The Technium

Increasing Diversity


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The diversity of the universe has been increasing since the beginning of time. In its very first seconds the universe contained only quarks, which began to assemble into a variety of sub-atomic particles within minutes. By the end of the first hour, the universe contained dozens of  types of particles but only two elements, hydrogen and helium. Over the next 300 million years drifting hydrogen and helium atoms found each other and their micro-gravities bound them together into masses of growing nebula that eventually collapsed into fiery stars. Star fusion built up the hydrogen and helium with additional particles until they emerged as dozens of new heavier elements, and so the diversity of the chemical universe increased. Eventually some “metallic” stars exploded into supernova spewing their heavy elements into space, to be swept up again over millions of years into new stars. In a kind of pumping action, these second and third round star-furnaces added yet more neutrons to metallic elements to create more varieties of heavy metals until all 100 or so varieties of stable elements were created. The increasing diversity of elements and particles also created an increasing variety of star species, galaxies types, and varieties of orbiting planets. On planets with active tectonic crusts new kinds of minerals increased in time, as geologic forces reworked and rearranged the elements into new crystals and rocks.  The diversity of crystallized minerals on Earth, for instance, increased even further with advent of life.

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Two different studies (1982 and 1992) reveal increasing diversity in evolution of life on Earth



The invention of life greatly accelerated the diversity in the universe many fold. From a very few species 3.8 billion years ago, the number and variety of living species on Earth has increased dramatically over geological time to the 30 to 100 million now present.  This rise has been uneven in several ways. At certain times in Earth’s history large-scale cosmological disruptions (such as asteroid hits) have wiped out gains in diversity. And in specific branches of life diversity sometimes did not advance very much, or even retreated.  But overall, in life as a whole over geologic time, diversity has widened. In fact life’s diversity has doubled since the dinosaurian era, only 200 million years ago. The growth of biological differences, as a whole, is expanding exponentially, as this rocketing increase can be seen in vertebrates, plants and insects.

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Exponential increase in diversity  in (A) terrestrial plants (B) vertebrates, and (C) insects.

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. It’s difficult to precisely count the varieties of technological invention since innovations don’t have the defined borders of breeding that most living organisms do. We might count ideas, which underlie each invention. Each scientific article represents at least one new idea. The number of journal articles has exploded in the last 50 years. Each patent is also a species of idea. At last count there were 7 million patents issued in the US alone, and their total has been increasing exponentially as well. Considering that humans have named and identified only 1.6 million living species, as far as we know, the “made” now outnumber the “born” four to one.

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Exponential increase of scientific articles

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Exponential growth in US patents

We see increased diversity everywhere in the technium. Manufactured species of underwater organisms such as 70-foot submarine parallel living organisms like a blue whale. Airplanes ape birds, so to speak. Our houses are but better nests. But the technium explores niches that the born never ventured into. We know of no organisms using radio waves, yet the technium has produced hundreds of varieties of radio communicating species. While moles have been digging up earth for millions of years, two-story tunnel digging contraptions are so much larger, faster, and less daunted by solid rock than anything born that we can truly say they occupy a new niche on Earth. X-ray machines have a type of sight unknown among the living. And there is simply no biological analog to an Etch-a-Sketch, a digital watch, or a Space Shuttle, to name a few examples. Increasingly the diversity of the technium has no counterpart in biological evolution, and so the technium has truly increased diversity.

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Diversity of spark catchers for train locomotive smokestacks, from The Evolution of Technology

The diversity of the technium has already surpassed our skills of recognition. There are so many varieties of things that one individual can’t name them.  Cognitive researchers have discovered there are about 3,000 easily recognizable noun categories in modern life. This total includes manufactured objects and living organisms such as: elephant, airplane, palm, telephone, chair – things that are readily discernable in a flash without thinking. Researchers came up with the estimate of 3,000 based on the number of nouns listed in dictionaries, how many objects are found in the vocabulary of an average 6-year-old child, and the number of objects that a primitive expert system (20q) can recognize. They estimated there are, on average, ten named varieties for each noun category. Ten kinds of chairs, ten kinds of fish, ten kinds of phones, ten kinds of beds that ordinary people might be describe. That gives a rough estimate of 30,000 objects in most peoples lives, or at least 30,000 that they would recognize. Even when we name a form, most of the variety of life and the technium goes by us without a specific name. We may recognize a bird, but not which species of bird. We know a grass, but not which grass. We know it is a cell phone, but not what model. When pressed we can discern a chef’s knife from a Swiss Army knife from a spear point, but we may or may not be able to discern a fuel pump from a water pump. 

Of course there are many more than 30,000 varieties of manufactured things in the technium, but it is fair to ask whether some of their variety is important. In biological terms the 30,000 varieties of common nouns represents a type of meta diversity called disparity. Disparity indicates a difference in basic design forms, or a basic body plan, or form type, such as “elephant” or “palm” or “chair.” The actual variety of chair, or elephant can vary in details, and this local variation is what we call diversity. Disparity increases much more slowly than diversity, and is a more significant kind of variation. One is always more impressed with a brand new kind of invention (it’s a light bulb!) rather than a variation of known invention (another spark catcher!). In biological evolution disparity can decrease (fewer new ways to make an animal) while diversity increases (more new kinds of already-invented elephants and horses).

There are branches of the technium where the diversity of technological species is dwindling; today there are fewer innovations in spark catchers, buggy whips, hand looms, and ox carts. I doubt anyone has invented a new manual butter churner in the last 50 years. (Although many people are still inventing “better” mousetraps.) Handlooms will always be around for art. Ox carts are not extinct and will probably never go extinct globally as long as oxen are born. But because oxcarts encounter no new demands, like all artifacts hovering near obsolescence, they are remarkably stable inventions, continuing over time unchanged, like horseshoe crabs. But technological backwaters like these are overwhelmed by the mind-numbing avalanche of innovation, ideas, and artifacts throughout the rest of the expanding technium.

One hardware wholesaler, McMaster-Carr, lists “over 480,000 products” in its catalog. There you can find 2,432 varieties of wood screws alone. Amazon carries 85,000 different cell phones and cell phone products. So far humans have created 500,000 different movies and about one million TV episodes. At least 10 million different songs have been recorded. The largest database of bar codes lists 2.7 million different products for sale in Europe and the US, which EAN, the issuing agency, says is “only a small fraction” of the product codes that have been issued. Multiplying that small fraction up gives a grand total of about 100 million different products in circulation.

All these quantities are rising as diversity of the technium increases over time. The number of new technological “species” in many branches of the technium – food products, media creations, consumer gadgets, tools, and material types — seem to be growing by 10% annually.  That means that in 50 years, when the next generation is in middle age, there will be 12 billion different produced products for sale, including 10 million different types of cell phone-like thingies, and 1.1 billion (!) different songs to listen to. There will still be a top 40 hit song list, but the existence of 1 billion alternative songs will bend our culture.

The problem with this cornucopia of diversity and abundance is not the problem of how we can individually absorb it; even if you listened to a song only once, (or watched a movie, tried a tool) in a non-stop marathon during your waking hours for your entire life, you could not make a dent in the totality. The real problem with ultra-diversity is in not being able to grasp the whole of it, not being able to search through it, to track your navigation in this space of billions, and to (re)find the best when you summon it.

A billion songs by 2060 (how many a century later?), 12 billion products for sale in 50 years (how many in two centuries?) seem outrageously large, perhaps unlikely. Surely, compound growth doesn’t keep going. It is true that growth of all species, both made and born, follow an “s” curve as they slowly rise in numbers, then increase rapidly, and eventually taper off in a plateau, to be replaced by another species. So cell phones are unlikely to ever reach 10 million varieties simply because long before 50 years hence they will be replaced by a different device. And perhaps the format of songs, too, might peak in popularity to be replaced by some unit of music unknown to us now, just as the 90-minute movie was unknown a century ago. Nonetheless, the total diversity of these new replacements plus the peak diversity of the old yields absolutely increasing numbers of new things in the technium.

Some researchers question the economic assumptions of technological ultra diversity. How many different phone designs can a market support, even a global market? Or shoes? (Zappos carries 90,000 different shoes today. In 50 years, at current rates of diversity growth, there should be 10 million choices in shoes. Talk about a long tail!) Who would design, finance and market this diversity? One answer: prosumers drive ultra diversity. The buyers are the makers of diversity. Right now major book publishers are fighting to remain economically viable. A big-time New York book publisher may produce 200 titles per year. But Lulu, a prosumer company that enables authors to publish their own paper books is releasing 5,000 titles per week. A slew of other companies are pioneering the expansion of diversity by enabling mass customization, in which items can be personalized and customized by manufacturing means (instead of customized by hand). A small industry of long-tail mass-customization exists at the margins of the economy. Blurb makes photo books; Café Press, hats and mugs; Threadless, t-shirts; Infectious, decals; CD Baby, music CDs. Within the next 50 years personal fabricators in local shops will begin to permit individuals to create personally diversity tangible artifacts, manufactured in units of one. The world of 1 billion species of tools, 100 billion unique varieties of products is plausible.

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A few iconoclasts believe this ultra-diversity is toxic to humans. In the “The Paradox of Choice“, sociologist Barry Schwartz argues that the 285 varieties of cookies, 171 kinds of salad dressing and 85 brands of crackers for sale in the typical supermarket today is paralyzing consumers. They enter the store looking for crackers, see a bewildering wall of cracker choices, become overwhelmed with trying to make an informed decision and finally walk out not purchasing any crackers at all. “Whether people are choosing jam in a grocery store or essay topics in a college class, the more options people have, the less likely they are to make a choice,” says Schwartz. Similarly, in trying to choose a plan of medical benefits plan with hundreds of options, many consumers give up because of the complexity of choice is paralyzing and instead resign from the program, whereas programs that included a default choice of options (no decision necessary) had much higher enrollments. Schwartz concludes: “As the number of choices grows further, the negatives escalate until we become overloaded. At this point, choice no longer liberates, but debilitates. It might even be said to tyrannize.”

It is true that too many choices may induce regret, but “no choice” is a far worst option. Civilization itself is a steady move away from “no choice.” As ever, the solution to the problems that technology brings, such overwhelming diversity and choices is better technologies. The solution to ultra-diversity will be choice-assist technologies. These better tools will augment humans in making choices among bewildering options. Diversity, in fact, will produce tools to handle diversity. (Diversity-taming tools will be among the wildly diverse-making 821 million patents that current rates predict will be filed by 2060.). We are already discovering how to use computers to augment our choices with information and webpages (it’s called Google), but it will take additional learning and technologies to do this with tangible tools, and idiosyncratic media. At the dawn of the web some very smart computer scientists declared that it would be impossible to select from a billion web pages using key word search, but we routinely do just that on 100 billion web pages today. No one is asking for fewer web pages.

Difference powers the world. It is the absolute difference in temperature between cold space and hot stars that powers not only life on earth, but syntropy anywhere. No delta, no life, no stars, no galaxy, no nothing. Maintaining a difference is what living systems and minds do.  When a difference can be maintained over time, it can begin to multiply and increase differences elsewhere. If it a diverse ecosystem is in good health it will, over time, increase its own diversity. Evolution increases differences.  Culture is about accentuating differences.  The technium runs on differences.

That may sound strange to many, because the stereotypical image of increasing technology is one of standard products, world-wide sameness, and unwavering uniformity. Yet, paradoxically, diversity can be unleashed by uniformity. The uniformity of a standard writing system (like an alphabet or script) unleashes the unexpected diversity of literature. Without uniform rules, every word has to be made-up, so communication is localized and inefficient. But with a uniform language sufficient communication transpires in large circles so that a novel word, phrase or idea can be appreciated, caught, and disseminated. The rigidity of an alphabet has done more to enable creativity than any brain-storming exercise ever invented.

The standard 26 letters in English have produced 28 million different books in English. Words and language will keep evolving of course, but their evolution rides on basic fundamentals that are conserved and shared; unvarying (over the short term) letters, spelling, grammar rules enable creativity in ideas.  Increasingly the technium will converge upon a few universal standards – perhaps English, and western musical notation, mathematical symbols, but also widely adopted technical protocols, from the metric system to ASCII and Unicode. The modern infrastructure of the world today is built upon a shared system woven from these kinds of standards. That is why you can order machine parts in China to be used in factories in South Africa, or have research done in India for drugs released in Brazil. This convergence of fundamental protocols is also why the youth of today can speak to each other directly in a way not possible even a decade ago. They use cell phones and netbooks running common operating systems, but they also employ standard abbreviations and increasingly share common cultural touchstones by watching the same movies, listening to the same music, studying the same subjects in school, and pocketing the same technology. In a curious way the homogenization of shared universals allows it to transmit the diversity of cultures.

In a world of converging global standards, a recurring fear among minority cultures is that their niche differences will be lost. They need not be. In fact, the increasingly common carrier of global communication can heighten the value of their differences. The distinctive foods, medicinal knowledge, and child rearing practices, say of the Yanomamo tribe in the Amazon, or the San Bushman in Africa, were only esoteric, local knowledge before. Their diversity commanded a difference that did not make a difference outside the tribe because their knowledge was not connected to the rest of cultures. But once connected to standard roads, electricity, communications, their differences can potentially make a difference to others. Even if their knowledge could only be applied in their local environment, wider knowledge of their knowledge made a difference. Where do wealthy people travel to? Places that retain differences. What eateries attract customers? The ones with distinctive differences. What products sell in a global market? The ones that think different. If such local diversity can remain distinctively different while it is connected (and this is a very big IF) then that difference becomes steadily more valuable in a global matrix. Maintaining that balance of connected-but-different is a challenge of course, because much of this cultural difference and diversity originated via isolation, and in the new mix it no longer will be isolated. Cultural differences that thrive without isolation (even if they were born out of it) will compound  in value as the world becomes standardized. Of this stance I am reminded of Bali, Indonesia. The rich, distinguished Balinese culture seems to deepen even as it becomes interconnected to the modern world. Like other inhabitants of old and new, the Balinese may wield English as their universal second language while speaking their own tongue at home. They make their ritualistic offerings from flowers in the morning and study science at school in the afternoon. They do gamelan and google.

In this way the technium can both become more homogenized and more diverse at the same time. Take languages, mentioned earlier, as an example. In 100 years it is very likely there will be at least one common language spoken by at least half the people on the planet. But the same people will also retain their regional tongue as well, perhaps even more widely than is spoken today, since some fading languages such as Gaelic have revived. Yet we are currently loosing dozens of tribal languages every year, reducing diversity. On the other hand, millions of earthlings have learned newly created computer languages. These are entirely new types of languages. I would argue that the global diversity of languages has decrease but its global disparity has increased.

Costume is another. The most widely dispersed manufactured technology in the world today is not a steel blade nor a cell phone (although these are extremely prolific) but manufactured cotton cloth. In the most remote regions of the world, in the swamps of Papua New Guinea, or the desert plateau of Tibet, you’ll find very few imported iron knives or metal pots, but you’ll find people wearing generic machine-made t-shirts or pants. This is one technology that has penetrated every tribe on Earth. A lot of this is cast-off clothing from developed countries, but a lot is new clothing made in nearby capital cities. Machined cotton fabric is so cheap to make per piece, so easy to transport, and so much superior to labor intensive rough home-spun, that traditional clothing is often reserved for occasional celebrations in both poor and wealthy places. However, the very same qualities that make manufactured cloth so ubiquitous also makes it easy to modify or customize. Bolts of machine cloth are printed in local patterns, dyed in local colors, cut in local designs, and sewn into distinctive style. In the cities of the planet new kinds and types of machine-made clothing is increasing the disparity of cloth. Fancy fashion shops, sports catalogs and outdoor stores sell inventive new kinds of fabric and wholly new concepts in clothes. The degree of diversity that is lost by traditional hand-weaving is gained by new styles, even though particular designs may disappear – though they rarely do. On the whole, the variety of traditional clothing may have decreased in local regions but overall the disparity of clothing design has increased around the globe.

We can go down the list: cuisine, ceremonies, art, and music. In every case there may be a loss of diversity in some local regions over time (as there has always been) but a gain of globally disparity. Local losses hurt, but we are increasingly a global species. We seek maximum diversity because it is the source of innovation, evolution, and ultimately progress. And it is also the product of all those, too.

Diversity is the currency of progress. The things that we desire – freedom of choice, options and difference – are types of diversity, and in a loop of upcreation, more diversity produces more of the things that we desire.

Beginning from the white dawn of creation, diversity in the universe has been increasing. Its rate of increase has been ramped up by life, and is now being further accelerated by the technium. What technology wants is greater diversity.




Comments
  • André

    There have been so far very little phenomenon that show unlimited exponential growth. Sooner or later, the limitations of the assumptions underlying the growth are tested and the curve turns into something known as the S-curve. Could you clarify what are the underlying assumptions that are required to be valid for the exponential growth to continue forever?

  • stephanie gerson

    Considering that my own operating principle is diversity, I hear you loud and clear. A few quick thoughts/questions:

    1) “It’s difficult to precisely count the varieties of technological invention since innovations don’t have the defined borders of breeding that most living organisms do,” but I think your argument would benefit for a more concerted attempt at defining technological diversity. Note that biological diversity is defined by the ability to create more diversity (or at least, more ingredients which – by combining together – will create more diversity), i.e. the ability to produce fertile offspring. Might there be a technological analog, a characteristic of technologies/components of the technium that enable them to create more diversity (or, again, more ingredients which – by combining together – will create more diversity)?

    2) “Within the next 50 years personal fabricators in local shops will begin to permit individuals to create personally diversity tangible artifacts, manufactured in units of one. The world of 1 billion species of tools, 100 billion unique varieties of products is plausible.” This is what I call “same season, different year.” We’ve re-arrived at personal fabrication – what used to be our local blacksmiths and shoemakers are now Blurb and Threadless. But the difference is that we’ve gone from non-mass personalization to mass personalization, and now we have all of the above available to us – non-mass personalization, mass production, AND mass personalization. Hence same season, different year. And hence increasing diversity.

    3) “Difference powers the world…Evolution increases differences. Culture is about accentuating differences. The technium runs on differences.” Amen. The first thing God did was create a difference. I wrote an entire humanifesto about difference almost 8 years ago. And I’ve stubbornly decided that folks who don’t appreciate the virtue of differences have a case of what Ken Wilber calls Boomeritis.

    4) “In this way the technium can both become more homogenized and more diverse at the same time.” Consider it meta-diverse (diverse in diversity). Or as I always say, I’m so open-minded, I’m even open to being close-minded.

    5) Something to explore further, which connects to the diversity/disparity distinction, is the ontology of the entities you speak of. These entities are not (for lack of a better word) all on the same ‘level.’ Think elements; the most abundant ones are the smallest (hydrogen, helium) because they are the most versatile. But at some point in combining with each other, they arrive at a higher level of complexity (from elements to compounds). What’s especially fascinating to me is when entities at different levels start to breed/interact/whatever. Not sure if you’re following me, but this is what excited me about groups – not that they can engage in collective action/”the New Socialism”/etc. but what will happen when individuals and groups and the superorganism collaborate together…

  • Carmen Martín Robledo

    Hi Kevin. Im very worried with this article. Its necessary all of that?. Why we need 248 varieties of cokkies?. Its stupid and I feel very bad about people that dont have anithing to eat.
    Well, Its increible your article and I will tried to translate in spanish and post part in my blog http://blog.canariasav.es. Thanks, you are a genius for me.
    Sorry for my regular english.
    Bye bye from Tenerife Island in Spain.

  • felix

    One thing about those exponential graphs: Typically the current date is marked as the rightmost point on the curve, making it look as if the graph is about to hit a vertical slope (infinite change i.e. the singularity) any day now. The problem is that all points on an exponential curve look the same if you zoom out enough. So you could have shown the same graph for the year 1000.

  • Marc Rapp

    Excellent post. Practical thinking in so many ways.

  • Shaye Horwitz

    24?

  • Darryl Parker

    Information sharing has been reduced even further in the last century to the sequencing of 1s and 0s. Another good example of how the ubiquity of the technology makes it invisible.

    Perhaps a trend chart on the increases of commonality would be beneficial.

    As an example, the disintermediation of the reseller/marketer from the producer/consumer relationship has created so much more choice for the consumer and so much more opportunity for smaller producers to gain consumers. I’ve heard it said had the Internet existed at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, we may have never developed the reseller/marketer trade.

    But the most successful of these brokers of goods were those who sought quality products and sorted the wheat from the chaff. The brokers of information in our schools and in our journalism also served the same filtering purposes. I believe these curators/cultivators/brokers of all products, information and services will gain ground in this sea of diversity. Choice will be decreased as a result (and as a choice – one could certainly choose to not use a filter) and therefore extrapolating from Schwartz utilization will be higher.

    Entropy in any system is good. It is the fuel of creativity and advancement. Stagnation festers and collects the disease of sloth. Perhaps the fire has just been lit… I think so.

  • evobrain

    You mention how at first a new technology like twitter is used to discuss twitter. I’m not sure if this is generally true, but I would like to offer my own observations about how new technologies are used.

    What I have observed is that a new technology is at first used as a substitute for an existing technology. So it is engineered to imitate in form and function the technology that it replaces.

    Example: The first cars were called horseless carriages and looked like carriages. Todays cars look almost nothing like an old fashioned carriage.

    Example: In architecture when a new material is first used, it is used as a drop in replacement for an existing material and the external design of the building remains unchanged. Think of the first use of steel in construction. After some time the new material came to be reflected in new designs.

    Example: At first cell phones were just used to have the same conversations as old fashioned home phones. Now we use them for text messaging and sending pictures as well. There are also changes in our behavior based on the ability to stay in constant communication. Eventually this changes the underlying culture.

    A last note. My grandparents generation was the first to have radio. My generation was the broadcast TV generation. There was an intermediate generation that grew up with PCs and 24 hour cable TV. For today’s generation cellphones and the internet are taken for granted. Their brains are being wired in a different way than ours were and they will evolve a new culture as a result.

  • Aaron Davies

    typo: “its called Google”

    otherwise awesome as usual. (i just wonder how i’m going to pick an expert choice system from the dozens likely to be available to me….)

    • http://www.kk.org Kevin Kelly

      @Aaron: What is computronium?

  • matt

    Introducing the SearchEngine-SearchEngine! (SESE for short) Simply enter the sort of information you’d like to search for and SESE will return a list of search engines indexing that type of data ranked by popularity, accuracy, precision, and index size.

    Version 2 is planned to index other meta-search-engines, thus adding another, more complicated layer of indirection.

  • FRank

    I’m upset, the English alphabet seems to still have 26 characters not 24. I was reading along agog when I hit this boulder and fell off the rails.

  • Reader

    Lots of cookies, crackers, etc. that come in multiple flavors also have an “original” flavor. Funny, I’ve never thought of “original” as meaning “default” before.

  • Kent Schnake

    Excellent post. Your enumeration of the many varieties of cell phones, spark catchers, etc. shocked and surprised me, even though I am well aware that there is an amazing variety of manufactured goods. The variety is even more amazing than I thought.

    I did a quick search on butter churns, because I think that humans are virtually incapable of continuing to build something without modifying the design for one reason or another. Here is a link to a manufacturer for dasher style manual butter churns that looks like a prime candidate for creating or having created a new design. Notice their emphasis on the unique shape of the ceramic churn body.
    http://www.redwingstoneware.com/store/agora.cgi?product=butterchurns

  • Clem Weidenbenner

    FRank makes a great point. But I note that Kevin referred to 24 ‘standard’ letters. So now we have a couple ‘non-standard’ letters (nominees anyone? I move that Q be at the head of the list). Pluto no longer a planet, Q no longer a letter. Seems easy enough.

    The quible I have with that same sentance is the notion that the letters produced the books. Methinks several human authors might want to disagree. But Kevin’s point still seems relevant – you can make an awful lot from a few simple tools if enough people colaborate and use those tools extensively.

  • Ken Wilson

    Kevin -

    This is a fabulous (as always) wade through complexity, diversity and disparity and you convincingly establish that we should focus on the continuities between the physical-chemical-biological-cultural-technical layerings within a single frame of an expanding long right tail of deepening self-referent complexity. (But perhaps you could have said more about how the addition of each layer further complexifies the layer beneath: biological processes on earth greatly diversified and complexified geological processes and led to (eg) many different kinds of rock; cultural processes and human presence diversified landscapes and human cultural processes like domesticating food crops diversified these species biologically etc. Isn’t likely that the technium will diversify human beings, human cultures, and other biological and chemical processes etc??).

    On the other hand, there will be downsides for diversity and complexity if we continue on the current trajectory on planet earth. Your admirable optimism needs to deal with these too. Human beings now ordinate about half of the primary biological productivity of the planet – and guess what – we do it for narrower purposes than did the rest of life when it had more sway. Together with our deployment of the planet’s water resources and our engagement in everything from the nitrogen cycle onward, this means an extensive simplification and homogenization of landscapes is occurring, with in turn a loss in complexity in their food webs, species composition and so forth. Most places on earth are not only now simpler and less species rich, but they also tend to be more similar and even contain the same species (the consequences of invasive species etc). The same is true for the same reasons in cultural terms. You characterize this correctly but incompletely as:

    “In every case there may be a loss of diversity in some local regions over time (as there has always been) but a gain of globally disparity. Local losses hurt, but we are increasingly a global species.”

    The incompleteness is that (a) we are losing so much locally that it will have consequence globally – eg the anticipated loss of 50% of the world’s languages or initiation of a new mass extinction of biodiversity is more than just a local tragedy, and (b) the on-going evolution/generation of new complexity will be slowed down by the homogenization of the conditions/contexts across the world for that to happen. (Integration, standardization etc can accelerate innovation but over-connected systems have difficulty creating complexity and diversity) and (c) timescales matter – as the technium speeds on the inbalance between the rates of change in the arenas of technology, culture, biology, geology etc will matter increasingly. The time taken to discover a new way of measuring climate change is much less than how long it takes to change cultural attitudes about climate change or grow an oak tree, and that is much less time than it takes for carbon dioxide to equilibriate in the oceans. This suggests that fast processes – especially when managed by very clever primates chasing their very clever machines – will escape feedback loops long enough to set slow variables in motion that will then be unstoppable on the timeframes of the fast processes leading to system breakdown. And that looks suspiciously like where we are on the planet right now.

    Two quick comments about your curves. Take a long view. Your exponentials will become S curves in any location in the universe, and presumably in the universe as a whole on the longest time frame, as we eventually wind back to zero. To be more precise – in finite systems they become S-curves. The realm you’re exploring appears to have both finite and infinite dimensions – will this mean that your curves will inevitably diverge. (Eg Software complexity is likely less constrained by material issues than say language diversity, where the number of humans, the nature of their brains, and the number of contexts for talking are likely to kick in to slow language diversification eventually.) This and your other initial essays in the technium – or at least those i’ve read so far – say remarkably little about feedback, something you covered well in “Out of Control”. Exponentials are of course the greatest destabilizers of any system. If they don’t encounter feedback quickly they lead to breakdown and/or transformation. Perhaps what’s exciting about the technium is that the absence of feedback is what’s enabling the driving of this level of transformative change. But that could be its downfall too. There is a well-documented theory of civilizational collapse that the internal processes that drive complexity in the society and bureaucracy are so unconstrained that they thrive until they limit the spatial-temporal expansion and prevent the necessary innovation to avoid implosion. You hint at evolutionary cycles in which the complex and specialized is lost in favor of the simple – such notions may help unpack the “exponential highway to the singularity” challenge (in fact these big exponential curves you draw are just a connected series of S-curves where each component – whether coelocanth or cell phone plateaus out and the next innovation swings in.)

    Some thoughts.

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