The Byzantine Superweapon

9 January 2013

Wednesday


In many quarters “Byzantine” and “Byzantium” are ciphers for stagnation, decadence and civilizational decline. Hegel certainly thought so. I have elsewhere quoted Hegel on his opinion of the Byzantine Weltanschauung: “…a disgusting picture of imbecility.” Yet, as many authors have pointed out, the Byzantine portion of the Roman Empire outlasted the Western portion of the Roman Empire by a thousand years, which is no mean accomplishment. Here is a contemporary scholarly perspective on the apparent hostility of Byzantine civilization to innovation:

“The widespread modern evaluation of Byzantium as anti-innovative could be proven wrong by the study of various innovations in Byzantine architecture (one should need no more than studying the pendentives of Hagia Sophia), military techniques and practices (the Greek fire being a very good example, even if not the only), technology (see for example the fifth century mechanical sundial treasured today at the British Museum of Science, or the famous tenth-century hydraulic systems of the imperial palace described by Liutprand of Cremona), painting (the narrative icon), theology (see above, on Iconoclasm and Hesychasm), or music.”

“Was Innovation unwanted in Byzantium?” Apostolos Spanos, University of Agder, working paper, to be published in: Ingela Nilsson & Paul Stephenson (eds.), Byzantium Wanted: The Desire and Rejection of an Empire, Uppsala, 2013, Studia Byzantina Upsaliensia, vol. 15

Spanos mentions as an example of Byzantine technological innovation “Greek fire,” said to have been invented by the Syrian military engineer Callinicus of Heliopolis (himself a refugee from conflict), and which was famous throughout late antiquity as a fearsome weapon. I have been listening to Professor Jeffrey Burds’ Modern Scholar lectures, The Second Oldest Profession, Part 1: A World History of Espionage, and in the last part of the second lecture, “Espionage Among the Ancients,” Professor Burds goes into some detail concerning Greek fire. Interested as he is in espionage, Professor Burds focuses on the legendary secrecy which surrounded Greek fire — which secrecy, it should be pointed out, contributed to its aura as a mystery to be feared. So secret was Greek fire that the exact nature of it has not survived into modern times. We have a pretty good idea of the chemical composition and delivery system, but we don’t have the exact ingredients or a surviving Greek fire device (one cannot help but wonder if a Greek fire delivery system will be dug up some day).

Greek-Fire

The Byzantine use of “Greek Fire” must be understood as a “weapons system” in the modern sense of the term, with several integrated technologies employed together according to an established military doctrine. The Byzantines left several famous military manuals to posterity, but unfortunately there is not surviving manual on the use of Greek fire in combat. Yet I strongly suspect, given its employment over a period of several hundred years, that Byzantine admirals had a Greek fire doctrine.

Hand-siphon_for_Greek_fire

It should be kept in mind that any technology sufficiently robust to employ as a weapons system in combat operations has reached an impressive level of sophistication, and with this in mind we should grant the sophistication of the Greek fire weapons system in Byzantium, which involved several different components — ships, kettles for heating the chemical mixture, pumps, pipes, the delivery nozzle — which were separately constructed and only later assembled (Professor Burds credits this compartmentalization of the production and operation of Byzantine Greek fire for it being successfully kept secret), trained crews in the operation of the weapons system stationed on the ships, and, last of all, the secret chemical ingredients of the flammable mixture combined and loaded on to the ships by a representative of the Byzantine royal family.

Greek_Fire_mechanism_after_Haldon_and_Byrne

This Byzantine superweapon exploited the technological capabilities of classical antiquity, engineering them into an effective weapons system that served state interests for hundreds of years before the secret was lost to posterity. In a sense, then, Greek fire represented the science, technology, and engineering of an entire civilization. Classical antiquity was capable of producing machinery of a high degree of precision when so desired — I have in particular cited a Roman water pump I saw in a museum in Madrid, and of course there is the famous Antikythera mechanism and the clock in the Tower of the Winds in Athens, inter alia — but given the overwhelmingly agrarian character of ancient civilization there was little motivation to systematically exploit mechanical and industrial technologies.

Ancient Roman water pump, a sophisticated artifact of mechanical engineering.

Ancient Roman water pump, a sophisticated artifact of mechanical engineering.

In classical antiquity, technology was pervasively present, but not systematically exploited for the purpose of improving the human condition. Under the circumstances of immediate military threat, when regime survivability was put into question, we do find the systematic exploitation of science, technology, and engineering — not only the Byzantine superweapon, but also there is the famous story of Archimedes producing war machines for the defense of Syracuse, and there are ancient books on the construction of siege engines, e.g., Siegecraft by Heron of Byzantium, which suggests a level of system brought to this military knowledge. Once the military threat was removed or neutralized, however, the motivation to exploit technology for practical purposes seems to vanish. With an economy based on slave labor, there was little motivation to produce labor-saving devices.

Bitonis, De Constructione Bellicarum Machinarum et Catapultarum: folio 10 recto: detailed image of portable siege tower. Heron of Byzantium probably designed similar structures.

Bitonis, De Constructione Bellicarum Machinarum et Catapultarum:
folio 10 recto: detailed image of portable siege tower. Heron of Byzantium probably designed similar structures.

In my post on anonymization I observed that industrial production in classical antiquity rose to the level of routine, and employed economies of scale, but it never rose to the level of anonymous mass production. So too all the high technology of the ancient world was hand crafted. And not only did the production remain unsystematic, but the knowledge itself remained unsystematized for the most part. Since the context of knowledge was not made systematic, knowledge was more easily lost. In contemporary industrial-technological civilization — in which such technological devices are not merely peripheral to the civilization, but which are rather constitutive of the civilization — the context of knowledge is made as systematic as the escalating cycle of science, technology, and engineering.

Steam turbine after the design of Hero of Alexandria.

Steam turbine after the design of Hero of Alexandria.

We can see, in retrospect, countless ways in which the ancient world failed to “connect the dots” of technology in terms of fully exploiting innovations, scaling up, and engineering a technology into an industry. Time and again there are missed opportunities to substantially improve the material context of life by even a modest extrapolation of existing techniques and technologies. For example, Hero of Alexandria — the same Alexandria famous for its library, which Carl Sagan characterized as a research institute of classical antiquity — invented a steam turbine, the Aeolipile, among many other devices. But rather than being harnessed for work, Hero’s steam engine was treated as a curiosity. In Historical Disruption I noted how Tamim Ansary mentioned that Taqi al-Din’s steam turbine failed to be more than a novelty in its social context. Exactly the same thing was true of Hero’s steam turbine.

Taqi al-Din, Muslim polymath. Like Hero of Alexandria, his inventions remained mostly curiosities.

Taqi al-Din, Muslim polymath. Like Hero of Alexandria, his inventions remained mostly curiosities.

It was clearly within the technological competency of ancient engineering to harness Hero’s steam turbine to do mechanical work — it could have been used to operate a water pump for mining or agricultural irrigation, to power an air pump for bellows, to turn a potter’s wheel or the spindle of a lathe, or to actuate a reciprocating saw. None of these things happened — or, if any of these applications were attempted, none were adopted on a scale that would have made a difference to way people lived.

Throughout his Cosmos television series, Carl Sagan refers back to Greek science and technology, and at one point imagines what the world would be like today if science and technology had progressed steadily from that time to the present day. It is an enjoyable exercise in counter-factual history, but it doesn’t really reflect what was going on in the ancient world. There was no social infrastructure in place to exploit technological innovations. Sagan was closer to the truth when he mentioned in the last episode of Cosmos that ancient scientists never questioned the social institutions of their time, and Sagan particularly singles out slavery.

Slavery almost certainly retards the advancement of civilization, and for this reason if for no other must be considered a retrograde institution. It is all-too-easy for the empowered and privileged classes to sit back and let the slaves to the work, even when everyone’s life could be improved through the most basic technological innovations and their exploitation in labor-saving devices. It was a lack of interest, and not a lack of ability, that nipped an ancient industrial revolution in the bud. Perhaps slavery also retards the moral progress of civilization, and there is a systematic relationship between moral progress and technological progress. This would be a highly controversial thesis to maintain, but one can at least see the glimmer of an argument here.

With this in mind, it is possible, then, that the collapse of the Roman Empire ultimately laid the foundations for the growth of industrial-technological civilization, because the historical discontinuity between antiquity and medievalism assured that ancient institutions were abandoned and new institutions were established in place of them. Slavery went the way of the Homeric gods, sacred prostitution at temples, and — unfortunately — bathing. For all its faults, one of the great achievements of medieval European civilization was its abolition of slavery, even if the condition of peasants was little different from that of slaves. This makes it all the most puzzling how, once Western civilization eliminated slavery once, it made a comeback in the early modern period, only to be eliminated again in the nineteenth century. it would be a worthwhile topic for historical research to attempt to understand why Western civilization had to twice rid itself of slavery.

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Tuesday


digital-man

Prior to the advent of civilization, the human condition was defined by nature. Evolutionary biologist call this initial human condition the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (or EEA). The biosphere of the Earth, with all its diverse flora and fauna, was the predominant fact of human experience. Very little that human beings did could have an effect on the human condition beyond the most immediate effects an individual might cause in the environment, such as gathering or hunting for food. Nothing was changed by the passage of human beings through an environment that was, for them, their home. Human beings had to conform themselves to this world or die.

The life of early human communities was defined by nature, not by human activity.

The life of early human communities was defined by nature, not by human activity.

Since the advent of civilization, it has been civilization and not nature that determines the human condition. As one civilization has succeeded another, and, more importantly, as one kind of civilization has succeeded another kind of civilization — which latter happens far less frequently, since like kinds of civilization tend to succeed each other except when this process of civilizational succession is preempted by the emergence of an historical anomaly on the order of the initial emergence of civilization itself — the overwhelming fact of human experience has been shaped by civilization and the products of civilization, rather than by nature. This transformation from being shaped by nature to being shaped by civilization is what makes the passage from hunter-gatherer nomadism to settled agrarian civilization such a radical discontinuity in human experience.

This transformation has been gradual. In the earliest period of human civilizations, an entire civilization might grow up from nothing, spread regionally, assimilating local peoples not previously included in the project of civilization, and then die out, all without coming into contact with another civilization. The growth of human civilization has meant a gradual and steady increase in the density of human populations. It has already been thousands of years since a civilization could flourish and fail without encountering another civilization. It has been, moreover, hundreds of years since all human communities were bound together through networks of trade and communication.

Civilization is now continuous across the surface of the planet. The world-city — Doxiadis’ Ecumenopolis, which I discussed in Civilization and the Technium — is already an accomplished fact (though it is called by another name, or no name at all). We retain our green spaces and our nature reserves, but all human communities ultimately are contiguous with each other, and there is no direction that you can go on the surface of the Earth without encountering another human community.

The civilization of the present, which I call industrial-technological civilization, is as distinct from the agricultural civilization (which I call agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization) that preceded it as agricultural civilization was distinct from the nomadic hunter-gatherer paradigm that preceded it in turn. In other words, the emergence of industrialization interpolated a discontinuity in the human condition on the order of the emergence of civilization itself. One of the aspects of industrial-technological civilization that distinguishes it from earlier agricultural civilization is the effective regimentation and indeed rigorization of the human condition.

The emergence of organized human activity, which corresponds to the emergence of the species itself, and which is therefore to be found in hunter-gatherer nomadism as much as in agrarian or industrial civilization, meant the emergence of institutions. At first, these institutions were as unsystematic and implicit as everything else in human experience. When civilizations began to abut each other in the agrarian era, it became necessary to make these institutions explicit and to formulate them in codes of law and regulation. At first, this codification itself was unsystematic. It was the emergence of industrialization that forced human civilizations to make its institutions not only explicit, but also systematic.

This process of systematization and rigorization is most clearly seen in the most abstract realms of thought. In the nineteenth century, when industrialization was beginning to transform the world, we see at the same time a revolution in mathematics that went beyond all the earlier history of mathematics. While Euclid famously systematized geometry in classical antiquity, it was not until the nineteenth century that mathematical thought grew to a point of sophistication that outstripped and exceeded Euclid.

From classical antiquity up to industrialization, it was frequently thought, and frequently asserted, that Euclid was the perfection of human reason in mathematics and that Aristotle was the perfection of human reason in logic, and there was simply nothing more to be done in the these fields beyond learning to repeat the lessons of the masters of antiquity. In the nineteenth century, during the period of rapid industrialization, people began to think about mathematics and logic in a way that was more sophisticated and subtle than even the great achievements of Euclid and Aristotle. Separately, yet almost simultaneously, three different mathematicians (Bolyai, Lobachevski, and Riemann) formulated systems of non-Euclidean geometry. Similarly revolutionary work transformed logic from its Aristotelian syllogistic origins into what is now called mathematical logic, the result of the work of George Boole, Frege, Peano, Russell, Whitehead, and many others.

At the same time that geometry and logic were being transformed, the rest of mathematics was also being profoundly transformed. Many of these transformational forces have roots that go back hundreds of years in history. This is also true of the industrial revolution itself. The growth of European society as a result of state competition within the European peninsula, the explicit formulation of legal codes and the gradual departure from a strictly peasant subsistence economy, the similarly gradual yet steady spread of technology in the form of windmills and watermills, ready to be powered by steam when the steam engine was invented, are all developments that anticipate and point to the industrial revolution. But the point here is that the anticipations did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century.

And so with mathematics. Newton and Leibniz independently invented the calculus, but it was left on unsure foundations for centuries, and Descartes had made the calculus possible by the earlier innovation of analytical geometry. These developments anticipated and pointed to the rigorization of mathematics, but the development did not come to fruition until the nineteenth century. The fruition is sometimes called the arithmetization of analysis, and involved the substitution of the limit method for fluxions in Newton and infinitesimals in Leibniz. This rigorous formulation of the calculus made possible engineering in its contemporary form, and rigorous engineering made it possible to bring the most advanced science of the day to the practical problems of industry. Intrinsically arithmetical realities could now be given a rigorous mathematical exposition.

Historians of mathematics and industrialization would probably cringe at my potted sketch of history, but here it is in sententious outline:

● Rigorization of mathematics also called the arithmetization of analysis

● Mathematization of science

● Scientific systematization of technology

● Technological rationalization of industry

I have discussed part of this cycle in my writings on industrial-technological civilization and the disruption of the industrial-technological cycle. The origins of this cycle involve the additional steps that made the cycle possible, and much of the additional steps are those that made logic, mathematics, and science rigorous in the nineteenth century.

The reader should also keep in mind the parallel rigorization of social institutions that occurred, including the transformation of the social sciences after the model of the hard sciences. Economics, which is particularly central to the considerations of industrial-technological civilization, has been completely transformed into a technical, mathematicized science.

With the rigorization of social institutions, and especially the economic institutions that shape human life from cradle to grave, it has been inevitable that the human condition itself should be made rigorous. Foucault was instrumental in pointing out salient aspects of this, which he called biopower, and which, I suggest, will eventually issues in technopower.

I am not suggesting this this has been a desirable, pleasant, or welcome development. On the contrary, industrial-technological civilization is beset in its most advanced quarters by a persistent apocalypticism and declensionism as industrialized populations fantasize about the end of the social regime that has come to control almost every aspect of life.

I wrote about the social dissatisfaction that issues in apocalypticism in Fear of the Future. I’ve been thinking more about this recently, and I hope to return to this theme when I can formulate my thoughts with the appropriate degree of rigor. I am seeking a definitive formulation of apocalypticism and how it is related to industrialization.

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Friday


Learning to Love the Wisdom

Homo technologiensis

of Industrial-Technological Civilization


A confession of enthusiasm

Allow me to give free rein to my enthusiasm and to proclaim that there has never been a more exciting time in human history to be a philosopher than today. It is ironic that, at the same time, philosophers are probably held in lower esteem today than in any other period of human history. I have recently come to the opinion that it is intrinsic to the structure of industrial-technological civilization to devalue philosophy, but I have discussed the contemporary neglect of philosophy in several posts — Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, Further Fashionable Anti-Philosophy, and Beyond Anti-Philosophy among them — so that is not what I am going to write about today.

Today, on the contrary, I want to write about the great prospects that are now opening up to philosophy, despite its neglect in popular culture and its abuse by the enthusiasts of a positivistically-conceived science. And these prospects are not one but many. In some previous posts about object-oriented philosophy (also called object-oriented ontology, or OOO) I mentioned how exciting it was to be alive at a time when a new philosophical school was coming into being, especially at a time when academic philosophy seems to have stalled and relinquished any engagement with the world or any robust relationship to the ordinary lives of ordinary human beings. (As bitterly as the existentialists were denounced in their day, they did engage quite directly with contemporary events and contemporary life. Sartre made a fool of himself by meeting with Che Guevara and by mouthing Maoist claptrap in his later years, but he reached far more people than most philosophers of his generation, and like fellow existentialist Camus, did so through a variety of prose works, plays, and novels.) Now I see that we live in an age of the emergence of not one but of many different philosophical schools, and this is interesting indeed.

Philosophical periodization: schools of thought

Anyone who discusses so-called “schools” in philosophy is likely to run into immediate resistance, usually from those who have been characterized as belonging to a dubiously-conceived school. As soon as Sartre gave an explicit definition of existentialism as being based on the principle that existence precedes essence, Heidegger and Jaspers explicitly and emphatically denied that they were “existentialists.” And if we think of the hundreds years of philosophical research and the hundreds of philosophers who can be lumped under the label of “scholasticism,” the identification of a school of “scholastic” philosophers would seem to be without any content whatsoever.

Nevertheless, some of these labels remain accurate even when and where they are rejected. While Heidegger and Jaspers rejected the principle that existence precedes essence, there is no question that all three of these great existentialist thinkers were preoccupied with the problematic human condition in the modern world. Similarly, the ordinary language philosophers had their disagreements, but there were unified by a method of the analysis of ordinary language.

The school of techno-philosophy

With this caveat in mind about identifying a philosophical “school” that will almost certainly be rejected by its practitioners, I am going to identify what I will call techno-philosophy. In regard to techno-philosophy I will identify no common goals, aspirations, beliefs, principles, ideas, or ideals that belong to the practitioners of techno-philosophy, but only the common object of philosophical analysis. Techno-philosophy offers an initial exploration of novel ideas and novel facts of life in industrial society, and especially the ideas and facts of life related to technology that rapidly change within a single lifetime.

What makes the school of techno-philosophy interesting is not the special rigor or creativity of the philosophical thought in question — contemporary Anglo-American academic analytical philosophy is far more rigorous, and contemporary continental philosophy is far more imaginative — but rather the objects taken up by techno-philosophy. What are the objects of techno-philosophy? These objects are the novel productions of industrial-technological civilization, which appear and succeed each other in breathless rapidity. The fact of technological change, or even, if one would be so bold, rapid technological progress, is unprecedented. As an unprecedented aspect of life in industrial-technological civilization, rapid technological progress is an appropriate object for philosophical reflection.

The original position of technical society

The artifacts of technological progress have been produced in almost complete blindness as regard to their philosophical significance and consequences. What techno-philosophy represents is the first attempt to make philosophical sense of the artifacts of technology taken collectively, on the whole, and with an eye to their extrapolation across space and through time. In fact, the very idea of technology taken whole may be understood as a conceptual innovation of techno-philosophy, and this very idea has been called the technium by Kevin Kelly. (I wrote about the idea of the technium in Civilization and the Technium and The Genealogy of the Technium.)

Thus we can count Kevin Kelly among techno-philosophers, and even Ray Kurzweil — though Kurzweil does not seem to be interested in philosophy per se, he has pushed the limits of thinking about machine intelligence to the point that he is on the verge of philosophical questions. Thinkers in the newly emerging tradition of the technological singularity and transhumanism belong to techno-philosophy. Academic philosopher David Chalmers, known for his contributions to the philosophy of mind (and especially known for formulating the phrase “explanatory gap” to indicate the chasm between consciousness and attempted physicalistic accounts of mind) was invited to the last singularity conference and tried his hand at an essay in techno-philosophy.

Bostrom and Ćirković and techno-philosophers

The work of Nick Bostrom also represents techno-philosophy, as Professor Bostrom has engaged with a number of contemporary ideas such as superintelligence, the Fermi paradox, extraterrestrial life, transhumanism, posthumanism, the simulation hypothesis (which is a contemporary reformulation of Cartesian evil spirit), and existential risk (which is a contemporary reformulation and secularization of apocalypticism, but with a focus on mitigating apocalyptic scenarios).

Serbian astronomer and physicist Milan M. Ćirković has also dealt with many of the same questions in an admirably daring way (he has co-edited the volume Global Catastrophic Risks with Bostrom). What typifies the work of Bostrom and Ćirković — which definitely constitutes the best work in contemporary techno-philosophy — is their willingness to bring traditional philosophical sensibility to the analysis of contemporary ideas, and especially ideas enabled and facilitated by contemporary technology such as computing and space science.

The branches of industrial-technological philosophy

Industrial-technological civilization is created by practical men who eschew philosophy if they happen to be aware of it, and those with a bent for abstract or theoretical thought, and who desire a robust engagement with the world, turn to science or mathematics, where abstract and theoretical ideas can have a direct and nearly immediate impact upon the development of industrial society. Techno-philosophy picks up where these indispensable men of industrial-technological civilization leave off.

Once we understand the relationship between techno-philosophy and industrial-technological civilization (and its disruptions), and knowing the cycle of science, technology and engineering that drives such a civilization, we can posit a philosophical analysis of each stage in the escalating spiral of industrial-technological civilization, with a philosophy of the science of this civilization, a philosophy of the technology of this civilization, and a philosophy of the engineering of this civilization. Techno-philosophy, then, is the philosophy of the technology of industrial-technological civilization.

Philosophy in a time of model drift

In parallel to the emerging school of techno-philosophy, there is a quasi-philosophical field of popular expositions of science by those actively working on the frontiers of the sciences that have been most profoundly transformed by recent developments, and which are still in the process of transformation. This is the philosophy of the science of industrial-technological civilization, and it is distinct from traditional philosophy of science. The rapid developments in cosmology and physics in particular have led to model drift in these fields, and those scientists who are working on these concepts feel the need to give these abstract and theoretical conceptions a connection to ordinary human experience.

Here I have in mind the books of Brian Green, such as his exposition of string theory, The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory, as well as criticisms of string theory such as Peter Woit’s Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law. Some of these books are more widely ranging and therefore more philosophical, such as David Deutsch’s The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes — and Its Implications, while some appeal to a traditional conception of “natural philosophy” as in David Grinspoon’s Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy of Alien Life. While these works do not constitute “techno-philosophy” as I have characterized it above, they stand in a similar relationship to the civilization the thought of which they represent.

The prospects for techno-philosophy

As techno-philosophy grows in scope, rigor, depth, and methodological sophistication, it promises to give to industrial-technological civilization something this civilization never wanted and never desired, but of which it is desperately in need: Depth. Gravitas. Intellectual seriousness. Disciplined reflection on the human condition. In a word: wisdom.

If there is anything the world needs today, it is wisdom.

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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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Monday


When writing about civilization I have started using the term “industrial-technological civilization” as I believe this captures more accurately the sense of what is unique about contemporary civilization. In Modernism without Industrialism: Europe 1500-1800 I argued that there is a sense in which this early modern variety of civilization was an abortive civilization (a term used by Toynbee), the development of which was cut short by the sudden and unprecedented emergence of industrial-technological civilization (an instance of preemption). I also discussed this recently in Temporal Structures of Civilization.

What I am suggesting is that the industrial revolution inaugurated a novel form of civilization that overtook modernism and essentially replaced it through the overwhelming rapidity and totality of industrial-technological development. And while the industrial revolution began in England, it was in nineteenth century Germany that industrial-technological civilization proper got its start, because it was in Germany that the essential elements that drive industrial-technological civilization came together for the first time in a mutually-reinforcing feedback loop.

Karl Eduard Biermann (1803-1892) Borsig’s Maschinenbau-Anstalt zu Berlin (1847)

The essential elements of industrial-technological civilization are science, technology, and engineering. Science seeks to understand nature on its own terms, for its own sake. Technology is that portion of scientific research that can be developed specifically for the realization of practical ends. Engineering is the actual industrial implementation of a technology. I realize that I am introducing conventional definitions here, and others have established other conventions for these terms, but I think that this much should be pretty clear and not controversial. If you’d like the parse the journey from science to industry differently, you’ll still come to more or less the same mutually-reinforcing feedback loop.

The important thing to understand about the forces that drive industrial-technological civilization is that this cycle is not only self-reinforcing but also that each stage is selective. Science produces knowledge, but technology only selects that knowledge from the scientific enterprise that can be developed for practical uses; of the many technologies that are developed, engineering selects those that are most robust, reproducible, and effective to create an industrial infrastructure that supplies the mass consumer society of industrial-technological civilization. The process does not stop here. The achievements of technology and engineering are in turn selected by science in order to produce novel and more advanced forms of scientific instrumentation, with which science can produce further knowledge, thus initiating another generation science followed by technology followed by engineering.

Big science is made continually bigger by the relentless expansion of industrial-technological civilization.

Because of this unique self-perpetuating cycle of industrial-technological civilization, continuous scientific, technological, and engineering development is the norm. It is very tempting to call this development “progress,” but as soon as we mention “progress” it gets us into trouble. Progress is problematic because it is ambiguous; different people mean different things when they talk about progress. As soon as someone points out the relentless growth of industrial-technological civilization, someone else will point out some supposed depravity that has flourished along with industrial-technological civilization in order to disprove the idea that such civilization involves “progress.” The ambiguity here is the conflation of technological progress and moral progress.

How many poets today believe that they will improve upon the work of Shakespeare?

It is often said that poets only hope to produce poetry as good as that of past poets, and few imagine that they will create something better than Homer, Dante, Chaucer, or Shakespeare. The standards of poetry and art were set high early in the history of civilization, so much so that contemporary poets and sculptors do not imagine progress to be possible. One can give voice to the authentic spirit of one’s time, but one is not likely to do better than artists of the past did in their effort to give voice to the spirit of a different civilization. Thus it would be difficult to argue for aesthetic progress as a feature of civilization, much less industrial-technological civilization, any more than one would be likely to attribute moral progress to it.

Sir James Mackintosh

Contemporary thinkers are also very hesitant to use the term “progress” because of its abuse in the recent past. When a history is written so that the whole of previous history seems to point to some present state of perfect as the culmination of the whole of history, we call this Whiggish history, and everyone today is contemptuous of Whiggish history because we know that history is not an inevitable progression toward greater rationality, freedom, enlightenment, and happiness. Whiggish history is usually traced to Sir James Mackintosh’s The History of England (1830–1832, 3 vols.), and this was thought to inaugurate a particular nineteenth century fondness for progressive history, so much so that one often hears the phase, “the nineteenth century cult of progress.”

Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas de Caritat, marquis de Condorcet

Alternatively, the origins of Whiggish history can be attributed to the Marquis de Condorcet’s Outlines of an historical view of the progress of the human mind (1795), and especially its last section, “TENTH EPOCH. Future Progress of Mankind.”

Given the dubiousness of moral progress, the absence of aesthetic progress, and the bad reputation of history written to illustrate progress, historians have become predictably skittish about saying anything that even suggests progress, but this has created an historiographical climate in which any progress is simply dismissed as impossible or illusory, but we know this is not true. Even while some dimensions of civilization may remain static, and some may become retrograde, there are some dimensions of civilization that have progressed, and we need to say so explicitly or we will misunderstand the central fact of life in industrial-technological civilization.

Thus I will assert as the Industrial-Technological Thesis that technological progress is intrinsic to industrial-technological civilization. (I could call this the “fundamental theorem of industrial-technological civilization” or, if I wanted to be even more tendentious, “the technological-industrial complex.”) I wish to be understood as making a rather strong (but narrow) claim in so asserting the industrial-technological thesis.

More particularly, I wish to be understood as asserting that industrial-technological civilization is uniquely characterized by the escalating feedback loop of science, technology, and engineering, and that if this cycle should fail or shudder to a halt, the result will not be a stagnant industrial-technological civilization, but a wholly distinct form of civilization. Given the scope and scale of contemporary industrial-technological civilization, which possesses massive internal momentum, even if the cycle that characterizes technological progress should begin to fail, the whole of industrial-technological civilization will continue in existence in its present form for quite some time to come. Transitions between distinct forms of civilization are usually glacially slow, and this would likely be the case with the end of industrial-technological civilization; the advent of industrial-technological civilization is the exception due to its rapidity, thus we must acknowledge at least the possibility that another rapid advent is possible (by way of another instance of preemption), even if unlikely.

Because of pervasive contemporary irony and skepticism, which is often perceived as being sufficient in itself to serve as the basis for the denial of the technological-industrial thesis, one expects to hear casual denials of progress. By asserting the technological-industrial thesis, and noting the pervasive nature of technological progress within it (and making no claims whatsoever regarding other forms of progress — moral, aesthetic, or otherwise), I want to point out the casual and dismissive nature of most denials of technological progress. The point here is that if someone is going to assert that technological progress cannot continue, or will not continue, or plays no essential role in contemporary civilization, it is not enough merely to assert this claim; if one denies the industrial-technological thesis, one is obligated to maintain an alternative thesis and to argue the case for the absence of technological progress now or in the future. (We might choose to call this alternative thesis Ecclesiastes’ Thesis, because Ecclesiastes famously maintained that, “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”)

The industrial-technological thesis has significant consequences. Since civilizations ordinarily develop over a long time frame (i.e., la longue durée), and industrial-technological civilization is very young, we can likely expect that it will last for quite some time, and that means that escalating progress in science, technological, and engineering will continue apace. The wonders that futurists have predicted are still to come, if we will be patient. As I observed above, even if the feedback loop of technological progress is interrupted, the momentum of industrial-technological civilization is likely to continue for some time — perhaps even long enough for novel historical developments to emerge from the womb of a faltering industrial-technological civilization and overtake it in its decline with innovations beyond even the imagination of futurists.

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Tuesday


In yesterday’s post on China’s Military Aviation Ambitions I discussed some of the early difficulties in jet propulsion, and how the most advanced jet engines of our time continue to be a technical and engineering challenge. China, as I mentioned, buys its most advanced jet engines from Russia and the Ukraine, who apparently possess industrial plant tooling and technical expertise superior to what the Chinese are currently capable of matching.

I expect that this technological hurdle will continue for some time, since despite the fact that jet propulsion technology is older that the technology of nuclear weapons (which I have elsewhere called a mature technology), there is still a great deal of technological and engineering work to go on jet propulsion.

In the past few decades jet propulsion technological research has focused on higher efficiencies, and this research has resulted in passenger jet service that uses significantly less fuel than the first Jet Age when, in the 1960s, passengers jets first began to routinely offer international travel. But I have also noted that the then-expected transition to supersonic jet travel didn’t happen; supersonic jets were loud and expensive and used a lot of fuel. The time saved by supersonic travel was not at that time, and has not up to this time, been enough to offset the disproportionate costs of supersonic passenger travel (although supersonic military jets are now entirely routine, with the newest fighter jets possessing supercruise ability).

But that isn’t the only thing that slowed down the advent of the age of supersonic jet travel. Supersonic jets are a difficult technology to master, and require substantial engineering and technological resources. We still have a long way to go (and therefore many opportunities yet in the future — even the near future) in terms of routine and cost-effective supersonic travel. Since supersonic jet travel has been stalled for some time, it is beginning to feel like fusion power — an engineering challenge just beyond our current reach — always another thirty years in the future.

On my other blog I wrote about tests this past spring on the essential systems of the REL SABRE engine (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine — an illustration of which is pictured above), which is of the greatest interest for future jet propulsion technologies. This is an engine that can take us into space, and is therefore the future and an important technological milestone. The SABRE engine (you can see an animation of its operation both on the REL website and at Vimeo) is designed for SSTO (Single Stage To Orbit) and HOTOL (HOrizontal Take Off and Landing) operation — in other words, this is the engine for the kind of spaceships that you see in the movies, that take off from the ground under their own power, like an airplane, and are able to keep accelerating all the way through the atmosphere and then into space.

Maybe I sound like a booster for REL — their website calls the SABRE engine, “a major breakthrough in propulsion worldwide” — but it would be difficult to underestimate the importance of this propulsion technology, not just for the business of space launch, and not just for any particular industry, but for the human species. If we stay on the earth, we are doomed; we will only propagate our civilization if we become a spacefaring civilization, and an SSTO spacecraft is an essential element in becoming a spacefaring civilization.

When I was reading about the SABRE engine I was surprised that the crucial technology was simply a cooling system. Air traveling at hypersonic speeds gets very hot, and it needs to be cooled down to very low temperatures even while continuing to flow at very high speeds. Also, the moisture has to be extracted from the air, since ice coming into a hypersonic jet could cause serious problems. These are the problems that REL has so far been tackling successfully.

The REL SABRE engine is one solution for an engine that runs as a jet through the atmosphere and then turns itself into a rocket for extra-atmospheric flight. I assume that there are other possible solutions to this technological and engineering challenge, but as far as I know, REL is the only enterprise at present engaged in this kind of research and development. Of course their are always rumors that such things are being developed for the military in “black” programs of which the public knows nothing. It seems to me that if the Skunk Works could build the SR-71 Blackbird in the 1960s, by now they certainly ought to be able to build an air cooler that can aspirate a jet engine to the edge of the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. Certainly I hope that such research is taking place, since the future of civilization is at stake.

There would be very obvious military advantages to a SSTO fighter, which would also be the first space fighter. Because of the ascendancy of the drone industry in recent years, several military hardware commentators have ventured that the current crop of fifth generation fighters (and 5.5 generation fighters) will be the last of the manned combat jets. I think it is much more likely the the F-22, and F-35, the Sukhoi PAK-FA and the J-20 will be the last generation of atmospheric-only military fighter craft, as the next obvious step is a fighter that takes off from the runway on the ground and flies directly into space, there to defend space-based military assets and to attack and disable the space-based assets of rival military powers.

It is hard to imagine that such developments are not taking place far from the eyes of the public. Hopefully my friends over at Open Source GEOINT will spot something like this soon.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Decadent Technologies

4 June 2012

Monday


In several previous posts I have discussed how novel technologies will often display a sigmoid growth curve, starting with a gradual development, suddenly experiencing an exponential increase in complexity, sophistication, and efficacy, followed by a long plateau of little or no development after that technology has achieved maturity. The posts in which I described this development include:

The Law of Stalled Technologies

More on Stalled Technologies

Blindsided by History

Technological Succession

In Blindsided by History I wrote:

“Present technologies will stall, and they will eventually be superseded by unpredicted and unpredictable technologies that will emerge to surpass them. Those who remain fixated on existing technologies will be blindsided by the new technologies, and indeed may simply fail to recognize new technologies for what they are when they do in fact appear.”

The phenomena of one technology superseding another results in Technological Succession. In my post on technological succession I wrote the following:

The overtaking of a stalled technology that remains at a given plateau by another technology that fulfills a similar need (although by way of a distinct method) is an extension of a society with stable institutions that was able to bring to fruition a mature technology. With a mature technology in place, and stable economic and social institutions built upon this technology, there emerges an incentive to continue or to expand these institutions to a greater extent, at a cheaper cost, more efficiently, more effectively, and with less effort. This attempt to do previous technology one better is, in turn, a spur to social changes that will call forth further innovations. It could be argued that the Industrial Revolution emerged from just such an escalation of social and technology coevolution.

Technological succession, then, develops in parallel with the social succession of institutions capable of fostering further technological development by different means once a given technology stalls. In this post I made a distinction between mature technologies (another name for stalled technologies), which are technologies that have passed through their exponential growth phase and have plateaued at a stable level, and perennial technologies, which are technologies that do not experience exponential growth curves in their development — things like knives that have always been a part of the human “toolkit” and always will be. This distinction between mature and perennial technologies I then developed according to a biological analogy:

By analogy with microevolution (evolution within a species) and macroevolution (evolution from one species into another) in biology, we can see the microevolution and macroevolution of technologies. Perennial technologies exhibit micorevolution. No new technological “species” emerge from the incremental changes in perennial technologies. Technological macroevolution is the succession of a stalled technology by a new, immature technology, which latter still possesses the possibility of development. Mature technologies experience adaptive radiation under coevolutionary pressures, and this macroevolution can result in new technological species.

The coevolutionary pressures are those social institutions that make demands upon a technology to continue its development in the face of advancing social developments, which latter might include expanding populations, higher standards of living, raised expectations and soaring ambitions.

Even if another technology does not come along to further extend the social functions served by the mature and now stalled technology, the incentives to continue to go one better with technology remains, and this incentive drives the attempt to try to squeeze more performance out of mature technologies that would, if surpassed in the process of technological succession, remain stalled at a stable plateau of development. The result of pushing for more performance from a stalled technology is what I will call decadent technology (though I could just as well call this baroque technology).

The obvious examples that come to mind of decadent technologies are either of a humorous or theatrical character (or both). Steampunk and tubepunk are obvious examples of the intentional elaboration of a decadent technology for aesthetic and theatrical effect. As genres of art and literature, steampunk and tubepunk aren’t seeking to supply the wants of mass society (except for aesthetic wants, which respond to a different class of coevolutionary pressures).

Another example of decadent technology is that of race car engines. If you want to go really fast, it would make more sense to strap a jet engine onto set of wheels (which would look like a steampunk contraption), but racing mostly means specialized internal combustion engines — engines pushed about as far as the technology of the internal combustion engine can be pushed. It is obvious, from the thousands of photographs in car magazines, that the builders of racing engines can an aesthetic pleasure in their creations. However, these engines are not merely aesthetic exercises like steampunk, because by pushing the technology of the internal combustion engine to its limits, much more horsepower can be obtained. Thus a decadent technology can be effective, though it quickly begins to reach a level of diminishing returns, and further investment yields progressively less of a return. That is why these engines are not models of efficiency that the mass producers of automobiles look to for technological developments (though this is often used as an excuse for car manufacturers to sponsor drag racing) but rather they are expressions of mechanical ambition. Like I wrote above, if you want to go really fast, you can build a jet; the challenge is to build an internal combustion engine with the power of a jet, and this is a challenge in which both builders of racing engines and race spectators enjoy.

Most examples of decadent technology are not as theatrical and not as much fun as steampunk and race cars, but the principles are essentially the same. Microchip technology, following the social coevolutionary pressure of fulfilling the prophecy of Moore’s Law, is close to becoming a decadent technology. If some other technology for computing fundamentally different from silicone wafer technology does not emerge soon (like quantum computing, which still seems to be some way off), the producers of microchips will come under considerable economic pressure to drive silicone technology beyond its natural (i.e., physical) limits and transform it into a decadent technology.

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Decadent technology

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Sunday


Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt just tweeted the following:

We see it again: hierarchies can’t really control networks in the modern world. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/with-chen-guangcheng-news-on-twitter-chinas-censors-lost-control/2012/05/05/gIQAUctU4T_story.html?hpid=z3

The linked story from the Washington Post, With Chen Guangcheng news on Twitter, China’s censors lost control, discusses how the volume of micro-blogging and text messages outpaced the Chinese censors with the Chen Guangcheng story, as well as the Bo Xilai scandal and high speed rail disaster.

There are at least two related but distinct factors involved here: 1) the actual difficulty for the censors of deleting so many micro-blog posts so quickly as they are spreading virally, and 2) the difficulty of maintaining an unchallenged “official” position that departs too far from the facts on the ground given the rapid spread of information from non-official sources. While the Great Firewall of China can stifle much comment, the airing of honest opinions is becoming more and more a cat-and-mouse game. Although the cat catches lots of mice, a smart mouse can outwit a cat, and a sufficiently large number of mice can defy a cat.

Unless a nation-state is willing to completely sever its citizens from the internet, as in the case of North Korea, controlling information is difficult, and getting more difficult all the time. And even in the case of North Korea there are cracks in the facade of information control. The Globe and Mail recently published an interesting article, North Korea’s small pool of mobile phones pose a big political threat, about the increasing influence of cell phones in North Korea, despite regime attempts to limit their usefulness.

Foreign Minister Bildt’s clear and intuitive contrast between hierarchies and networks provides an excellent context in which to explore the game-changing effect of electronic communications technology. The centralized nation-state has embodied hierarchy, and initially made use of technologically-enabled mass communications technology (newspapers, radio, and television) in order to reinforce its hierarchical message. But as technology has increased and improved, electronic telecommunications have become increasingly democratized, enabling networks that have no connection to the nation-state hierarchy.

Can hierarchies control networks, or are networks intrinsically beyond the ability of hierarchies to control? At present, the answer to whether hierarchies can control networks is a qualified “yes.” Hierarchies can partially control networks, but they cannot completely control networks. If this is what Bildt means when he says that, “hierarchies can’t really control networks in the modern world,” he is right. It is a question of what you mean by “control.”

The Chinese authorities are able to control a surprising amount of expression, despite the size of the internet and its users within China. Even the most prominent writers and intellectuals like Han Han and Ai Weiwei have their blog posts regularly deleted. This is Chinese democracy: no one is above the law, or, at least, above the censors. So if you are an isolated individual trying to get your story out the world, you are still very much subject to controls on expression. However, if a story becomes sufficiently large and compelling, it outruns the ability of the censors to stop it.

The internet, for all its size and flexibility, which gives the advantage to asymmetrical strategies, is still a material artifact. It requires electricity, wires or cables or signals, a device to access it, and so forth. All of these things can be brought under the hierarchical control of a nation-state. But as these elements of electronic telecommunications and computing become universal forms of infrastructure they become democratized. As the Gaddafi regime in Libya was collapsing it shut down access to the internet to try to stop the tide of information reporting its collapse, but there are limits to this, and in the case of Libya it turned out to be a temporary and unsuccessful measure.

As the hierarchical functions of the nation-state become dependent upon the universal telecommunications and computing infrastructure, as is already essentially the case in all the advanced industrialized nation-states, it is no longer an option to pull the plug. Or, in other words, pulling the plug would do more harm than good. China is an interesting case in point, because at the present moment it is on the cusp of this development. It can partially shut down the internet, but it can’t really afford to completely shut down the internet, and as long as it cannot completely shut down the internet, it cannot completely control communications.

The ongoing development of industrial-technological civilization, which necessitates even the most hierarchical of nation-states to adopt a universal infrastructure of telecommunications and computing, suggests that it is only a matter of time before electronic telecommunications is democratized to the point that hierarchies cannot really control networks. We have not yet reached that point, but we can see that the day is coming.

It may be that, in the fullness of time, the emergence of networks based on electronic telecommunications may change the political structure of societies, and the networked nation-state will be the (first) successor institution to the hierarchical nation-state. What will come after the networked nation-state is anyone’s guess.

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Thursday


flammarion-woodcut

Science has become central to industrial-technological civilization. I would define at least one of the properties that distinguishes industrial-technological civilization from agriculturalism or nomadism as the conscious application of science to technology, and the conscious application in turn of technology to industrial production. Prior to industrial-technological civilization there were science and technology and industry, but the three were not systematically interrelated and consciously pursued with an eye toward steadily increasing productivity.

The role of science within industrial-technological civilization has given science and scientists a special role in society. This role is not the glamorous role of film and music and athletic celebrities, and it is not the high-flying role of celebrity bankers and fund managers and executives, but it is nevertheless a powerful role. As Shelley once said that poets were the unacknowledged legislators of the world, we can say that scientists are the unacknowledged legislators of industrial technological civilization. Foucault came close to saying this when he said that doctors are the strategists of life and death.

I have previously discussed the ideological role of science in the contemporary world in The Political Uses of Science. Perhaps the predominant ideological function of science today is the role of “big science” — enormous research projects backed by government, industry, and universities that employ the talents of hundreds if not thousands of scientists. When Kuhnian normal science has this kind of backing, it is difficult for marginal scientific enterprises to compete. Big science moves markets and moves societies not because it is explicitly ideological in character, but because it is effective in meeting practical needs (though these needs are socially defined by the society in which science functions as a part).

Despite the fact that progress in scientific research is driven by the falsification and revision of theories through the expedient of experimentation, the scientific community has been surprisingly successful in closing ranks behind the most successful scientific theories of our time and presenting a united front that does not really give an accurate impression of the profound differences that separate scientists. Often a scientist spends an entire career trying to get a hearing or his or her idea, and this effort is not always successful. There are very real and bitter differences between the advocates of distinct scientific theories. The scientist sacrifices a life to research in a way not unlike the soldier who sacrifices his life on the battlefield: each uses up a life for a cause.

I have some specific examples in mind when I say that scientists have been successful as closing ranks behind what Kuhn would have called “normal science.” I have written about big bang cosmology and quantum theory in this connection. In Conformal Cyclic Cosmology I noted at least one theory seeking empirical evidence for the world prior to the big bang, while in The limits of my language are the limits of my world I discussed some recent experiments that seem to give us more knowledge of the quantum world that traditional interpretations of quantum theory would seem to suggest is possible.

No one of a truly curious disposition could ever be satisfied with the big bang theory, except in so far as it is but one step — and an admittedly very large step — toward a larger natural history of the universe. Given that the entire observable universe may be the result of a single big bang, any account of the world beyond or before the universe defined by the big bang presents possibly insuperable difficulties for observational cosmology. But the mind does not stop with observational cosmology; the mind does not stop even when presented with obstacles that initially seem insuperable. Slowly and surely the mind seeks the gradual way up what Dawkins called Mount Improbable.

Despite the united front that supports fundamental scientific theories (the sorts of science that Quine would have placed near the center of the web of belief), we know from the examples of Penrose’s conformal cyclic cosmology and the recent experiments attempting to simultaneously measure the position and velocity of quantum particles that scientists are continuing to think beyond the customary interpretations of theories.

The often-repeated claims that space and time were created simultaneously in the big bang and that it is pointless to ask what came before the big bang (as earlier generations were assured that it was illegitimate to ask “Who made God?”), and the claims of the impossibility of simultaneous measurements of a quantum particle’s position and velocity have not stopped the curious from probing beyond these barriers to knowledge. One must, or course, be careful, for there is a danger of being seen as a crackpot, so such inquiries are kept quiet quiet until some kind of empirical evidence can be produced. But before the evidence can be sought, there needs to be an idea of what to look for, and an idea of what to look for comes from a theory. That theory, in turn, must exceed the established interpretations of science if it is too look for anything new.

We know what happens when scientists not only say that something is impossible or unknowable, but also accept that certain things are impossible or unknowable and actually cease to engage in inquiry, and make no attempt to think beyond the limits of accepted theories: we get a dark age. A recent book has spoken of the European middle ages as The Closing of the Western Mind. (In the Islamic world a very similar phenomenon was called “Taqlid” or, “the closing of the gates of Ijtihad“.) When scientists not only say that noting more can be known, but they actually act as though nothing more can be known, and cease to question normal science, this is when intellectual progress stops, and this has happened several times in human history (although I know that this is a controversial position to argue; cf. my The Phenomenon of Civilization Revisited).

It is precisely the fact that science continues to be consciously and systematically pursued in the modern era despite many claims that everything knowable was known that sets industrial-technological civilization apart from all previous iterations of civilization.

Science goes on behind the scenes.

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