Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels. There is no metabolism of factories without the circulation of vehicles. No hammers without saws to cut the handles; no handles without hammers to pound the saw blades. This global-scale, circular, interconnected network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, codes, calculators, sensors, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators—this whole grand contraption of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a single system. When scientists began to investigate how this system functioned, they soon noticed something unusual: Large systems of technology often behave like a very primitive organism. Networks, especially electronic networks, exhibit near-biological behavior.
Scientists had come to a startling realization: However you define life, its essence does not reside in material forms like DNA, tissue, or flesh, but in the intangible organization of the energy and information contained in those material forms. And as technology was unveiled from its shroud of atoms, we could see that at its core, it, too, is about ideas and information. Both life and technology seem to be based on immaterial flows of information.
I dislike inventing 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. For example, I would say: “The technium accelerates the invention of technologies.” In other words, technologies can be patented, while the technium includes the patent system itself.
There are many fans, as well as many foes, of technology, who strongly disagree with the idea that the technium is in any way autonomous. They adhere to the creed that technology does only what we permit it to do. In this view, notions of technological autonomy are simply wishful thinking on our part. But I now embrace a contrary view: that after 10,000 years of slow evolution and 200 years of incredible intricate exfoliation, the technium is maturing into its own thing. Its sustaining network of self-reinforcing processes and parts have given it a noticeable measure of autonomy. It may have once been as simple as an old computer program, merely parroting what we told it, but now it is more like a very complex organism that often follows its own urges.
The technium wants what we design it to want and what we try to direct it to do. But in addition to those drives, the technium has its own wants. It wants to sort itself out, to self-assemble into hierarchical levels, just as most large, deeply interconnected systems do. The technium also wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself, to keep itself going. And as it grows, those inherent wants are gaining in complexity and force.
The technium is now as great a force in our world as nature, and our response to the technium should be similar to our response to nature. We can’t demand that technology obey us any more than we can demand that life obey us. Sometimes we should surrender to its lead and bask in its abundance, and sometimes we should try to bend its natural course to meet our own. We don’t have to do everything that the technium demands, but we can learn to work with this force rather than against it.
PART ONE ORIGINS
The ability of Sapiens to rapidly improve their tools allowed them to adapt to new ecological niches at a much faster rate than genetic evolution could ever allow.
The creation of language was the first singularity for humans. It changed everything. Life after language was unimaginable to those on the far side before it. Language accelerates learning and creation by permitting communication and coordination. A new idea can be spread quickly if someone can explain it and communicate it to others before they have to discover it themselves. But the chief advantage of language is not communication but autogeneration. Language is a trick that allows the mind to question itself; a magic mirror that reveals to the mind what the mind thinks; a handle that turns a mind into a tool. With a grip on the slippery, aimless activity of self-awareness and self-reference, language can harness a mind into a fountain of new ideas. Without the cerebral structure of language, we couldn’t access our own mental activity. We certainly couldn’t think the way we do. If our minds can’t tell stories, we can’t consciously create; we can only create by accident. Until we tame the mind with an organization tool capable of communicating to itself, we have stray thoughts without a narrative. We have a feral mind. We have smartness without a tool.
We are not the same folks who marched out of Africa. Our genes have coevolved with our inventions. In the past 10,000 years alone, in fact, our genes have evolved 100 times faster than the average rate for the previous 6 million years. This should not be a surprise. As we domesticated the dog (in all its breeds) from wolves and bred cows and corn and more from their unrecognizable ancestors, we, too, have been domesticated. We have domesticated ourselves. Our teeth continue to shrink (because of cooking, our external stomach), our muscles thin out, our hair disappears. Technology has domesticated us. As fast as we remake our tools, we remake ourselves. We are coevolving with our technology, and so we have become deeply dependent on it. If all technology—every last knife and spear—were to be removed from this planet, our species would not last more than a few months. We are now symbiotic with technology.
The extended human is the technium. Marshall McLuhan, among others, noted that clothes are people’s extended skin, wheels extended feet, camera and telescopes extended eyes. Our technological creations are great extrapolations of the bodies that our genes build. In this way, we can think of technology as our extended body.
With minor differences, the evolution of the technium—the organism of ideas—mimics the evolution of genetic organisms. The two share many traits: The evolution of both systems moves from the simple to the complex, from the general to the specific, from uniformity to diversity, from individualism to mutualism, from energy waste to efficiency, and from slow change to greater evolvability. The way that a species of technology changes over time fits a pattern similar to a genealogical tree of species evolution. But instead of expressing the work of genes, technology expresses ideas.
“In technology, combinatorial evolution is foremost, and routine,” says economist Brian Arthur in The Nature of Technology. “Many of a technology’s parts are shared by other technologies, so a great deal of development happens automatically as components improve in other uses ‘outside’ the host technology.” These combinations are like mating. They produce a hereditary tree of ancestral technologies. Just as in Darwinian evolution, tiny improvements are rewarded with more copies, so that innovations spread steadily through the population. Older ideas merge and hatch idea-lings. Not only do technologies form ecosystems of cross-supported allies, but they also form evolutionary lines. The technium can really only be understood as a type of evolutionary life.
In a parallel to Smith and Szathmary, I have arranged the major transitions in technology according to the level at which information is organized. At each step, information and knowledge are processed at a level not present before. The major transitions in the technium are: Primate communication ➔ Language Oral lore ➔ Writing/mathematical notation Scripts ➔ Printing Book knowledge ➔ Scientific method Artisan production ➔ Mass production Industrial culture ➔ Ubiquitous global communication
The complete sequence of major transitions in deep history runs like this: 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 Oral lore ➔ Writing/mathematical notation Scripts ➔ Printing Book knowledge ➔ Scientific method Artisan production ➔ Mass production Industrial culture ➔ Ubiquitous global communication
This escalating stack of increasing order is revealed to be one long story. We can think of the technium as the further reorganization of information that began with the six kingdoms of life. In this way, the technium becomes the seventh kingdom of life. It extends a process begun four billion years ago. Just as the evolutionary tree of Sapiens branched off from its animal precursors long ago, the technium now branches off from its precursor, the mind of the human animal.
Incremental transformation is the rule in biology. There are very few revolutionary steps; everything advances via a very long series of tiny steps, each one of which must work for the creature at the time. In contrast, technology can jump ahead, make abrupt leaps, and skip over incremental steps.
By far the greatest difference between the evolution of the born and the evolution of the made is that species of technology, unlike species in biology, almost never go extinct. A close examination of a supposedly extinct bygone technology almost always shows that somewhere on the planet someone is still producing it.
The Rise of Exotropy
Entropy is the crisp scientific name for waste, chaos, and disorder. As far as we know, the sole law of physics with no known exceptions anywhere in the universe is this: All creation is headed to the basement. Everything in the universe is steadily sliding down the slope toward the supreme equality of wasted heat and maximum entropy. We see the slope all around us in many ways. Because of entropy, fast-moving things slow down, order fizzles into chaos, and it costs something for any type of difference or individuality to remain unique. Each difference—whether of speed, structure, or behavior—becomes less different very quickly because every action leaks energy down the tilt. Difference within the universe is not free. It has to be maintained against the grain. The effort to maintain difference against the pull of entropy creates the spectacle of nature.
Everything we find interesting and good in the cosmos—living organisms, civilization, communities, intelligence, evolution itself—somehow maintains a persistent difference in the face of entropy’s empty indifference. A flatworm, a galaxy, and a digital camera all have this same property—they maintain a state of difference far removed from thermal undifferentiation. That state of cosmic lassitude and stillness is the norm for most atoms of the universe. While the rest of the material cosmos slips down to the frozen basement, only a remarkable few will catch a wave of energy to rise up and dance. This rising flow of sustainable difference is the inversion of entropy. For the sake of this narrative, call it exotropy—a turning outward. Exotropy is another word for the technical term negentropy, or negative entropy.
Exotropy, in this tale, is far more uplifting than simply the subtraction of chaos. Exotropy can be thought of as a force in its own right that flings forward an unbroken sequence of unlikely existences. Exotropy is neither wave nor particle, nor pure energy, nor supernatural miracle. It is an immaterial flow that is very much like information. Since exotropy is defined as negative entropy—the reversal of disorder—it is, by definition, an increase in order. But what is order? For simple physical systems, the concepts of thermodynamics suffice, but for the real world of cucumbers, brains, books, and self-driving trucks, we don’t have useful metrics for exotropy. The best we can say is that exotropy resembles, but is not equivalent to, information and that it entails self-organization.
There is yet one more version of the technium’s cosmic story. We can view the long-term trajectory of exotropy as an escape from the material and a transcendence into the immaterial. In the early universe, only the laws of physics reigned. The rules of chemistry, momentum, torque, electrostatic charges, and other such reversible forces of physics were all that mattered. There was no other game. The ironclad constraints of the material world birthed only extremely simple mechanical forms—rocks, ice, gas clouds. But the expansion of space, with its corresponding increase in potential energy, introduced new immaterial vectors into the world: information, exotropy, and self-organization. These new organizational possibilities (like a living cell) did not contradict the rules of chemistry and physics but flowed from them. It is not as if life and mind were simply embedded in the nature of matter and energy; but rather, life and mind emerged out of the constraints to transcend them.
PART TWO IMPERATIVES
The world does not need to be perfectly utopian to see progress. Some portion of our actions, such as war, are destructive. A bunch of what we produce is crap. Maybe nearly half of what we do. But if we create only 1 percent or 2 percent (or even one-tenth of 1 percent) more positive stuff than we destroy, then we have progress. This differential could be so small as to be almost imperceptible, and this may be why progress is not universally acknowledged. When measured against the large-scale imperfections of our society, 1 percent better seems trivial. Yet this tiny, slim, shy discrepancy generates progress when compounded by the ratchet of culture. Over time a few percent “not much better” accumulates into civilization. But is there really even 1 percent annual betterment over the long term? I think there are five pools of evidence for this trend. One is the long-term rise in longevity, education, health, and wealth of an average person. This we can measure. In general, the more recently in history people lived, the longer they lived, the greater access they had to accumulated knowledge, and the more tools and choices they owned. That’s on average. Since war and strife can depress well-being locally and temporarily, indexes of health and wealth fluctuate within decades and by regions of the world. However, the long-term trajectory (and by “long-term” I mean over hundreds or even thousands of years) is a steady, measurable rise. The second indicator of long-term progress is the obvious wave of positive technological development we have witnessed in our own lifetimes. Perhaps more than any other signal, this constant surge daily persuades us that things improve. Devices not only get better, they also get cheaper while they get better.
The third piece of evidence for small, steady, long-term advance resides in the moral sphere. Here metrics for measurement are few and disagreement about the facts greater. Over time our laws, mores, and ethics have slowly expanded the sphere of human empathy. Generally, humans originally identified themselves primarily via their families. The family clan was “us.” This declaration cast anyone outside of that intimacy as “other.” We had—and still have—different rules of behavior for those inside the circle of “us” and for those outside. Gradually the circle of “us” enlarged from inside the family clan to inside the tribe, and then from tribe to nation. We are currently in an unfinished expansion beyond nation and maybe even race and may soon be crossing the species boundary.
The fourth line of evidence does not prove the reality of progress but it provides strong support. A large and still expanding body of scientific literature spotlights the immense distance life has traveled in its four-billion-year journey from extremely simple organisms to extremely complex and social animals. Changes in our culture can be viewed as a continuation of progress begun four billion years ago, a key parallel I will develop in the next chapter. The fifth argument for the reality of progress is the rush toward urbanization. A thousand years ago only a small percentage of humans lived in cities; now 50 percent do. Cities are where people move to live in “a better tomorrow,” where increased choices and possibilities bloom.
Outside the reign of science and technology a growing population will collapse upon itself as it meets Malthusian limits. But inside the reign of science a growing population creates a positive feedback loop wherein more people participate in scientific innovation and purchase the results, driving more innovation, which brings better nutrition, more surplus, and more population, which feed the cycle further. Just as an engine tames its fire, channeling its explosive energy to-ward work, science tames population growth, channeling its explosive energy toward prosperity. As population rises, so does progress, and vice versa. The two growths are heavily correlated.
If the origins of prosperity lie solely in growth of the human population, then progress will paradoxically temper itself in the coming century. If the origins of progress lie outside population growth, we’ll need to identify them so that on the other side of the population peak, we can continue to prosper.
Progress follows the rise of minds, which then causes an echoing rise in energy. Abundant, cheap fuel found easily around the planet enabled the Industrial Revolution and the current acceleration of technological progress, but first the technium needed science to unlock the transforming power of coal and oil. In a coevolutionary dance, human minds mastered cheap energy, which expanded food for increasing numbers of human minds, which propelled more technological inventions, which consumed more cheap energy. This self-amplifying circuit produces the three rising curves of population, energy use, and technological progress, the three strands of the technium.
We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools but with the tools of tomorrow. This is what we call progress. And there will be problems tomorrow because progress is not utopia. It is easy to mistake progressivism as utopianism because where else does increasing and everlasting improvement point to except utopia? Sadly, that confuses a direction with a destination. The future as un-soiled technological perfection is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expanding possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now.
The course of biological evolution is not a random drift in the cosmos, which is the claim of current textbook orthodoxy. Rather, evolution—and by extension, the technium—has an inherent direction, shaped by the nature of matter and energy. This direction introduces inevitabilities into the shape of life. These nonmystical tendencies are woven into the fabric of technology as well, which means certain aspects of the technium are also inevitable.
With some perplexity biologists file in the bottom drawer of their desks an ever-growing list of identical phenomenon that have kept reappearing in life on Earth. They are not sure what to do with these curious cases. But a few scientists believe these recurring inventions are biological “vortices,” or familiar patterns that emerge from the complex interactions in evolution. The estimated 30 million species coinhabiting Earth are running millions of experiments every hour. They constantly breed, fight, kill, or mutually alter each other. Out of this exhaustive recombination, evolution keeps converging upon similar characteristics in far-flung branches in the tree of life. This attraction to recurring forms is called convergent evolution.
Evolution is driven toward certain recurring and inevitable forms by two pressures:
The negative constraints cast by the laws of geometry and physics, which limit the scope of life’s possibilities.
The positive constraints produced by the self-organizing complexity of interlinked genes and metabolic pathways, which generate a few repeating new possibilities. These two dynamics create a push in evolution that gives it a direction. Both of these two dynamics continue to operate in the technium as well and shape the inevitabilities along the course of the technium.
In the current orthodox scientific understanding of evolution, change is attributed chiefly to one source: random variation. In the wilds of nature, reproducing survivors are naturally selected from inheritable random variations; therefore, in evolution there can only be random advance without direction. The key insight gained by the last three decades of research on complex adaptive systems offers a contrary view: that the variation presented to natural selection is not always random . Experiments show that “random” mutations are often not unbiased; instead, variation is governed by geometry and physics; and most important, variations are often shaped by the possibilities inherent in the recurring patterns of self-organization (a la whirlpool vortex).
Metabolic pathways in cells can autocatalyze themselves into a network and drift into self-preferred loops. This flips the traditional view. In the old view, the internal (the source of mutation) created change, while the external (the environmental source of adaptation) selected or directed it; in the new view, the external (physical and chemical constraints) creates forms, while the internal (self-organization) selects or directs them. And when the internal directs, it redirects to recurring forms.
In the textbook version, evolution is a mighty force propelled by a single near-mathematical mechanism: inheritable random mutations selected by adaptive survival, also known as natural selection. The emerging modified view recognizes additional forces. It proposes that the creative engine of evolution stands on three legs: the adaptive (the classic agent), plus the contingent and the inevitable. (These three forces reappear in the technium as well.) We can describe these as three vectors of evolution.
The second vector in evolution’s triad is luck, or contingency. A lot of what happens in evolution comes down to the lottery, not adaptation of the superior. Much of the fine detail of speciation is a result of happenstance, some improbable trigger that leads a species down a contingent path.
The third leg of evolution’s tripod is structural inevitability, the very force denied by the current dogma of biology. Whereas contingency can be thought of as a “historical” force, that is, a phenomenon where history matters, the structural component of evolution’s engine can be thought of as “ahistorical” in that it produces change independent of history. Run it again, and you get the same story. This aspect of evolution pushes inevitabilities.
There is a tilt to evolution’s seemingly chaotic churning that rediscovers the same forms and keeps arriving at the same solutions. It is almost as if life has an imperative. It “wants” to materialize certain patterns. Even the physical world seems biased in that direction.
The particular physical arrangements of matter, energy, and information that produce the ingenious molecules of rhodopsin or chlorophyll or DNA or the human mind are so scarce in the space of all possible “could be” things that they are statistically improbable almost to the point of being impossible. Every organism (and artifact) is a wholly improbable arrangement of its constituent atoms. Yet within the long chain of reproducing self-organization and restless evolution, these forms become highly probable, and even inevitable, because there are only a few ways such open-ended ingenuity can actually work in the real world; therefore, evolution must work through them. In this way, life is an inevitable improbability. And most of life’s archetypal forms and stages are also inevitable improbabilities, or, we might say, improbable inevitabilities. This means that something like a human mind is also the improbable inevitability of evolution.
When Stephen Jay Gould claimed that “Homo sapiens is an entity, not a tendency,” he got it precisely, but elegantly, backward. If we rerun his sentence again, but this time from back to front, I can’t think of a more succinct phrase that sums up evolution’s message better than this: Homo sapiens is a tendency, not an entity. Humanity is a process. Always was, always will be. Every living organism is on its way to becoming. And the human organism even more so, because among all living beings (that we know about) we are the most open-ended. We have just started our evolution as Homo sapiens. As both parent and child of the technium—evolution accelerated—we are nothing more and nothing less than an evolutionary ordained becoming. “I seem to be a verb,” the inventor/philosopher Buckminster Fuller once said.
Dig deep enough in the history of any type of discovery in any field and you’ll find more than one claimant for the first priority. In fact, you are likely to find many parents for each novelty. Common instances of equivalent inventions independently discovered at the same moment suggest that the evolution of technology converges in the same manner as biological evolution. If so, then if we could rewind and replay the tape of history, the very same sequence of inventions should roll out in a very similar sequence every time we reran it. Technologies would be inevitable. The appearance of morphological archetypes would further suggest that this technological invention has a direction, a tilt. A tilt that is independent to a certain extent of its human inventors. Indeed, in all fields of technology we commonly find independent, equivalent, and simultaneous invention. If this convergence indicated that discoveries were inevitable, the inventors would appear as conduits filled by an invention that just had to happen. We would expect the people making them to be interchangeable, if not almost random.
To claim that the large-scale trajectory of the technium is inevitable would mean demonstrating that if we reran history, the same abstracted inventions would arise again and in roughly the same relative order. Without a reliable time machine, there’ll be no indisputable proof, but we do have three types of evidence strongly suggesting that the paths of technologies are inevitable:
In all times we find that most inventions and discoveries have been made independently by more than one person.
In ancient times we find independent timelines of technology on different continents converging upon a set order.
In modern times we find sequences of improvement that are difficult to stop, derail, or alter.
Listen to the Technology
Technology’s imperative can be seen in the rigid acceleration of progress in DNA sequencing, magnetic storage, semiconductors, bandwidth, and pixel density. Once a fixed curve is revealed, scientists, investors, marketers, and journalists all grab hold of this trajectory and use it to guide experiments, investments, schedules, and publicity. The map becomes the territory. At the same time, since these curves begin and advance independent of our awareness and do not waver very much from a straight line under enormous competition and investment pressures, their course must in some way be bound to the materials.
The first thing to notice is that all these examples demonstrate the effects of scaling down, or working with the small. We don’t find exponential improvement in scaling up, as in making skyscrapers or space stations ever larger. Airplanes aren’t getting bigger, flying faster, or becoming more fuel efficient at an exponential rate.
In this microcosmic realm, unlike the macroworld we live in, energy is not very important. That is why we don’t see a Moore’s Law type of progress at work when scaling up: energy requirements scale up just as fast, and energy is a major limiting constraint, unlike information, which can be duplicated freely. This is also why we don’t see exponential progress in the performance of solar panels (only linear progress) or batteries—because they generate or store lots of energy. So our entire new economy is built around technologies that need little energy and scale down well—photons, electrons, bits, pixels, frequencies, and genes. As these inventions miniaturize, they reach closer to bare atoms, raw bits, and the essence of the immaterial. And so the fixed and inevitable path of their progress derives from this elemental essence.
Our choice, and it is significant, is to prepare for the gift—and the problems it will also bring. We can choose to get better at anticipating these inevitable surges. We can choose to educate ourselves and our children to become intelligently literate and wise in their employment. And we can choose to modify our legal and political and economic assumptions to meet the ordained trajectories ahead. But we cannot escape from them. When we spy our technological fate in the distance, we should not reel back in horror of its inevitability; rather, we should lurch forward in preparation.
Choosing the Inevitable
Like personality, technology is shaped by a triad of forces. The primary driver is preordained development—what technology wants. The second driver is the influence of technological history, the gravity of the past, as in the way the size of a horse’s yoke determines the size of a space rocket. The third force is society’s collective free will in shaping the technium, or our choices.
It is the third leg, the collective choice of free-willed individuals, that provides the character of the technium. And just as our free-will choices in our individual lives create the kind of person we are (our ineffable “person”), our choices, too, shape the technium. We may not be able to choose the macroscale outlines of an industrial automation system—assembly-line factories, fossil-fuel power, mass education, allegiance to the clock—but we can choose the character of those parts. We have latitude in selecting the defaults of our mass education, so that we can nudge the system to maximize equality or to favor excellence or to foster innovation. We can bias the invention of the industrial assembly line either toward optimization of output or toward optimization of worker skills; those two paths yield different cultures. Every technological system can be set with alternative defaults that will change the character and personality of that technology.
The ongoing dilemma of technology, then, will never leave us. It is an ever-elaborate tool that we wield and continually update to improve our world; and it is an ever-ripening superorganism, of which we are but a part, that is following a direction beyond our own making. Humans are both master and slave to the technium, and our fate is to remain in this uncomfortable dual role. Therefore, we will always be conflicted about technology and find making our choices difficult. But our concern should not be about whether to embrace it. We are beyond embrace; we are already symbiotic with it. At a macroscale, the technium is following its inevitable progression. Yet at the microscale, volition rules. Our choice is to align ourselves with this direction, to expand choice and possibilities for everyone and everything, and to play out the details with grace and beauty. Or we can choose (unwisely, I believe) to resist our second self. The conflict that the technium triggers in our hearts is due to our refusal to accept our nature—the truth is that we are continuous with the machines we create. We are self-made humans, our own best invention. When we reject technology as a whole, it is a brand of self-hatred.
PART THREE CHOICES
The Unabomber Was Right
Technology has its own agenda. It is selfish. The technium is not, as most people think, a series of individual artifacts and gadgets for sale. Rather, Kaczynski, speaking as the Unabomber, echoes the arguments of Winner and many of the points I am making in this book, claiming that technology is a dynamic, holistic system. It is not mere hardware; rather, it is more akin to an organism. It is not inert, nor passive; rather, the technium seeks and grabs resources for its own expansion. It is not merely the sum of human action, but in fact it transcends human actions and desires. I think Kaczynski was right about these claims.
As best I understand, the Unabomber’s argument goes like this:
Personal freedoms are constrained by society, as they must be in any civilization for the sake of order.
The stronger that technology makes the society, the less individual freedom there is.
Technology destroys nature, strengthening itself further.
But because it is destroying nature, the technium will ultimately collapse.
In the meantime, the ratchet of technological self-amplification is stronger than politics.
Using technology to try to tame the system only strengthens the technium.
Because it cannot be tamed, technological civilization must be destroyed rather than reformed.
Since it cannot be destroyed by technology or politics, humans must push the technium toward its inevitable self-collapse.
Then we should pounce on it when it is down and kill it before it rises again.
In short, Kaczynski claims that civilization is the source of our problems and not the cure for them. Kaczynski argues that it is impossible to escape the ratcheting clutches of industrial technology for several reasons: one, because if you use any part of the technium, the system demands servitude; two, because technology does not “reverse” itself, never releasing what is in its hold; and three, because we don’t have a choice of what technology to use in the long run.
The problem is that Kaczynski’s most basic premise, the first axiom in his argument, is not true. The Unabomber claims that technology robs people of freedom. But most people of the world find the opposite. They gravitate toward technology because they recognize that they have more freedoms when they are empowered with it. They (that is, we) realistically weigh the fact that yes, indeed, some options are closed off when adopting new technology, but many others are opened, so that the net gain is an increase in freedom, choices, and possibilities.
He may have personally been content with his limited world, but overall his choices were very constrained, although he had unshackled freedom within those limited choices—sort of like, “You are free to hoe the potatoes any hour of the day you want.” Kaczynski confused latitude with freedom. He enjoyed great liberty within limited choices, but he erroneously believed this parochial freedom was superior to an expanding number of alternative choices that may offer less latitude within each choice. An exploding circle of choices encompasses much more actual freedom than simply increasing the latitude within limited choices.
The great difficulty of the anticivilizationists is that a sustainable, desirable alternative to civilization is unimaginable. We cannot picture it. We cannot see how it would be a place we’d like to move to. We can’t imagine how this primitive arrangement of stone and fur would satisfy each of our individual talents. And because we cannot imagine it, it will never happen, because nothing has ever been created without being imagined first. Despite their inability to imagine a desirable, coherent alternative, the anarcho-primitivists all agree that some combination of being in tune with nature, eating low-calorie diets, owning very little, and using only things you make yourself will bring on a level of contentment, happiness, and meaning we have not seen for 10,000 years. But if this state of happy poverty is so desirable and good for the soul, why do none of the anticivilizationists live like this?
Besides the lack of a desirable alternative, the final problem with destroying civilization as we know it is that the alternative, such as it has been imagined by the self-described “haters of civilization,” would not support but a fraction of the people alive today. In other words, the collapse of civilization would kill billions.
The costs of technology are not easily visible, and the expectations of virtue often hyped. To improve our chances of making better decisions, we need—I almost hate to say it—more technology. The way to reveal the full costs of technology and deflate its hype is with better information tools and processes. We require technologies such as real-time self-monitoring of our use, transparent sharing of problems, deep analysis of testing results, relentless retesting, accurate recording of the chain of sources in manufacturing, and honest accounting of negative externalities such as pollution. Technology can help us reveal the costs of technology and help us make better choices about how we adopt it.
Lessons of Amish Hackers
In many ways the view of the Amish as old-fashioned Luddites is an urban myth. In contemporary society our default is set to say yes to new things, and in Old Order Amish communities the default is set to “not yet.” When new things come around, the Old Order Amish automatically react by ignoring them.
Turns out the Amish make a distinction between using something and owning it. The Old Order won’t own a pickup truck, but they will ride in one. They won’t get a license, purchase an automobile, pay insurance, and become dependent on the automobile and the industrial-car complex, but they will call a taxi. Since there are more Amish men than farms, many men work at small factories, and these guys will hire vans driven by outsiders to take them to and from work. So even the horse-and-buggy folk will use cars—on their own terms. (Very thrifty, too.)
The typical adoption pattern for a new technology goes like this: Ivan is an Amish alpha geek. He is always the first to try a new gadget or technique. He gets in his head that the new flowbitzmodulator would be really useful. He comes up with a justification of how it fits into the Amish orientation. So he goes to his bishop with this proposal: “I’d like to try this out.” The bishop says to Ivan, “Okay, Ivan, do whatever you want with this. But you have to be ready to give it up if we decide it is not helping you or is hurting others.” So Ivan acquires the tech and ramps it up, while his neighbors, family, and bishops watch intently. They weigh the benefits and drawbacks. What is it doing to the community? To Ivan?
My impression is that the Amish are living about 50 years behind us. Half of the inventions they use now were invented within the last 100 years. They don’t adopt everything new, but when they do embrace it, it’s half a century after everyone else does. By that time, the benefits and costs are clear, the technology stable, and it is cheap. The Amish are steadily adopting technology—at their pace. They are slow geeks. As one Amish man said, “We don’t want to stop progress, we just want to slow it down.” But their manner of slow adoption is instructive: 1. They are selective. They know how to say no and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ignore more than they adopt. 2. They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes. 3. They have criteria by which to make choices: Technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world. 4. The choices are not individual but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.
Voluntary simplicity is a possibility, an option, a choice that one should experience for at least part of one’s life. I highly recommend elective poverty and minimalism as a fantastic education, not least because it will help you sort out your technology priorities. But I have observed that simplicity’s fullest potential requires that one consider minimalism one phase of many (even if a recurring phase, as is meditation or the Sabbath).
I owe the Amish hackers a large debt because through their lives I now see the technium’s dilemma very clearly: To maximize our own contentment, we seek the minimum amount of technology in our lives. Yet to maximize the contentment of others, we must maximize the amount of technology in the world. Indeed, we can only find our own minimal tools if others have created a sufficient maximum pool of options we can choose from. The dilemma remains in how we can personally minimize stuff close to us while trying to expand it globally.
If a new technology is likely to birth a never-before-seen benefit, it will also likely birth a never-before-seen problem. The obvious remedy for this dilemma is to expect the worst. That’s the result of a commonly used approach to new technologies called the Precautionary Principle.
Unfortunately, the Precautionary Principle works better in theory than in practice. Every good produces harm somewhere, so by the strict logic of an absolute Precautionary Principle no technologies would be permitted. Even a more liberal version would not permit new technologies in a timely manner. Whatever the theory, as a practical matter we are unable to address all risks, independent of their low probability, while efforts to address all improbable risks hinders more likely potential benefits.
In general the Precautionary Principle is biased against anything new. Many established technologies and “natural” processes have unexamined faults as great as those of any new technology. But the Precautionary Principle establishes a drastically elevated threshold for things that are new. In effect it grandfathers in the risks of the old, or the “natural.”
The appropriate response to a new idea should be to immediately try it out. And to keep trying it out, and testing it, as long as it exists. In fact, contrary to the Precautionary Principle, a technology can never be declared “proven safe.” It must be continuously tested with constant vigilance since it is constantly being reengineered by users and the coevolutionary technium it inhabits. Technological systems “require continued attention, rebuilding and repair. Eternal vigilance is the price of artificial complexity,” says Langdon Winner.
The principle of constant engagement is called the Proactionary Principle. Because it emphasizes provisional assessment and constant correction, it is a deliberate counterapproach to the Precautionary Principle. This framework was first articulated by Max More, radical transhumanist, in 2004. More began with ten guidelines, but I have reduced his ten principles to five proactions. Each proaction is a heuristic to guide us in assessing new technologies. The five proactions are:
Continual Assessment Or eternal vigilance.
Prioritization of Risks, Including Natural Ones
Rapid Correction of Harm
Not Prohibition but Redirection
The message of the technium is that any choice is way better than no choice. That’s why technology tends to tip the scales slightly toward the good, even though it produces so many problems. Let’s say we invent a hypothetical new technology that can give immortality to 100 people, but at the cost of killing 1 other person prematurely. We could argue about what the real numbers would have to be to “balance out” (maybe it is 1,000 who never die, or a million, for one who does) but this bookkeeping ignores a critical fact: Because this life-extension technology now exists, there is a new choice between 1 dead and 100 immortal that did not exist before. This additional possibility or freedom or choice—between immortality and death—is good in itself. So even if the result of this particular moral choice (100 immortal = 1 dead) is deemed a wash, the choice itself tips the balance a few percentage points to the good side. Multiply this tiny lean toward good by each of the million, 10 million, or 100 million inventions birthed in technology each year, and you can see why the technium tends to amplify the good slightly more than the evil. It compounds the good in the world because in addition to the direct good it brings, the arc of the technium keeps increasing choices, possibilities, freedom, and free will in the world, and that is an even greater good.
I am convinced by my study of the technium’s imperative that conviviality resides not in the nature of a particular technology but in the job assignment, in the context, in the expression we construct for the technology. A tool’s conviviality is mutable. A convivial manifestation of a technology offers:
Cooperation. It promotes collaboration between people and institutions.
Transparency. Its origins and ownership are clear. Its workings are intelligible to nonexperts. There is no asymmetrical advantage of knowledge to some of its users.
Decentralization. Its ownership, production, and control are distributed. It is not monopolized by a professional elite.
Flexibility. It is easy for users to modify, adapt, improve, or inspect its core. Individuals may freely choose to use it or give it up.
Redundancy. It is not the only solution, not a monopoly, but one of several options.
Efficiency. It minimizes impact on ecosystems. It has a high efficiency for energy and materials and is easy to reuse.
Living organisms and ecosystems are characterized by a high degree of indirect collaboration, transparency of function, decentralization, flexibility and adaptability, redundancy of roles, and natural efficiency; these are all traits that make biology useful to us and the reasons why life can sustain its own evolution indefinitely. So the more lifelike we train our technology to be, the more convivial it becomes for us and the more sustainable the technium becomes in the long run. The more convivial a technology is, the more it aligns with its nature as the seventh kingdom of life.
PART FOUR DIRECTIONS
So what does technology want? Technology wants what we want—the same long list of merits we crave. When a technology has found its ideal role in the world, it becomes an active agent in increasing the options, choices, and possibilities of others. Our task is to encourage the development of each new invention toward this inherent good, to align it in the same direction that all life is headed. Our choice in the technium—and it is a real and significant choice—is to steer our creations toward those versions, those manifestations, that maximize that technology’s benefits, and to keep it from thwarting itself. Our role as humans, at least for the time being, is to coax technology along the paths it naturally wants to go.
Extrapolated, technology wants what life wants: Increasing efficiency Increasing opportunity Increasing emergence Increasing complexity Increasing diversity Increasing specialization Increasing ubiquity Increasing freedom Increasing mutualism Increasing beauty Increasing sentience Increasing structure Increasing evolvability This list of exotropic trends can serve as a sort of checklist to help us evaluate new technologies and predict their development. It can guide us in guiding them.
But if the trajectories of the technium are long trains of inevitability, why should we bother encouraging them? Won’t they just roll along on their own? In fact, if these trends are inevitable, we couldn’t stop them even if we wanted to, right? Our choices can slow them down. Postpone them. We can work against them.
On the other hand, there are several good reasons for hastening the inevitable. Imagine what a different world it would be if 1,000 years ago people had accepted the inevitability of political self-governance, or massive urbanization, or educated women, or automation. It is possible an early embrace of these trajectories could have accelerated the arrival of the Enlightenment and science, lifting millions of people out of poverty and increasing longevity centuries earlier. Instead, each of these movements was resisted, delayed, or actively suppressed in different parts of the world at different periods. Those efforts succeeded in crafting societies without these “inevitabilities.” From inside these systems these trends did not seem inevitable at all. Only in retrospect do we agree they are clearly long-term trends.
Technology’s imperative is not a tyrant ordering our lives in lock-step. Its inevitabilities are not scheduled prophesies. They are more like water behind a wall, an incredibly strong urge pent up and waiting to be released.
In the sections that follow, I will briefly describe the other 10 universal tendencies carrying us forward.
COMPLEXITY: Evolution manifests a number of tendencies, but the most visible of these trends is the long-term move toward complexity.
DIVERSITY: The diversity of the universe has been increasing since the beginning of time. The trend toward diversity is further accelerated by the technium. The number of species of technology invented every year is increasing at an increasing rate. We should expect people to continue to exhibit ethnic and social preferences. Groups or individuals will reject all kinds of technologically advanced innovations simply because they can. Or because everyone else accepts them. Or because they clash with their self-conception. Or because they don’t mind doing things with more effort. People will choose to abstain from or forsake particular global standards of technology as a form of idiosyncratic distinction. In this way while the planetary culture slides toward convergence of technologies, billions of technology users will diverge in their personal choices as they edge toward using smaller and more eccentric selections of available stuff. Diversity powers the world. In an ecosystem, increasing diversity is a sign of health. The technium, too, runs on diversity. From the dawn of creation the tide of diversity has risen, and as far as we can look into the future, it will continue to diverge without end.
SPECIALIZATION: Evolution moves from the general to the specific. This urge to specialize extends into the technium. The astounding diversity of manufactured items today is primarily driven by the need for specialized parts of complicated devices. At the same time, just as in organic life, tools tend to start out being useful for many things and then evolve toward specific tasks. We can forecast the future of almost any invention working today by imagining it evolving into dozens of narrow uses. Technology is born in generality and grows to specificity.
UBIQUITY: The consequence of self-reproduction in life, as well as in the technium, is an inherent drive toward ever-presence. Humans are the reproductive organs of technology. We multiply manufactured artifacts and spread ideas and memes. Because humans are limited (only six billion alive at the moment) and there are tens of millions of species of technology or memes to spread, few gadgets can reach full 100 percent ubiquity, although several come close. A few isolated manifestations of a technology can reveal its first-order effects. But not until technology saturates a culture do the second- and third-order consequences erupt. Most of the unintended consequences that so scare us in technology usually arrive in ubiquity. And most of the good things as well. The trend toward embedded ubiquity is most pronounced in technologies that are convivially open-ended: communications, computation, socialization, and digitization. There appears to be no end to their possibilities. The amount of computation and communication that can be crowded into matter and materials seems infinite. There is nothing we have invented to date about which we’ve said, “It’s smart enough.” In this way the ubiquity of this type of technology is insatiable. It constantly stretches toward a pervasive presence. It follows the trajectory that pushes all technology into ubiquity.
FREEDOM: As evolution rises, “choicefulness” increases. More complexity expands the number of possible choices. A major consequence of creating cheap and ubiquitous artificial minds is to infuse higher levels of free will into our built environment. Of course we’ll put minds into robots, but we’ll also implant cars, chairs, doors, shoes, and books with slivers of choice-making intelligence, and all these expand the realm of those making free choices, even if those choices are only particle sized. Where there are free wills there are mistakes. When we unleash inanimate objects from their shackles of hereditary inertness and give them particles of choice, we give them freedom to make mistakes. We can think of each new crumb of artificial sentience as a new way to make mistakes. To do stupid things. To make errors. In other words, technology teaches us how to make innovative kinds of mistakes we could not make before. In fact, asking ourselves how humanity might make entirely new kinds of mistakes is probably the best metric we have for discovering new possibilities of choice and freedom. First the technium expands the range of possible choices, and then it expands the range of agents that can make choices. The more powerful a new technology is, the greater the new freedoms it opens up. Multiplying options goes hand in hand with multiplying liberty. Nations of the world with plenty of economic choices, abundant communication options, and high education possibilities tend to rank highest in available liberty. But this expansion includes possible abuse as well. Present in every new technology is the potential to make new mistakes. The freedom to choose increases in many ways as the technium grows.
MUTUALISM: Three strands of increasing mutualism weave through evolution, or what is properly called coevolution.
As life evolves, it becomes increasingly dependent on other life.
As life evolves, nature creates more opportunities for dependencies between species.
As life evolves, possibilities for cooperation between members of the same species increase.
Human life is immersed in all three mutualisms. First, we are remarkably dependent on other life for survival. We eat plants and other animals. Second, there is no other species on this planet that uses the variety and number of other living species that we do to stay healthy and prosperous. And third, we are famously a social animal, requiring others of our species to raise us, teach us how to survive, and keep us sane. In this way our life is deeply symbiotic; we live inside of other life. The technium pushes these three varieties of mutualism even further. The technium is moving toward increased symbiosis between humans and machines.
Collaboration, which is not new, was once hard to do en masse. Cooperation, not new, was hard to scale into the millions. Sharing, as old as humans, is difficult to maintain among strangers. The extension of increasing mutualism from biology into the technium points to yet more sociality and mutualism to come. Right now we are using technology to collaboratively build encyclopedias, news agencies, video archives, and software in groups that span continents. Can we build bridges, universities, and charter cities the same way? Every day over the past century someone asked, What can’t free markets do? We took a long list of problems that seemed to require rational planning or paternal government and instead applied the astoundingly powerful invention of marketplace logic. In most cases, the market solution worked significantly better. Much of the prosperity in recent decades was gained by unleashing market forces into the technium. Now we’re trying the same trick with the emerging technologies of collaboration, applying these techniques to a growing list of wishes—and occasionally to problems that the free market couldn’t solve—to see if they work. We are asking ourselves, What can’t technological mutualism do? So far, the results have been startling. At nearly every turn, the powers of socialization—sharing, cooperation, collaboration, openness, and transparency—have proven to be more practical than anyone thought possible. Each time we try it, we find that the power of mutuality is greater than we imagined. Each time we reinvent something, we’ll make it yet more mutualistic.
BEAUTY: Most evolved things are beautiful, and the most beautiful are the most highly evolved. MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle calls a particular specimen of technology that is revered by an individual an “evocative object.” These bits of the technium are totems that serve as a springboard for identity or for reflection or for thinking. A doctor may love her stethoscope, as both badge and tool; a writer might cherish a special pen and feel its smooth weight pushing the words on its own; a dispatcher can love his ham radio, relishing its hard-won nuances as a magical door to other realms that opens to him alone; and a programmer can easily love the root operating code of a computer for its essential logical beauty. Turkle says, “We think with the objects we love, and we love the objects we think with.” She suspects that most of us have some kind of technology that acts as our touchstone.
SENTIENCE: Smartness is a competitive advantage everywhere. We see the widespread recurrence and reinvention of intelligence because the living universe is a place where learning makes a difference. Up and down the six kingdoms of life, minds have evolved many times. So many times, in fact, that minds seem inevitable. Yet as inordinately fond as nature is of minds, the technium is even more so. The technium is rigged to birth minds. All the inventions we have constructed to assist our own minds—our many storage devices, signal processing, flows of information, and distributed communication networks—all these are also essential ingredients for producing new minds. And so new minds spawn in the technium in inordinate degrees. Technology wants mindfulness. This yearning for increasing sentience reveals itself in three different ways in the technium:
Mind infiltrates matter as ubiquitously as possible.
Exotropy continues to organize more complex types of intelligences.
Sentience diversifies into as many types of minds as possible.
The technium is primed to hijack matter and rearrange its atoms to infiltrate it with sentience. There seems to be no place a mind can’t be born or inserted. The primary thrust of exotropy is to uncover the full diversity of intelligences. Each type of thinking, no matter how large it is scaled up, can only understand in a limited way. The universe is so huge, so vast in its available mysteries, that it will require every possible type of mind to comprehend it. The technium’s job is to invent a million, or a billion, varieties of comprehension. The trajectory of the technium is pointed toward a million more minds inhabiting the least bits of matter, in a million new varieties of thinking, subsumed with our own multiple minds into a planetary thought—on the way to comprehending itself.
STRUCTURE: The long-term trend is simple: The information about and from a process will grow faster than the process itself. Thus, information will continue to grow faster than anything else we make. The technium is fundamentally a system that feeds off the accumulation of this explosion of information and knowledge. Similarly, living organisms are also systems that organize the biological information flowing through them. We can read the technium’s evolution as the deepening of the structure of information begun by natural evolution. Nowhere is this increasing structure as visible as in science. Despite its own rhetoric, science is not built to increase either the “truthfulness” or the total volume of information. It is designed to increase the order and organization of knowledge we generate about the world. Science creates “tools”—techniques and methods—that manipulate information such that it can be tested, compared, recorded, recalled in an orderly fashion, and related to other knowledge. “Truth” is really only a measure of how well specific facts can be built upon, extended, and interconnected. The thrust of the technium’s trajectory is to further organize the avalanche of information and tools we are generating and to increase the structure of the made world.
EVOLVABILITY: Evolution searches for designs that will keep the game of searching going. In this way, evolution wants to evolve. Yes, life has gained more ways to adapt, but what is really changing is its evolvability—its propensity and agility to create change. Think of this as changeability. Not only is the aggregate process of evolution evolving, but it is evolving more ability to evolve, or greater evolvability. Gaining evolvability is much like a video game where you find a door that opens up another whole level that is much more complex, faster, and full of unexpected powers. As the technium expands, it accelerates the rate of evolution first begun with life, so that it now evolves the idea of change itself. This is more than simply the most powerful force in the world; the evolution of evolution is the most powerful force in the universe.
Playing the Infinite Game
How can technology make a person better? Only in this way: by providing each person with chances. A chance to excel at the unique mixture of talents he or she was born with, a chance to encounter new ideas and new minds, a chance to be different from his or her parents, a chance to create something his or her own.
Ideally, we would find a position of excellence tailored specifically for everyone born. We don’t normally think of opportunities this way, but these possibilities for achievement are called “technology.” The technology of vibrating strings opened up (created) the potential for a virtuoso violin player. The technology of oil paint and canvas unleashed the talents of painters through the centuries. The technology of film created cinematic talents. The soft technologies of writing, lawmaking, and mathematics all expanded our potential to create and do good. Thus in the course of our lives as we invent things and create new works that others may build on, we—as friends, family, clan, nation, and society—have a direct role in enabling each person to optimize their talents—not in the sense of being famous but in the sense of being unequaled in his or her unique contribution. However, if we fail to enlarge the possibilities for other people, we diminish them, and that is unforgivable. Enlarging the scope of creativity for others, then, is an obligation. We enlarge others by enlarging the possibilities of the technium—by developing more technology and more convivial expressions of it.
In general, the long-term bias of technology is to increase the diversity of artifacts, methods, and techniques of creating choices. Evolution aims to keep the game of possibilities going.
As a practical matter I’ve learned to seek the minimum amount of technology for myself that will create the maximum amount of choices for myself and others. The cybernetician Heinz von Foerster called this approach the Ethical Imperative, and he put it this way: “Always act to increase the number of choices.” The way we can use technologies to increase choices for others is by encouraging science, innovation, education, literacies, and pluralism. In my own experience this principle has never failed: In any game, increase your options.
A finite game such as baseball or chess or Super Mario must have boundaries—spatial, temporal, or behavioral. So big, this long, do or don’t do that. An infinite game has no boundaries. James Carse, the theologian who developed these ideas in his brilliant treatise Finite and Infinite Games, says, “Finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.” Evolution, life, mind, and the technium are infinite games. Their game is to keep the game going. To keep all participants playing as long as possible. They do that, as all infinite games do, by playing around with the rules of play. The evolution of evolution is just that kind of play.
The things in life we love most—including life itself—are infinite games. When we play the game of life, or the game of the technium, goals are not fixed, the rules are unknown and shifting. How do we proceed? A good choice is to increase choices. As individuals and as a society we can invent methods that will generate as many new good possibilities as possible. A good possibility is one that will generate more good possibilities... and so on in the paradoxical infinite game. The best “open-ended” choice is one that leads to the most subsequent “open-ended” choices. That recursive tree is the infinite game of technology. The goal of the infinite game is to keep playing—to explore every way to play the game, to include all games, all possible players, to widen what is meant by playing, to spend all, to hoard nothing, to seed the universe with improbable plays, and if possible to surpass everything that has come before.
The technium is not God; it is too small. It is not utopia. It is not even an entity. It is a becoming that is only beginning. But it contains more goodness than anything else we know. The technium expands life’s fundamental traits, and in so doing it expands life’s fundamental goodness. Life’s increasing diversity, its reach for sentience, its long-term move from the general to the different, its essential (and paradoxical) ability to generate new versions of itself, and its constant play in an infinite game are the very traits and “wants” of the technium. Or should I say, the technium’s wants are those of life. But the technium does not stop there. The technium also expands the mind’s fundamental traits, and in so doing it expands the mind’s fundamental goodness. Technology amplifies the mind’s urge toward the unity of all thought, it accelerates the connections among all people, and it will populate the world with all conceivable ways of comprehending the infinite. No one person can become all that is humanly possible; no one technology can capture all that technology promises. It will take all life and all minds and all technology to begin to see reality. It will take the whole technium, and that includes us, to discover the tools that are needed to surprise the world. Along the way we generate more options, more opportunities, more connection, more diversity, more unity, more thought, more beauty, and more problems. Those add up to more good, an infinite game worth playing. That’s what technology wants.