Your dog wants to go outside. Your cat wants to be scratched. Birds want mates. Worms want moisture. Bacteria want food.
The wants of a microscopic single-celled organism are less than the wants of you or me, but all organisms share a few fundamental desires: to survive, to grow. The wants of a protozoan are unconscious, unarticulated, and more like an urge, or even tendency. A bacterium tends to drift toward nutrients with no awareness of its needs. There is no room beneath its membrane for a will as we know it, yet in a dim way it chooses to satisfy its wants by heading one way and not another.
Perhaps not much room is needed to want. The astrophysicist Freeman Dyson claims that we should view the smallest known bits of organized matter — quantum particles – as making choices. For millions of years a particle will exist and then suddenly it decays. Why then? Dyson says that from the individual particle’s viewpoint, this moment can only look like a choice, a satisfaction of a want. It is only on the scale of statistics with millions of particles that a particle’s choice shapes up as a predictable radiation half-life. But even individual human wants and desires average out to weirdly predictable laws in aggregate.
If a little one-celled protozoan – a very small package – can have a choice, if a flea has urges, if a starfish has a bias towards certain things, if a mouse can want, then so can the growing, complexifying technological assemblage we have surrounded ourselves with. Its complexity is approaching the complexity of a microscopic organism. This tissue consists (so far) of billions of dwellings, millions of factories, billions of hectares of land modified by plant and animal breeding, trillion of motors, thousands of dammed rivers and artificial lakes, hundred of millions of automobiles coursing along like cells, a quadrillion computer chips, millions of miles of wire, and it consumes 16 terawatts of power.
None of these parts operate independently. No mechanical system can function by itself. Each bit of technology requires the viability and growth of all the rest of technology to keep going. There is no communication without the nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without the veins of coal mining, uranium mining, or damming of rivers, or even the mining of precious metals to make solar panels. There is no metabolism of factories without the ingest of food from domesticated plants and animals, and no circulation of goods without vehicles. This global-scaled network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, institutions, laws, calculators, sensors, works of art, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators – this whole grand system of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a very primitive organism-like system. Call it the technium.
The technium is the sphere of visible technology and intangible organizations that form what we think of as modern culture. It is the current accumulation of all that humans have created. For the last 1,000 years, this techosphere has grown about 1.5% per year. It marks the difference between our lives now, verses 10,000 years ago. Our society is as dependent on this technological system as nature itself. Yet, like all systems it has its own agenda. Like all organisms the technium also wants.
To head off any confusion, the technium is not conscious (at this point). Its wants are not deliberations, but rather tendencies. Leanings. Urges, Trajectories. By the nature of self-reinforcing feedback loops, any large system will tend to lean in certain directions more than others. The sum total of millions of amplifying relationships, circuits, and networks of influence is to push the total in one direction more than another. Every owner of a large complicated machine can appreciate this tendency. Your machine will “want” to stall in certain conditions, or want to “runaway” in others. Left to its own devices, complex systems will gravitate to specific states. In mathematical terms this is called the convergence upon “strange attractors” – sort of gravity wells that pull in a complex system toward this state no matter where it starts.
Of course we humans want certain things from the technium, but at the same time there is an inherent bias in the technium outside of our wants. Beyond our desires, there is a tendency within the technium that – all other things being equal — favors a certain solutions. Technology will head in certain directions because physics, mathematics, and realities of innovation constrain possibilities. Imagine other worlds of alien civilizations. Once they discover electricity, their electronics will share some, but not all, attributes with our electrical devices. That which they share can be counted as the inherent agenda of electrical technology. Throughout the galaxy any civilization that invents nuclear power will hit upon a small set of workable solutions: that set is the inherent “agenda” of technology.
It would be wonderful if we could survey all alien technological civilizations to extract the common tendencies in technological growth. A large number of technological evolutions would reveal the culture-free dynamics beneath them all. Since we have a solitary sample of one technium back on Earth, we have fewer methods of unraveling inherent system bias in technology. Three lines of evidence present themselves:
1) We can look back in history to when technological development was more culturally isolated. The pathways of technology in early China, South America, Africa, and Western Europe out with only minimal cross-over influence. Examination of their parallel developmental sequences can reveal inherent biases.
2) More importantly, the major predecessor system to technology is organic life. Many of the dynamics of evolution and syntropy extend from living organisms into artificial systems, primarily because they share similar disequilibrial states. We can see the direction of technology in the direction of life and evolution (that is if you accept evolution has a bias as I do).
3) The long-term history of our single technium shows high-level patterns which we can project forward. We can ignore individual inventions and chart long-term flows which enable them. Much as we might want the compressed history of a growing creature and guess where it goes next. If the organism is a caterpillar we are out of luck; if it is a worm, it will succeed.
Strandbeest by Theo Jansen
So, looking at the evolution of life and the long-term histories of past technologies, what are the long-term trajectories of the technium? What does technology want?
To increase diversity
To maximize freedom/choices
To expand the space of the possible
To increase specialization/uniqueness
To increase power density
To increase density of meaning
To engage all matter and energy
To reach ubiquity and free-ness
To become beautiful
To increase complexity
To increase social co-dependency
To increase self-referential nature
To align with nature
To accelerate evolvability
To play the infinite game
In general the long-term bias of technology is to increase the diversity of artifacts, methods, techniques. More ways, more choices. Over time technological advances invent more energy efficient methods, and gravitate to technologies which compress the most information and knowledge into a given space or weight. Also over time, more of more of matter on the planet will be touched by technological processes. Also, technologies tend toward ubiquity and cheapness. They also tend towards new levels of complexity (though many will get simpler, too). Over time technologies require more surrounding technologies in order to be discovered and to operate; some technologies become eusocial – a distributed existence – in which they are inert when solitary. In the long run, technology increases the speed at which it evolves and encourages its own means of invention to change. It aims to keep the game of change going.
What this means is that when the future trajectory of a particular field of technology is in doubt, “all things being equal” you can guess several things about where it is headed:
• The varieties of whatever will increase. Those varieties that give humans more free choices will prevail.
• Technologies will start out general in their first version, and specialize over time. Going niche will always be going with the flow. There is almost no end to how specialized (and tiny) some niches can get.
• You can safely anticipate higher energy efficiency, more compact meaning and everything getting smarter.
• All are headed to ubiquity and free. What flips when everyone has one? What happens when it is free?
• Any highly evolved form becomes beautiful, which can be its own attraction.
• Over time the fastest moving technology will become more social, more co-dependent, more ecological, more deeply entwined with other technologies. Many technologies require scaffolding tech to be born first.
• The trend is toward enabling technologies which become tools for inventing new technologies easiest, faster, cheaper.
• High tech needs clean water, clean air, reliable energy just as much as humans want the same.
These are just some of the things technology wants. We don’t always have to do what technology wants, but I think we need to begin with what it wants so that we can work with these forces instead of against them.