jeu d’esprit, as it were.

Bertrand Russell wrote about this, or, at least, about a closely related experience in one of his well-known early essays, in which he discussed the importance not only making our formulations explicit, but of doing so by way of putting some distance between our thoughts and the kind of facile self-evidence that can distract us from the real business at hand:

“It is not easy for the lay mind to realise the importance of symbolism in discussing the foundations of mathematics, and the explanation may perhaps seem strangely paradoxical. The fact is that symbolism is useful because it makes things difficult. (This is not true of the advanced parts of mathematics, but only of the beginnings.) What we wish to know is, what can be deduced from what. Now, in the beginnings, everything is self-evident; and it is very hard to see whether one self-evident proposition follows from another or not. Obviousness is always the enemy to correctness. Hence we invent some new and difficult symbolism, in which nothing seems obvious. Then we set up certain rules for operating on the symbols, and the whole thing becomes mechanical. In this way we find out what must be taken as premiss and what can be demonstrated or defined. For instance, the whole of Arithmetic and Algebra has been shown to require three indefinable notions and five indemonstrable propositions. But without a symbolism it would have been very hard to find this out. It is so obvious that two and two are four, that we can hardly make ourselves sufficiently skeptical to doubt whether it can be proved. And the same holds in other cases where self-evident things are to be proved.”

Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic, “Mathematics and the Metaphysicians”

Russell’s foundationalist program in the philosophical of mathematics closely followed the method that he outlined so lucidly in the passage above. Principia Mathematica makes the earliest stages of mathematics notoriously difficult, but does so in service to the foundationalist ideal of revealing hidden presuppositions and incorporating them into the theory in an explicit form.

Another way that Russell sought to overcome self-evidence is through the systematic pursuit of the highest degree of generality, which drives us to formulate concepts that are alien to common sense:

“It is a principle, in all formal reasoning, to generalize to the utmost, since we thereby secure that a given process of deduction shall have more widely applicable results…”

Bertrand Russell, An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, Chapter XVIII, “Mathematics and Logic”

These are two philosophical principles — the explication of ultimate simples (foundations) and the pursuit of generality — that I have very much taken to heart and attempted to put into practice in my own philosophical work. Russell’s foundationalist method shows us what can be deduced from what, and gives to these deductions the most widely applicable results. To these philosophical imperatives of Russell I have myself added another, parallel to his pursuit of generality, and that is the simultaneous pursuit of formality: it is (or ought to be) a principle in all theoretical reasoning to formalize to the utmost…

Russell also observed the imperative of formalization, though he himself did not systematically distinguish between generalization and formalization, and it is a tough problem; I’ve been working on it for about twenty years and haven’t yet arrived at definitive formulations. As far as provisional formulations go, generalization gives us the highly comprehensive conceptions like astrobiology and civilization and the technium that allow us to unify a vast body of knowledge that must be studied by inter-disciplinary means, while formalization gives us the distinctions we must carefully observe within our concepts, so that generalization does not simply give us the night in which all cows are black (to borrow a phrase that Hegel used to ridicule Schelling’s conception of the Absolute).

Foundationalism as a philosophical movement is very much out of fashion now, although the foundations of mathematics, pursued eo ipso, remains an active and highly technical branch of logico-mathematical research, and today looks a lot different from what it was when it was first formulated as a philosophical research program a hundred years ago by Frege, Peano, Russell, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, and others. Nevertheless, I continue to derive much philosophical clarification from the early philosophical stages of foundationalism, especially in regard to theories that have not (yet) been reduced to formal systems, as is the case with theories of history or theories of civilization.

I am still a long way from reducing my ideas about history or civilization to first principles, much less to symbolism, but I feel like I am making progress, and the discovery of assumptions and problems is a sure sign of progress; in this sense, my post on Civilization and the Technium marked a stage of progress in my thinking, because of the inadequacy of my formulations that it revealed.

In my Civilization and the Technium I compared the extent of civilization — a familiar idea that has not yet received anything like an adequate definition — with the extent of the technium — a recent and hence unfamiliar idea for which there is an explicit formulation, but since it is new its full scope remains untested and untried, and therefore it presents problems that the idea of civilization does not present. I formulated concepts of the technium parallel to formulations of astrobiology and astrocivilization, as follows:

● 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

I realize now that when I did this I was making slightly different assumptions for civilization and the technium. The intuitive basis of this was that I assumed, in regard to the technium, that the technium I was describing was all due to human activity (a clear case of anthropic bias), so that the distinction between the exotechnium and the exotechnium was the distinction between terrestrial human technology and extraterrestrial human technology.

When, on the other hand, I formulated the parallel concepts for civilization, I assumed that esocivilization was terrestrial human civilization and that exocivilization would be alien civilizations not derived from the human eocivilization source.

Another way to put this is that I assumed the validity of the terrestrial eotechnium thesis even while I also assumed that the terrestrial eocivilization thesis did not hold. Is that too much technical terminology? In other words, I assumed the uniqueness of the human technium but I did not assume the uniqueness of human industrial-technological civilization.

This points to a further articulation (and therefore a further formalization) of the concepts employed: one must keep the conception of eocivlization (the origins of civilization) clearly in mind, and distinguish between terrestrial civilization that expands into extraterrestrial space and therefore becomes exocivilization from its eocivilization source on the one hand, and on the other hand a xeno-eocivilization source that constitutes exocivilization by virtue of its xenomorphic origins. If one is going to distinguish between esocivilization and exocivilization, one must identify the eocivilization source, or all is for naught.

All of this holds, mutatis mutandis, for the eotechnium, esotechnium, exotechnium, and astrotechnium, although I ought to point that my formulations in Civilization and the Technium, and repeated above, were accurate because they were formulated in Russellian generality. It was in my following exposition that I failed to observe all the requisite distinctions. But there’s more. I’ve since realized that further distinctions can be made.

As I thought about the possibility of a xenotechnium, i.e., a technium produced by a sentient alien species, I realized that there is a xenotechnium right here on Earth (a terrestrial xenotechnium, or non-hominid technium), in the form of tool use and other forms of technology by non-human species. We are all familiar with famous examples like the chimpanzees who will strip the leaves off a branch and then use the branch to extract termites from a termite mound. Yesterday I alluded to the fact that otters use rocks to break open shells. There are many other examples. Apart from tool use, beaver damns and the nests of birds, while not constructed with tools, certainly represent a kind of technology.

The nest of a weaver bird is a form of non-human technology.

If we take all instances of animal technology together they constitute a terrestrial non-human technium. If we take all instances of technology known to us, human and non-human together, we have a still more comprehensive conception of the technium that is more general that the concept of the human-specific technium and therefore less subject to anthropic bias (the latter concept due to Nick Bostrum, who also formulated existential risk). This latter, more comprehensive conception of the technium would seem to be favored by Russell’s imperative of generalization to the utmost, although we must continue to make the finer distinctions within the concept for the formalization of the conception of the technium to keep pace with its generalization.

There is a systematic relationship between terrestrial biology and the terrestrial technium, both hominid and non-hominid. Eobiology facilitates the emergence of a terrestrial eotechnium, of which all instances of technology, hominid and non-hominid alike, can be considered expressions. This is already explicit in Kevin Kelly’s book, What Technology Wants, as one of his arguments is that the emergence and growth of the technium is continuous with the emergence of growth of biological organization and complexity. He cites John Maynard Smith and Eors Szathmary as defining the following thresholds of biological organization (p. 46):

One replicating molecule -» Interacting population of replicating molecules
Replicating molecules -» Replicating molecules strung into chromosome
Chromosome of RNA enzymes -» DNA proteins
Cell without nucleus -» Cell with nucleus
Asexual reproduction (cloning) -» Sexual recombination
Single-cell organism -* Multicell organism
Solitary individual -» Colonies and superorganisms
Primate societies -» Language-based societies

He then suggests the following sequence of thresholds within the growth of the technium (p. 47):

Primate communication -» Language
Oral lore -> Writing/mathematical notation
Scripts -» Printing
Book knowledge -» Scientific method
Artisan production -» Mass production
Industrial culture -» Ubiquitous global communication

And then he connects the two sequences:

The trajectory of increasing order in the technium follows the same path that it does in life. Within both life and the technium, the thickening of interconnections at one level weaves the new level of organization above it. And it’s important to note that the major transitions in the technium begin at the level where the major transitions in biology left off: Primate societies give rise to language. The invention of language marks the last major transformation in the natural world and also the first transformation in the manufactured world. Words, ideas, and concepts are the most complex things social animals (like us) make, and also the simplest foundation for any type of technology. (p. 48)

Thus the genealogy of the technium is continuous with the genealogy of life.

Considering this in relation to the possibility of a xenotechnium, one would expect the same to be the case: I would expect a systematic relationship to hold between xenobiology and a xenotechnium, such that an alien eobiology would facilitate the emergence of an alien eotechnium. And, extending this naturalistic line of thought, that assumes similar patterns of development to hold for peer industrial-technological civilizations, I would further assume that a xenotechnium would not always coincide with the xenocivilization with which it is associated. If there is a “first contact” between terrestrial civilization and a xenocivilization, it is likely that it will be rather a contact between the expanding terrestrial technium (which is, technically, no longer terrestrial precisely because it is expanding extraterrestrially) and an expanding xenotechnium.

There remains much conceptual work to be done here, as the reader will have realized. I’ll continue to work on these formulations, keeping in mind the imperatives of generality and formality, and perhaps someday converging on a foundationalist account of biology, civilization, and the technium that is at once both fully comprehensive and fully articulated.

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Tuesday


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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