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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A Note on the Great Filter

29 October 2012

Monday


Are we ourselves, as the sole hominid species, the Great Filter?

Parochialism, ironically, knows no bounds. Our habit of blinkering ourselves — what visionary poet William Blake called “mind-forged manacles” — is nearly universal. Sometimes even the most sophisticated minds miss the simple things that are staring them in the face. Usually, I think this is a function of the absence of a theoretical context that would make it possible to understand the simple truth staring us in the face.

I have elsewhere written that one of the things that makes Marx a truly visionary thinker is that he saw the industrial revolution for what it was — a revolution — even while many who lived through this profound series of events where unaware that they were living through a revolution. So even if one’s theoretical context is almost completely wrong, or seriously flawed, the mere fact of having the more comprehensive perspective bequeathed by a theoretical understanding of contemporary events can be enough to make it possible for one to see the forest for the trees.

Darwin wrote somewhere (I can’t recall where as I write this, but will add the reference later when I run across it) that from his conversations with biologists prior to publishing The Origin of Species he knew how few were willing to thing in terms of the mutability of species, but once he had made his theory public it was rapidly adopted as a research program by biologists, and Darwin suggested that countless facts familiar to biologists but hitherto not systematically incorporated into theory suddenly found a framework in which they could be expressed. Obviously, these are my words rather than Darwin’s, and when I can find the actual quote I will include it here, but I think I have remembered the gist of the passage to which I refer.

It would be comical, if it were not so pathetic, that one of the first responses to Darwin’s systematic exposition of evolution was for people to look around for “transitional” evolutionary forms, and, strange to say, they didn’t find any. This failure to find transitional forms was interpreted as a problem for evolution, and expeditions were mounted in order to search for the so-called “missing link.”

The idea that the present consists entirely of life forms having attained a completed and perfected form, and that all previous natural history culminates in these finished forms of the present, therefore placing all transitional forms in the past, is a relic of teleological and equilibrium thinking. Once we dispense the unnecessary and mistaken idea that the present is the aim of the past and exemplifies a kind of equilibrium in the history of life that can henceforth be iterated to infinity, it becomes immediately obvious that every life form is a transitional form, including ourselves.

A few radical thinkers understood this. Nietzsche, for example, understood this all-too-clearly, and wrote that, “Man is a rope stretched between the beasts and the Superman — a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal..” But assertions as bold as that of Nietzsche were rare. Darwin himself didn’t even mention human evolution in The Origin of Species (though he later came back to human origins in The Descent of Man): Darwin first offered a modest formulation of a radical theory.

So what has all this in regard to Marx and Darwin to do with the great filter, mentioned in the title of this post? I have written many posts about the Fermi paradox recently without ever mentioning the great filter, which is an important part of the way that the Fermi paradox is formulated today. If we ask, if the universe is supposedly teaming with alien life, and possibly also with alien civilizations, why we haven’t met any of them, we have to draw that conclusion that, among all the contingencies that must hold in order for an industrial-technological civilization to arise within our cosmos, at least one of these contingencies has tripped up all previous advanced civilizations, or else they would be here already (and we would probably be their slaves).

The contingency that has prevented any other advanced civilization in the cosmos from beating us to the punch is called the great filter. Many who write on the Fermi paradox, then, ask whether the great filter is in our past or in our future. If it is in our past, we have good reason to hope that our civilization can be an ongoing concern. If it is in our future, we have a very real reason to be concerned, since if no other advanced civilization has made it through the great filter in their development, it would seem unlikely that we would prove the exception to that rule. So a neat way to divide the optimists and the pessimists in regard to the future of human civilization is whether someone places the great filter in the past (optimists) or in the future (pessimists).

I would like to suggest that the great filter is neither in our past or in our future. The great filter is now; we ourselves are the great filter.

Human beings are the only species (on the only biosphere known to us) known to have created industrial-technological civilization. This is our special claim to intelligence. But before us there were numerous precursor species, and many hominid species that have since gone extinct. Many of these hominids (who cannot all be called human “ancestors” since many of them were dead ends on the evolutionary tree) were tool users, and it is for this reason that I noted in Civilization and the Technium that the technium is older than civilization (and more widely distributed than civilization). But now we are only only remaining hominid species on the planet. So in the past, we can already see a filter that has narrowed down the human experience to a single sentient and intelligent species.

Writers on the technological singularity and on the post-human and even post-biological future have speculated on a wide variety of possible scenarios in which post-human beings, industrial-technological civilization, and the technium will expand throughout the cosmos. If these events come to past, the narrowing of the human experience to a single biological species will eventually be followed by a great blossoming of sentient and intelligent agents who may not be precisely human in the narrow sense, but in a wider sense will all be our descendants and our progeny. In this eventuality, the narrow bottleneck of humanity will expand exponentially from its present condition.

Looking at the present human condition from the perspective of multiple predecessor species and multiple future species, we see that the history of sentient and intelligent life on earth has narrowed in the present to a single hominid species. The natural history of intelligence on the Earth has all its eggs in one basket. Our existence as the sole sentient and intelligent species means that we are the great filter.

If we survive ourselves, we will have a right to be optimistic about the future of intelligent life in the universe — but not until then. Not until we have been superseded, not until the human era has ended, ought we to be optimistic.

Man is a narrow strand stretched between pre-human diversity and post-human diversity.

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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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