The Technium

Expanding Flexibility

[Translations: Japanese]

There’s no flexibility without life. Without life the primeval world is rigid.

If life itself were to vanish from this planet – not just humans as in the book “The World Without Us” – but all life suddenly gone, the remains of our creations would go rigid as well, and crumble. For many years the rock of our cities would stand tall. Skyscrapers would reach the sky, and suburbs sprawl across the landscape. But in a short while, particularly in the initial oxygen rich atmosphere of the biosphere, metals, plastics, and organics would start corroding. Anything, either living or artificial, that flexes, adapts, bends, or seals is made of a material which becomes rigid left on its own. Rubber goes brittle in air; sealants decay and leak. Iron rusts and expands. Most metals oxidize and flake. Only a few substances like gold remain unaltered over time, but these metals have very limited flexibility.

We use very few inert things, because, well, they are inert. Nearly 100% of what we produce and consume are active in a chemical-physical way. Either life (as in cells) or technology (as in factories) have processed and activated these materials to make them useful. The iron in iron ore is reduced, the carbon in organics is bonded, the other elements combined by judicious application of energy to make the ingredients of our natural biosphere and artificial technosphere. But without maintenance, these flexible materials disappear.

Ruined City W

Life obviously rots upon death, but even corrosion-resistant stainless steel and copper embedded in buildings and bridges would over time corrode and fail. Almost any material used to keep water out will, over time, fail. Water, that most corrosive liquid, will then eat any metal or organic material it touches. Concrete and stone crumble when water seeps in. As metals oxidize, hinges seize up. Swelling rust pulverizes concrete further. Moving parts stop. Plastics shred. Silicon seals dry. Everything becomes ossified. Even though the sun continues to shine, and the wind blows, and the waves crash, this surging ocean of energy becomes impotent and wasted on structures that are not flexible. The energy washes over them without positive effect.

It requires the focused, controlled energy in living and technological systems to keep the material world flexible. Metals have to be cleaned, replaced, protected. Organics need to be replenished. Flexibility has to be maintained at a significant energetic cost. If the processes which ensure adaptation, bendability, flexibility fail, then the large cycles of creation, growth and life fail, too.

The world then returns to a cold still, stiff world that can’t capture the flows of energy as they pass by. Minds, too, must remain flexible and bendable to capture the flow of ideas as they stream by.

In the wide vastness of the universe, flexibility is rare. It is not a “natural” state, but must be maintained (ironically) by another flexible agent. Flexibility, whether organic or inorganic, is a sign of life.

Technological systems are flexible, and are a sign of life. One of the things that technology wants is more flexibility: More controlled movement, more ways to move, more kinds of movement, more bendability, more adaptation, more ways to hold an elevated different, more ways to maintain a moving difference of any type.

A dead universe, a life-less planet, or a technology-free zone have none of  that. Difference vanishes, controlled movement ceases,  flexibility disappears. The only thing that remains are inflexible laws of physics, storms of unharnessed energy, and eternal sameness.

But wherever we see the expansion of flexibility, we see the growth of life and mind.

  • AjmoT

    Fluids are viscous. Rock is viscous. Clays, lime, glass, and ceramics are practically living in their spectacular array of structural capabilities and complex interactions with air, water, electricity, etc (more on that in a moment).

    If we postulated sudden removal of all known life from earth down to the bacteria and archea, we would be left with the picture of the primordial soup. You call this tumultuous world of chemical, molten, electromagnetic intensity — this is inflexible? Are you asking us to ignore the biochemical processes which ought to emerge from this soup? The plasticity and playfulness of all material on earth in this hypothetical situation is stunning to me, not stale.

    Once the planet has its atmosphere, there’s no hope for your picture of things. By this point, richly ordered processes are giving shape to material and energy in a very life-like way. The generative patterns of life (latent information) are present everywhere so far as I can see. You think that in such a late hour of their unveiling, in this hypothetical earth suddenly without biotic and technical life, we will only see mummification — hopeless dead artifacts kicking around at the whim of “hard” physics… what? All you’ve done here is stomp on the sandcastle — others are already being built.

    You are too narrowly defining flexibility. You’re denying its presence in all abiotic and non-technological pursuits. The least we can say is that earth is a big piece of laboratory equipment once it’s got a thick atmosphere and tectonic, water-bearing crust. In this view, the earth must be very flexible even without “life” — being a tool for making soup.

    But let’s say I entertain your rigid (_inflexible_ — ha!) opinion of “what is alive” in the cosmos. Do we banish the nanobes and pico-mechanisms and virus-scale machines from the planet in your hypothetically lifeless world? My eyes see an ordering principle in many of the substances which today others simply see as molecules — water, clay, and glass are a good place to start with this. Most likely we’ll find that gobs of these substances are coated and suffused with nano-scale organisms, and are themselves organismic, and that to this point we have seen only shadows of their “body” — evidence of which may be both larger and smaller in magnitude than we are used to focusing in on.

    Take for example the geological phenomenon of “mass-wasting” which you hint at. To this point it’s been attributed to oxidation and water-infiltration and gravity and geometry — a soup of otherwise “inert” chemical and physical processes. Do I hear nanobes in the mix? Do I detect a playfulness in the water’s servitude to gravity? As you say yourself: “move technology to invisibility”. Do you think the ancient architects of water and soil would be so crass as to put the “whirring motors” on display for all to see so easily?

    You are right to see a fine line, an interface, between the living and the “inert” aspects of our world. But this line is an expedient and an artificial distinction, its artificiality exposed by the unreal laws governing your fantasy.

    Whenever a distinction is made, you can bet the line will continually be drawn further in all directions across the spectrum: plants and slaves and women and embryos have been at different times in history “inert”, “barely human”, barely alive, impotent. The opposite direction is more to my taste. Some of the most intriguing work on life and biology is now being done by geologists, mars explorers, game programmers, and nanotech heads — because the phenomenon of life is being detected just beyond the borderlines of our existing preconceived notion of it, and these are the people being faced with this paradox on a daily basis. They are of the dominant cultural worldview, but they behold these strange new phenomenon where they aren’t supposed to exist. An integration and expansion is in order.

    Some of your work in these “Technium” posts is this process of grappling: you are struggling with both the reality of distinction-making processes within human cognition (“things are either this or that”), and new evidence that reality is fluid and indistinguishable (technology is a form of life). You refer to this in your “Lumpers and Splitters” post. You, sir, are splitter when it comes to “technobiotic life” and “inert earth”.

    “Inert earth” — what a joke!

    • Kevin Kelly

      @AjmoT: To the extent that viruses are alive they are flexible in their internal workings.

  • Kent Schnake

    Thanks a lot Kevin, now I will have “Crown of Creation” (Jefferson Airplane) running through my head all day: “Life is change, how it differs from the rocks”

  • Kent Schnake

    This is a trip, it is an excerpt from the Wikipedia article (The Chrysalids):

    The Chrysalids in popular culture
    The song “Crown of Creation” by Jefferson Airplane was inspired by the novel. Its title and lyrics are drawn from the text and plot with permission from Wyndham[2]. One example lifted almost verbatim from the text reflects a philosophical explanation by the Sealand woman: “But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks, change is its very nature.” This line is rendered in the lyrics as “Life is change – How it differs from the rocks.”

    The immediately preceding lines of the song In loyalty to their kind / they cannot tolerate our minds. / In loyalty to our kind / we cannot tolerate their obstruction. are also taken from the book, from a monologue that asserts the inevitability of the conflict. The only difference is that book says that they cannot tolerate “our rise”.

  • stephanie gerson

    “In the wide vastness of the universe, flexibility is rare. It is not a “natural” state, but must be maintained (ironically) by another flexible agent. Flexibility, whether organic or inorganic, is a sign of life.”

    ironically, or recursively? it keeps our minds flexible to do the work of maintaining flexibility.

    but does this mean flexibility is actually a relationship, an interaction, between two agents, rather than a characteristic of an individual one?

  • Steve Eunpu

    This is a simple observation… in high wind storms it’s dead tress that usually fall. Live trees are flexible in the wind and bend with their capillaries of sap. The dry dead branches snap easily with without the flexibility that the sap of a living tree provides.

  • panax