The Technium


Extropy is neither wave nor particle, nor pure energy. It is an immaterial force that is very much like information. Since extropy is defined as negative entropy — the reversal of disorder — it is, by definition, an increase in order. But what is order? Despite our intuitive sense, we lack a good operational definition of order, which seems to be tied up with complexity (see Ordained Becoming). For simple physical systems, the concepts of thermodynamics suffice, but for the real world of cucumbers, brains, books, and self-driving trucks, we don’t have useful metrics for extropy. The best we can say is that extropy resembles, but is not equivalent to, information.

We can not make an exact informational definition of extropy because we don’t really know what information is. In fact the term “information” covers several contradictory concepts that should have their own terms. We use information to mean 1) a bunch of bits, or 2) a meaningful signal. When entropy (disorder) increases, it produces “more information” as in more bits. But when entropy decreases, it is the same as a rise in extropy (negative entropy) which produces “more information” as in more structured meaningful bits.  Until we clarify our language the term information is more metaphor than anything else. I try use it in the second meaning here (not always successfully): as in bits that make a difference.

Mudding the waters further, information is the reigning metaphor of the moment. We tend to interpret the mysteries surrounding life in imagery suggested by the most complex system we are aware of at the time. Once nature was described as a body, then a clock in the age of clocks, then a machine in the industrial age. Now in the “digital age” we apply the computational metaphor (see The Computational Metaphor). To explain the how our minds work, or how evolution advances, we apply the pattern of a very large software program processing bits of information. None of these historical metaphorical pictures are wrong; just incomplete. Ditto for computation. But extropy must be more than information alone. We have thousands of years of science ahead of us. Information and computation can’t be the most complex immaterial entity there is, just the most complex we’ve discovered so far. We might eventually discover that extropy involves quantum dynamics, or gravity, or even quantum gravity. But for now, information (in the sense of structure) is a better analogy than anything else we know of for understanding the nature of extropy. Following information will reveal a larger pattern.

In the initial era of the universe, energy dominated existence. At that time radiation was all there was. The universe was a glow. Slowly, as space expanded and cooled, matter took over. Matter was clumpy, unevenly distributed, but its crystallization generated gravity which began to shape space. With the rise of life (in our immediate neighborhood) information ascended in influence. The informational process we call life took control of the atmosphere of Earth several billion years ago. Now the technium, another informational processing, is reconquering it. Extropy’s rise in the universe (from the perspective of our planet) might look like this chart, where E=energy, M=mass, and I=information.


The billion-years rise of extropy — as it flings up stable molecules, solar systems, a planetary atmosphere, life, mind and the technium — can be restated as the slow accumulation of ordered information. Or rather, the slow ordering of accumulated information.

This is more clearly seen at the extreme. The difference between four bottles of amino acids on a laboratory self and the four amino acids arrayed in your chromosomes lies in the additional structure, or ordering, those atoms get from participating in the spirals of your replicating DNA. Same atoms, more order. Those atoms of amino acids acquire yet another level of structure and order when their cellular host undergoes evolution. As organisms evolve, the informational code their atoms carry is manipulated, processed, and reordered. In addition to genetic information, the atoms now convey adaptive information. Over time, the same atoms can be promoted to new levels of order. Perhaps their one cell home joins another cell to become multicellular — that demands the informational architecture for a larger organism as well as a cell. Further transitions in evolution — the aggregation into tissues and organs, the acquisition of sex, the creation of social groups — continue to elevate the order and increase the structure of the information flowing through those same atoms.

The technium can be understood as a way of structuring information beyond biology. Foremost among all inventions is language, and its kin writing, which introduced a parallel set of symbol strings to those found in DNA. But the grammar and syntax of language far outstrips the flexibility of the genetic code. Literary inventions like the book index, punctuation, cross-references, and alphabetic order permitted incredibly complex structures within words; printing broadcast them. Calendars and other scripts captured abstractions such as time, or music. The invention of the scientific method in the 17th century was a series of deepening organizational techniques. Data was first measured, then recorded, analyzed, forecasted and disseminated. The wide but systematic exchange of information via wires, radio waves and society meetings upped the complexity of information flowing through the technium. Innovations in communications (phonograph, telegraph, television) sped up the rate of coordination, and also added new levels of systemization. The invention of paper was a more permanent memory device than the brain; photographic film even better. Cheap digital chips lowered the barrier for storing ephemeral information, further intensifying the density of information. Highly designed artifacts and materials are atoms stuffed with layers of complex information. The most mechanical superstructures we’ve ever built – say skyscrapers, or the Space Shuttle, or the Hadron Supercollider — are giant physical manifestations of incredibly structured information. There are many more hours of design poured into them than hours in manufacturing. Finally, the two greatest inventions in the last 25 years, the link and the tag, have woven new levels of complexity into the web of information. The technium of today reflects 8,000 years of almost daily incremental increases in its embedded knowledge.

For four billion years evolution has been accumulating knowledge in its library of genes. You can learn a lot in four billion years. Every one of the 30 million or so unique species of life on the planet today is an unbroken informational thread that traces back to the very first cell. That thread (DNA) learns something new each generation, and adds that hard-won knowledge to its code.  Geneticist Motoo Kimura estimates that the total genetic information accumulated since the Cambrian explosion 500 million years ago is 10 megabytes per genetic lineage.  Now multiply the unique information held by every individual organism by all the organisms alive in the world today and you get an astronomically large treasure.  Imagine the Noah’s Ark that would be needed to carry the genetic payload of every organism on earth (seeds, eggs, spores, sperms). One study estimated the earth harbored 10^30 single-cell microbes. A typical microbe, like a yeast, produces one one-bit mutation per generation, which means one bit of unique information for every organism alive. Simply counting the microbes alone (about 50% of the biomass), the biosphere contains 10^30 bits, or 10^29 bytes, or 10,000 yottabyes of genetic information. That’s a lot.

And that is only the biological information. The technium is awash in its own ocean of information. Measured by the amount of digital storage in use, the technium today contains 487 exabytes (10^20) of information, many orders smaller than nature’s total, but growing. Technology expands data by 66% per year, overwhelming the growth rates of any natural source.  Compared to other planets in the neighborhood, or to the dumb material drifting in space beyond, a thick blanket of learning and self-organized information surround this orb.

This store of order is a surprise. Earth’s great heap of structure, complexity and knowledge does not seem to be contained “in” the physics that govern non-extropic stuff. Where do you hide 10^29 bytes of organization? The rules behind the fundamental behavior of the elemental particles and energies that make up our reality are very spare, almost naked.  It might take books and books to explain them in words, but the laws themselves can be compressed into a very small amount of information. If you were to take all the known laws of physics, formulas such as f=ma, E=mc^2, S= K log W, and more complicated ones that describe how liquids flow, or objects spin, or electrons jump, and write them all down in one file, they would fit onto a single gigabyte CD disk. Amazingly, one plastic plate could contain the operating code for the entire universe. Even if we currently know only 0.1% of the actual number of laws guiding universal processes, many of which we are undoubtedly still unaware of, and the ultimate file of physical laws was 1,000 times bigger, it would fit onto one high-density “disk” in a few years from now.  The total code for matter/energy is an infinitesimal fraction compared to mountain of extropic information that has accumulated on this planet. In fact the genome of a single living organism contains more information than required by all the laws of physics.

Another way to say this is that the laws of physics don’t (as far as we know) improve with time, but extropic systems like life, mind and the technium do. Over billions of years they gain order, complexity, and their own self-organized autonomy — all things not present in the universe before. As Paul Davies points out, “life as we observe it today is 1 percent physics and 99 percent history.” Life, and by extension mind and the technium, are only loosely governed by physics (just 1%); mostly they are ruled by their own self-creation.

But where did this remarkable harvest of lawful order come from if it was not somehow “built into” that tiny file of physical laws? I claim that the trajectory of the technium was embedded into the fabric of matter and energy. If that is true, then one literal interpretation of that claim is that the 10^29 bytes of information now in the extropic realm were somehow dissolved into the one gigabyte of information of the physical laws, and unpacked over time. By the same logic, the dense leafy information displayed by a huge oak tree was previously dissolved into the microscopic informational packet of a tiny acorn, and unpacked over 80 years.  This is true to some extent, but not entirely.

In an important way, this unfolding information is not contained in the physical realm. To be clear, I do not mean that it is supernatural. Either extropy must exist in the universe it is transforming, or it must exist outside of it as a supernatural force. If outside, then its dynamics are outside the range of science and of this book. I make the assumption that extropy is not a mystical supernatural force but operates in the lawful realm of physical reality. That is, we can measure it.

However it is immaterial. It is immaterial in the way that a bit is immaterial even though every bit must be incarnated in a physical medium of mass and energy. It takes measurable energy to accomplish computation, to self-organize, to add order. And that work must be stabilized, ratcheted, in matter. So information and extropy must flow through the physical world. Yet the results of that flow through matter and energy is a set of immaterial qualities: knowledge, increasing order, increasing diversity, and increasing sentience.

Another way to read the long-term trajectory of extropy is to view it as an escape from the material and the transcendence to the immaterial. In the early universe, only the laws of physics reigned. The rules of chemistry, torque, electrostatic charges and other such reversible forces were all that mattered. There was no other game. Self-organization introduced a new vector into the world. Evolution and life open up possibilities for matter and energy that did not exist in the pre-extropy universe. These possibilities (like a living cell) did not contradict the rules of chemistry and physics, but in a certain sense they allowed the new forms to escape the ordinary strictures of these laws, which would otherwise lead to simple mechanical forms. Paul Davies summarizes it well: “The secret of life does not lie in its chemical basis…Life succeeds precisely because it evades chemical imperatives.”

Our present economic migration from a material-based industry to a knowledge economy of intangible goods (such as software, design, and media products) is just the latest in a steady move towards the immaterial. (Not that material processing has let up, just that intangible processing is now more valuable.) In six years the average weight per dollar of US exports (the most valuable things the US produces) dropped by half. Forty percent of US exports today are services (intangibles) rather than manufactured goods (atoms). Disembodiment of value (more value, less mass) is a steady trend in the technium. We substitute intangible design for heavy atoms, making materials simultaneously stronger and lighter, or devices smaller and more powerful. Generally we make things more valuable by adding intangibles such as design, flexibility, innovation and smartness.


Dematerialization is not the only way in which extropy advances. The technium’s ability to compress information into highly refined structures is also a triumph of the immaterial. For instance, science (starting with Newton) has been able to abstract massive amounts of evidence about movement into the very simple law f=ma. Likewise, Einstein reduced enormous numbers of empirical observations into the very condensed container of E=mc^2. Every scientific theory is in the end a compression of information. In this way, our libraries stacked with peer-reviewed, cross-indexed, annotated, equation-riddled journal articles are great mines of concentrated information.

As extropy self-organizes the universe into more complex structures, with more abstraction, and greater compression of information, it overthrows the constraints of the material realm. The  arc of extropy is the slow, yet irreversible, liberation from the imperative of matter and energy. It shifts dominance to informational processes such as evolution, learning, and invention. It unleashes the intangible and immaterial.

Most people can appreciate how the essence of living things might be information and order. Information is vague enough to be similar to the idea of a “spirit.” But if my hypothesis is true — that life is an extension of a 14 billion-year old inanimate autonomous order, one that now continues into the machines of technology — then this same spirit of information must reside at the core of the non-living world as well. Although it may not dominate matter’s behavior, information must rest in the essence of matter. That’s a lot less intuitive. When we bang a knee against a table leg, it sure doesn’t feel like we knocked into information. But that’s the idea many physicists are formulating.

Once scientists built large scopes to examine matter below the level of fleeting quarks and muons, they saw the world was incorporeal. They discovered that matter is, at the bottom, empty space and waves of quantum uncertainties. A particle’s existence is a continuous field of probabilities, which blurs the sharp distinction between is/is not. Yet this fundamental uncertainty resolves as soon as information is added (that is, as soon as it’s measured). At that moment of knowledge, all other possibilities collapse to leave only the single state of “is” or “is not.” Indeed, the very term “quantum” suggests an indefinite realm constantly resolving into discrete increments, precise yes/no states. Quantum wavicles, along with everything else in the universe, are mostly made of nothing but binary logic.

The physicist John Archibald Wheeler (coiner of the term “black hole”) claimed that, fundamentally, atoms are made up of 1’s and 0’s. As he put it in a 1989 lecture, “Its are from bits.” He elaborated: “Every it – every particle, every field of force, even the space-time continuum itself – derives its function, its meaning, its very existence entirely from binary choices, bits.” All movement, all actions, all nouns, all functions, all states, all we see, hear, measure, and feel are elaborate cathedrals built out of bits. After stripping away all externalities, all material embellishments, what remains of the primeval “it” is the purest state of existence: here/not here. Am/not am. In the Old Testament, when Moses asks the Creator, “Who are you?” the being says, in effect, “Am.” One bit. One almighty bit. Yes. One. Exist. It is the simplest statement possible.

All creation is assembled from irreducible bits. The bits are like the “atoms” of classical Greece: the tiniest constituent of existence. But these new digital atoms are the basis not only of matter, as the Greeks thought, but of energy, motion, mind, and life. Everything that is! Movement, energy, gravity, dark matter, and antimatter are elaborate circuits of 1/0 decisions. Every mountain, every star, each flight of a thrown ball, the smallest salamander or woodland tick, each thought in our mind,  is but a web of elemental yes/nos woven together.

Wheeler adds, “What we call reality arises in the last analysis from the posing of yes/no questions.” In this new perspective, as two hydrogen and one oxygen bind together to form a water molecule, each hydrogen atom uses quantum processes to decide yes/no for all possible courses toward the oxygen atom, until they arrive at the optimal 104.45 degrees union. Thus every chemical bond is thus “calculated.”

Computation is the muscle of extropy. Computation is a type of self-organization that juggles and manipulates these primal information bits. It silently employs a small amount of energy to rearrange symbols into greater order. The input of computation is energy and information; the output is order, structure, extropy. The final result of a material computation is a signal that makes a difference — a difference that can be felt as a bruised knee.

“Computation is a process that is perhaps *the* process,” says Danny Hillis, whose book, The Pattern on the Stone, explains the formidable nature of computation. “It has an almost mystical character because it seems to have some deep relationship to the underlying order of the universe. Exactly what that relationship is, we cannot say. At least for now.”  There is even a suspicion, though no one has proved it, that life’s self-organization may rely on computation.

If the essence of creation is a bit, then gravity, the speed of light, Higgs bosons, relativity, evolution, quantum mechanics, human emotions, and the thoughts in your mind at this moment would all be squirming piles of intersecting loops of yes/no bits, and each phenomenon would need a computational explanation. We are a long way from having a unified theory of everything in the language of bits, but we have a couple of hints that the process of computation may lie at the center.

Our awakening to the true power of computation rests on three suspicions. The first is that computation can describe all things. To date, computer scientists have been able to encapsulate every logical argument, scientific equation, and literary work that we know about into the basic notation of computation. With the advent of digital signal processing, we can capture video, music, and art in the same bit form. There is a lot of debate about how much of art can be reduced to bits, but clearly much can be. Even emotion is not immune. As one example, researcher Cynthia Breazeal at MIT built Kismet, a computational robot that exhibits primitive feelings in response to human actions. Less controversially, formal creations in mathematics, music, and language can be expressed as a valid computer program.

The second supposition is that all things can compute. Surprisingly almost any kind of material can serve as the matrix for a computer. Human brains, which are mostly water, compute fairly well. So can sticks and strings. In 1975, as an undergraduate student, Danny Hillis constructed a digital computer out of skinny Tinkertoys. In 2000, Hillis designed a binary computer made of only steel and harden alloys that is indirectly powered by human muscle. This slow-moving device computes time in a clock intended to tick for 10,000 years. Hillis hasn’t made a computer with pipes and pumps, but, he says, he could. Recently, scientists have used both quantum particles and minute strands of DNA to perform computations. Many other complex systems have been shown to be capable of computation.

The third postulate is: All computation is one. In 1937, Alan Turing and Alonso Church proved a theorem now bearing their names. The Turing-Church conjecture states that any computation executed by one computer with access to an infinite amount of storage, can be done by any other computing machine with infinite storage, no matter what its configuration. One computer can do anything another can do. This is why your Mac can, with proper software, pretend to be a PC, or, with sufficient memory, a slow supercomputer. A Dell laptop could, if anyone wanted it to, emulate an iPhone. In other words, all computation is equivalent. Turing and Church called this universal computation. Mathematician Stephen Wolfram takes this idea even further and suggests that many very complex processes in the realms of biology and technology are basically computationally equivalent. The physics of person munching on a banana is computationally equivalent to the best possible virtual simulation of the same act. Both phenomenon require the same degree of universal computation, one in particles, and one in electrons.

The consequence of these three propositions — that computation is universal, ubiquitous, and equivalent — suggests that the logical processing of bits is the most potent form of self-organization at work in the universe. While not all self-organization reaches the threshold of computation, universal computation can potentially erupt anywhere. There is currently a lot of research investigating how computation might fare in quantum dimensions and whether quantum computation might be the basis for human consciousness. It’s still an open question, but the three axioms also suggest a rather spooky corollary: If everything can compute, and all computation is equivalent, then there is only one universal computer. All the human-made computation, especially our puny little PCs, merely piggyback on cycles of the Great Computer, also known as the Universe.

No one wants to see themselves as someone else’s program running on someone else’s computer. Put that way, life seems a bit secondhand. But doctrine of universal computation means all existing things — the made, the found and the born — are linked to one another because they share, as John Wheeler said, “at the bottom — at a very deep bottom, in most instances — an immaterial source.” This commonality, spoken of by mystics of many beliefs in different terms, also has a scientific name: information, computation, extropy.

The flow of intangible bits is at the core of the astounding complexity we see in this part of the universe. The trend toward increasing order, diversity and intelligence over time, beginning 14 billion years ago and accelerating now, is driven by the increasing structure of information. It is compressed, computed, layered, and lifted to new levels. This emergent self-organization is an immaterial quality arising from physics that continually gains in the face of increasing entropy.  This long trajectory — from the beginning till now — is the arc of extropy.

[For those who care, portions of this posting were recycled from an earlier Wired article I wrote.]


© 2023