The Technium

The Paradoxical Nature of Technology


[Translations: Japanese]

Any system which can sustain disequilibrium — that is, over time it neither collapses in chaos (one-time disequilibrium) nor tightens into repetitious and predictable harmony (sustainable equilibrium) – is an extropic system. One consequence of the extended disequilibrium found in extropic system is that this unbalance will steadily produce new things in the universe. The constant state of “being on the edge between chaos and order” becomes a source of perpetual novelty. Technology, like life and mind, is one such extropic system. From these we get new forms, new directions, new ideas. There is probably no other source of the new in the universe other than this profound imbalance.

All extropic systems – including technology — posses a recursive nature. In a non-superficial way, an extropic organization, system, or thing derives its power by circling back upon itself in such a way that its origin is tangled up in self-reference. Indeed, it is this strange loop of self-reference which enables an extropic system to maintain itself against the inescapable pull of entropy. This twisted loop pointing back to itself is a paradox, and breaks the rules of logic as we understand them. In an extropic system A causes B causes C causes A. This madness is like using a word in a definition of that word — there is something of a cheat in it. But this self-referential structure keeps a system away from both a clear and orderly simplicity and from the degenerate vacuum of complete disorder. In the paradox of self-reference lies the unexpected ability to generate all the things we cherish: life, freedom, possibilities, cooperation, thinking.

Recursiveness appears in many varieties. I’ve already mentioned two. We can isolate a self-sustaining set of chemical reactions, such that compound A produces compound B, and compound B produces chemical C, and C makes compound A. In the right conditions, a network of these chemicals (more than just three) can suddenly knit into a stabile self-sustaining organism, which we call a cell. We see this twisty loop in the blueprints of cells, in their genes. In a string of genes, many genes will turn off and on other genes. So gene A turns on gene B which invokes gene C which turns on gene A. So how does it all get started? Language is rife with opportunities of self-reference: “Dictionary – A word often found in a dictionary.” Or, the self reference can be deeper and more buried in the context not the content of the sentence. For instance, “This sentence no verb.”

The self-reference in effect creates a new level of meaning from pieces operating at a lower level. This new level of reference is the self. In fact the “self” which comes to be self-referenced is created only by rewiring the relationships of a set of pieces so that they related to each other in a paradoxical way. No new pieces are added. For example, if we take a video camera and its monitor screen, we can point it to record millions of amazing sights, seemingly new. But if we take this system and refer to itself we get something really new. Without adding a single component, all we need to do is point the camera at the screen. Suddenly we see an infinite regress of camera in the frame in the frame in the frame and so on. Something emerges that was not there before the self-inspection.

For one thing there is a new sense of scale and speed. The camera/screen is now infinitely long, and small changes in camera position amplify exponentially fast. And we can begin to play with other factors like delay, echoes, and secondary time shifts which transform the nature of this contraption: it is recording images of its own making, at a new level, a level which does not exist when the camera is pointed to the outside. The hall of mirrors certainly does not exist inside a mirror. It exists in the mirror-system, its new self.

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Technology is like a camera pointed at its own screen. It is a bootstrapping system that lifts itself into higher levels of complexity and being. Technology A makes B which makes C which in turn makes A. This kind of circularity might be called a first-order recursivity. There is no beginning, no linear chain of causation. Instead causation is more like a field, a phase shift.

But it is in second-order recursivity that we find new levels of being emerge. Second-order recursivity might best be illustrated as a map of city that is so detailed that it includes the kiosks in the town square, on which is posted a large public map of the same city. So the map contains itself inside it. This kind of self-reference was explored in all its mysterious and curious manifestations by Douglas Hofstadter in his remarkable book Godel, Escher, Bach. For it was Godel who realized mathematics permitted you to describe a mathematical proposition as a number, and further, that number could be included into the very mathematical proposition it represented. In effect you could bend a statement around so that it crashed into self in a contradictory mess. Originally Godel used this strange ability of math to prove that there could be no complete set of mathematical states without self-contradiction. In other words, the paradox of self-reference was inherent in any consistent system, no matter how logically watertight you tried to make it. Hofstadter extended Godel’s idea to suggest that this apparent flaw is in fact the origin of all that we find interesting in rigorous systems, such as computer programs. And computation is rife with feedback loops, self-pointers, and rampant recursivity. The explicit recursive nature of computing was birthed when John Von Neumann invented software. Von Neumann was the first to realize just as a mathematical statement could be processed by another mathematical function as if it were a number, a computational program could process another program as if it were data. In other words, a subroutine of a program could be another program altogether. You could keep adding programs within programs, strange loops in stranger loops until you have a map that had maps within maps inside it. It is the ability of a complex system to include a mirror of itself inside it – much as our brains can hold the image of a brain – that produce minds, selves, life – and I would argue, the technium.

The technium gains its recursivity from epistemic technologies. Epistemic technologies are the technologies of knowing, such as the alphabet, writing, books, libraries, indexing, cataloging, cross-referencing, hyperlinking. By these devices technology can map itself into a technological form, such as a blueprint, or a formula, or a library of information. In the collective universal library of information is all the information needed to create technology, and yet this library is itself a technology. Thus, this map of technology is a detail in the map of technology. And just as a program can contain data that is itself a program, the technium contains within its many parts, forms that hold and mirror the technium itself. Technology can bootstrap because it is self-referential. The most powerful technologies it produces are the ones that emphasize and leverage its recursive nature: the epistemic technology of science, in particular the scientific method and scientific knowledge.




Comments
  • Berend Schotanus

    “Any system which can sustain disequilibrium [...] is an extropic system.”

    Well, this is a disappointment to me. I hoped you would limit the definition of “extropy” to those systems that are subject to evolution. For instance the weather definitely can sustain disequilibrium, but there is no development, no increase in order in there whatsoever. In fact we can be pretty certain that rain, wind, clouds, lightning, the streaming of rivers, waves on the ocean etc. have looked and will look the same throughout the existence of the earth. (Which is a fascinating thought: to be able to look around the earth before life was around and actually watch all those things that are so familiar to us.)

    But when you look at life and when you look at technology you see change that cannot be found anywhere else and that challenges the physical laws in a way the weather doesn’t. That’s where the paradox lies for me.

    And you learned me (even when you didn’t actually say it) the explanation of this paradox lies in the non-physical nature of extropy. Extropy is enabled by bits of information that can jump from one set of atoms to another and thus evade the limitations of physics.

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Berend: Lightening is not sustainable: it last for milliscends. Rain reaches equilibrium in a matter of hours. The same is true of fire. It burns itself out quickly. In general weather is constantly and fairly quickly settling into equilibrium.

      However the Earth’s current atmosphere is in extreme chemical disequilibrium (all that oxygen) yet it persists in disequilibrium (at a very steady level) for eons — without evolution.

  • http://cognections.typepad.com/lifeblog charlie

    Heh, was roving your site for anything mentioning ‘comlexity’ (I have just made a post on Entropy and Complexity).

    I think the paradox you portray above is well suited for what I have been grappling with for some time.

    A bit toungue-in-cheek, I proposed the Venter (Vn) as a measure of (biological) complexity.

    http://cognections.typepad.com/lifeblog/2008/03/entropy-is-over.html

    Gosh, would have loved to have been at the post-seminar dinner last week with the Long Now team and Craig Venter. What a discussion must’ve ensued.

    (BTW, haven’t had a moment to listen to Craig’s Long Now talk, though.)

  • clark

    I seem to be a verb. Fuller

  • Ergo Ratio

    “Difference persists.” That’s the only recursive statement I require.