What Technology Demands

NOTE:  This post is a bit of an experiment, involving three previous bloggers and a new contributor: regular posters, the brother-team of Carl and Chuck Hunt; Larry Kuznar, who has previously posted twice; and Carl’s friend, MacArthur Fellow Stuart Kauffman. [1]  We think it’s a sufficiently worthy topic that we thought we’d shoot for a multidisciplinary perspective: information technology, naturalism, anthropology and biology.  All of these disciplines are part of the connecting fabric of the American Promise.  This post commemorates our 50th Blog Post! [2]

Carl:  Two weeks ago, my Samsung Galaxy IV told me I needed nine app updates.  Last week, it was another 13.  Every week, it’s the same thing.  Our smart phones are pretty darned smart the way they have us trained.  Don’t get me started about the constant care these things need in terms of recharging (feeding?)!  After years of similar experiences updating all the various versions of my Windows computers, I wonder less and less “who” the master is in this human-technology relationship: I’m starting to be convinced that it’s technology.  Larry, is this the future of mankind or is it the future repeating the past?

Larry:  This is very much the future repeating the past.  Our ancestors’ ability to develop technology has definitely been one key edge our species had over others.  That day (approximately 2.5 million years ago) an ancient hominid struck a sharp stone from a rock and used it to slice some valuable protein from a scavenged carcass set us on an irreversible path of technological dependence.  Today we are forced to adapt to our built environment (which concentrates the exchange of pathogens, relieves selection for heat or cold resistance, enables us to acquire mates without travel).  In fact, we adapt more to our built environments than to nature outside of our walls.

Chuck:  Larry, you are so right.  The issue about our “built environment” is huge!  We have to ask “where is our ‘think space,’ where’s our space to be human?”  In The Singing Wilderness, Sigurd F. Olson writes as though our technology-driven world, which is increasingly devoid of real things, is not optimal habitat for humans.  Hearing birds sing, smelling a field after a shower, or reading the skies are things that have been part of the human existence for thousands of years.  The abrupt shift, in human time anyway, to this stressful technology-driven life is likely causing behavioral and health dysfunction.  The biological foundation for Olson’s philosophy comes from a theory he proposed as “racial memory.”  He held that we humans have a biological need to connect with nature.  The societal ramifications of all of this will not be known for quite some time.  Generally, rapid shocks in habitat lead to species decline (or extinction), at least until adaptation occurs, which can take generations.

Carl:  The effects on nature and our interactions with it are a big deal, Larry and Chuck, and could indeed affect us for a very long time.  If we think of technology as a “living system” as Kevin Kelly writes in What Technology Wants, technology does seem to be better at adaptation than humans!Tech-1 Old and New

What really got me thinking about this lately was a Politico article entitled “How Google Could Rig the 2016 Election” based on some recent National Academy of Sciences research about the same topic.  I find it hard not to think of Google as a well-motivated and well-intentioned company, but what if technology is beginning to take on a life form that we are in fact are only now starting to visualize as Kevin Kelly claims?  Is it possible for our technologies to “rig a national election” without human intervention or intent?

Stu, you know Kevin Kelly and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt fairly well.  As a biologist and physician, is there something going on here that even transcends our human intentions and inventions?  Did biology enable technology or is it the other way around?

Stu:  Yes, something very big is going on.  Both the evolving biosphere and the evolving economy, including technologies, create the very possibilities into which they “become”, often beyond anyone knowing even what “can happen”.  First, Chuck is right. We are ever more alienated from Nature in late modernity to our rue and dysphoria.  We evolved as part of Nature, but now think we are separate and somehow “above” the Nature that is “ours” to command, not nurture.  Second, think of a web of economic goods and production functions, including technologies.  Once one exists, it creates “adjacent possibilities” into which it can become, although no one may have intended how the total system becomes.  These adjacent possible creations happen without a human plan.  This is Kelly’s What Technology Wants.  Somehow, we lost contact with our natural roots in the 18th Century with the Industrial Revolution and the explosion of new technologies that enable the further explosion that rushes at us ever more rapidly.  We have not faced this in the past 50,000 years, nor do we know what is wise.  And, we definitely don’t know how much further this will drive us from our natural roots in the future: that’s just not prestatable, no matter how well we think we can plan for what’s ahead.

Larry:   And this is so much the story of human social (not biological) evolution. Technological innovations seem to have been entirely developed to solve immediate needs, with little or no consideration of their long-term consequences.  The earliest stone tools enabled a hominid with an increasing brain to feed this hungry organ, enabling an adjacently possible outcome of even greater reliance on intelligence and imagination as a means to adapt.  I doubt that any Homo habilis realized it was creating the foundation for metaphysical thought and the development of the World’s great religions.

Archaeologists have pretty well concluded that the domestication of plants and animals solved a problem of increasing hunter-gatherer populations, which meant increasing conflict over wild resources.  However, increased sedentism also enabled women to have more children, and these rapidly increasing human populations only engendered more conflict, which lead to the formation of tribal societies and ethnic violence.  A quick look at the world news demonstrates that we have anything but shaken off the mantle of tribal warfare.  The list goes on.  A technological innovation solves one problem, but opens up multiple adjacently possible pathways that humans never imagined.  As Stu said, these pathways are not prestatable!

Carl:   It appears that technology has learned how to build and exploit Stu’s adjacent possibilities better than we ever could.  Is this also what Kelly is telling us?  Has technology learned better the lessons that nature offered and we rejected to assimilate humanity rather than vice versa?  Could the possibility of a “rigged election” that the National Academy of Sciences study reflected be just another step in Kurzweil’s proposed “accelerating intelligence?”  Is it possible to think of technology, particularly information-based technology, as an emerging life form or species?  Does technology do a better job of fulfilling its demands from us than we do of it?

Chuck:   So now this discussion appears to be entering into the realm of philosophy or even ethics.  Perhaps the pace of technological change and our growing prowess is forcing us to take this issue more seriously, but it isn’t new either.  The pace may be accelerated and the impact may be new, but this is an issue that humans have struggled with since the beginning of applying technology to “make things better.”  Natural resource management abounds with examples of humans actually exacerbating problems through technology.

Just to offer one of countless examples and one with which I have been involved professionally, Tamarix, or Salt Cedar, was introduced to the United States from Asia in the early 1900s to help prevent erosion.  The goal was noble.  Erosion has many harmful affects including degraded water quality, loss of productive soils, lowering of the water table, etc.  However, within a short period, people noticed that Tamarix was taking over large areas, river flows decreased and water tables were actually receding.  Subsequent research showed that Tamarix actually are massive consumers of water and easily out-compete other vegetation.  Once lush, diverse riparian communities along rivers were becoming monocultures of Tamarix!  The environment of the American Southwest would have been greatly improved had Tamarix never been introduced.  It really was a technologically-derived dilemma.

The point is that mankind has been reckless in the application of all kinds of technology probably since the advent of “technology.”  As a result of Tamarix and other unhelpful exotic species, most nations have become more careful about introducing new flora or fauna to ecosystems.  However, I am not sure we have applied these lessons to the “human ecosystem” (which is really an integrated if artificial construct as well, isn’t it?).  Could we be disrupting our health through unchecked embrace of information technology?  Or, is an embrace of technology the only way to save us from the ecological effects of a human population explosion combined with rising standard of living expectations?

Hence, is this a philosophical debate or a debate concerning the survival of mankind, or both?  Likely it is both…we’re not going to reject technology and I hope we’re not going to stop being human; the question is how thoughtful should we be and how thoughtful can we afford to be.

Larry:  Great questions, Carl and Chuck!  Let me take an anthropological stab at each.  Does technology adapt to us better than we adapt to it? Historically, humans have been required to replicate technology, and the human environment has selected which elements would be replicated or go extinct.  Technology has been more like a virus or a domesticated plant or animal, basically dependent on its host for its replication. Had our ancestors been sufficiently aware of the effects of technology and how they wanted it to impact human life, they could have guided this evolution more rationally toward a desired end beyond our typically short-sighted need to solve an immediate problem.  For technology to adapt to us like an autonomous organism, it would need to have the ability to self-replicate.  With modern robotics and AI, some argue that technology appears to be gaining those abilities and may begin adapting better than us. [3]

Chuck, the Tamarix example is a great illustration!  I spent the better part of a decade conducting research on the Navajo Reservation, and indeed, Tamarix checked streamside erosion in the fragile biophysical ecosystem; but sheep and cattle can’t eat Tamarix, and its introduction further eroded a fragile human ecosystem, the traditional Navajo indigenous economy.

Is technology disrupting our health or saving us?  We are all familiar with the many ill health effects from the by-products of technology.  However, technology, through improved medicine, sanitation, and food production has caused global childhood mortality to plummet from over 40% to about 3% in the last 200 years. [4]  That’s a lot more people in the gene pool!  The net effect is astounding evolutionary success.  Of course, if the world’s 7 billion people increasingly demand and get energy from fossil fuels, they may destroy the planet’s ability to sustain them.  That would be an astounding evolutionary failure.  Talk about adjacently possible pathways!

Is this a philosophical debate or one about the survival of humankind?  I think it’s about the survival of ways of life that we value, and therefore, it is both.  When we’re concerned about what technology has done to our lives, we are expressing our concern about the state, or form, of things.  But evolutionary theory is a theory of process.

The questions that began this discussion reflect human values about the state of our lives.  However, all we may ever really understand is how we got to where we are and how we may proceed into the future; what the state of our future lives will be and how we would value it is, as our colleague Stu notes, just not prestatable.  By exploring the possibilities, though, we may avoid hurtling ourselves headlong into an adjacently possible future we would not want our descendants to experience.  Even then, we are presuming that our descendants will share the values we hold today.

Stu:  I think we are touching some of our deepest issues.  Larry and Chuck are so right about how we act in the biosphere with often unexpected consequences.   We were taught to stop forest fires, Smokey Bear, then learned that small fires were normal and we had allowed the understory to grow to enable vast fires.  DDT ravaged.  But the issues are very much broader, embracing not only technology, but the evolution of our economic system with its power structures, the banks too big to fail that evolve into a legal environment that itself evolves in often unprestatable ways as unprestatable loopholes are found in laws that enable new strategies with unknown payoffs that call forth new laws so the legal-economic-social system “becomes” in partially unprestatable ways, and finally into the opportunities that vault out of what is currently present.

Larry is also right-on about our “values”.  To borrow historian Thomas Cahill’s phrase, I think we are at a hinge of history, in which our thirty or more civilizations around the globe are weaving together, on a finite planet, where we still wage war: this is what the connectivity this blog addresses is all about.  What values will guide us?  It seems to me that this post touches, far beyond Kelly and What Technology Wants, how we “become” as a global set of interwoven civilizations, where what already is unleashes often unprestatable opportunities for good and ill into which we are almost ineluctably “sucked”.  If we cannot design what we become, our values must be our guide.

Carl and Chuck:  We are most grateful to Stu and Larry for joining us in this special 50th Blog Post in Reconnecting to the American Promise.  While it may take a little imagination to see the connection to RAP and other important topics we’ve covered, such as reflected in the National Strategic Narrative, I think my friend Wayne Porter and his Strategic Narrative coauthor Puck Mykleby would agree that in the end it is our values, as Stu so eloquently concludes, that make us the nation we are and the individuals that form our society.  If in the end, we cannot prestate the design of how we Reconnect to the American Promise, perhaps we can reconnect to the great American values upon which we originally emerged as the United States of America.

End Note from Carl:  This morning, the date of the posting of this piece, my Galaxy Note IV needed only four updates.  That still seems a little needy, but at least not so demanding.


[1] Actually, some of Stu’s recent work has been previously mentioned in Survival at the “Hinge of History”, posted in this blog in June, 2015.

[2] This title is a bit of a takeoff on Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, Viking Books, New York, 2010.  According to the book website, the topic “…suggests that technology as a whole is not just a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies.”

[3] Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, Basic books, New York, 2015.

[4] http://ourworldindata.org/data/population-growth-vital-statistics/child-mortality/

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