The Technium

Recursive Generation

[Translations: Japanese]

In 1978 Douglas Hofstadter wrote an mind-boggling book about recursive forms, called “Godel, Escher, Bach” after his three favorite geniuses who reveled in recursiveness. The award-winning book explored the nature of systems which bend their output back into themselves to make something new. GEB conjured with these “strange loops” with such wit and appropriate playfulness that is hard to imagine another book on the subject ever topping it.

The Technium is shaped by these same recursive forces. As Hofstadter showed, computer programing is founded on the notion of strange loops and regression, the most extreme representation being the infamous circular “infinite regress” of bad programming. Technology, like biology, is governed by feedback circuits. Up and down its being, technology will find itself looping back to create some weird strange loop of influence, and in that strange circuit some new force is launched into the technium. Recursive loopiness is thus the prime engine for bootstrapping and self creation.

Progress, intelligence, and life itself are all fueled at the fundamental level by bootstrapping, self-creation, autopoeis, auto-genesis — all names for recursive organization. I found the following list of kinds of auto-structure in a 1986 paper by Peter Winiwarter, Autognosis (PDF) .

The forms of form.

The dimensions of dimension

The natural laws that govern natural laws.

The system of systems.

The control of control.

The hierarchical levels of hierarchies.

The strange loop of loops.

The consciousness of consciousness.

The organization of organization.

The evolution of evolution.

The structure of structure.

The provability of proofs.

The creation of creating.

At first glance these terms seem oxymoronic (self contradictory), or tautological (needless repetition). But on close inspection they are no more oxymoronic or tautological than say the network of networks, which is what we the internet is. In “Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life” Paul Davies recounts his investigation into the laws the govern the natural laws of the universe. Like all these meta forms, there is the problem of where their force lies. Is it in the loop, or outside of it? When the universe formed 14 billion years ago, were the meta laws in the universe, or outside of it? And if the laws shaping the natural laws were outside of the universe, what does that mean?

There must be a system of all systems, or a form which all forms adhere to, or some kind of control for controls, some kind of way to organize all organizations. The structure of proofs must be provable, types of categories must fall into some kind of categories.

Does everything have a meta?

L 9Ee72878069Fe67009D99458D027E4D1

And there meta-metas? Just as William James reputedly said there must be turtles standing beneath turtles all the way down the Hindu tower of creation, perhaps there are metas standing upon metas all the way up. The laws that shape the laws that shape the laws. But the tower of turtles or metas is the wrong way to think of this stack because the laws that shape the shape the laws are in the end shaped by the lowest law. As Davies points out, human observation may in fact shape the laws of the universe. Seen from the right vantage point, the meta loop simply enlarges to include more meta levels, so that everything circles back upon itself in a  larger loop.

The way in which the spookiness in quantum physics seems to resonate at both the largest and smallest scales of the universe is one indication of a very large recursive loop.

What this means for the technium is that the more potential recursive looping, generative meta-levels, and autopoesis that is engineered into it, the more the technium will become animated with the same sparks we find in similar autopoetic systems such as life and intelligence.

Furthermore it is the very point when feedback gets squirrely and weird that something important can happen. We should be looking for the places where genes control genes, laws mandate laws, software writes software, and intelligence designs intelligence. In those strange loops the meta will jump.

  • Stefan

    I am a big fan of the works of Humberto Maturana ( and Francisco Varela ( and I think their work on autopoiesis should be a “must read” for a subject like the one you are discussing.

    I think that another important part of the *conversation* around a subject like the one you are approaching is the work of Ranulph Glanville ( who is to be remembered (associated with the article) to have said:

    “For what is Memory, that it can remember what it is, if not Memory? And what is not Memory, that it does remember what it is?”

  • Jordan T-H

    Does the set of all sets contain itself?

    Also, for the Hofstadter-obsessed (he’s in my program at IU): Victim of the Brain.

  • Tom Buckner

    The first time I read Godel Escher Bach (about three years after it was published) took a year and a half. It shaped my views on Everything.

    I refer you to the comment I posted on the last thread where I launch into what might appear to be a tangential rant on political systems being based on the science as understood by the people living when the system was invented. GEB was the book that planted that idea in my head. It’s the dialogue in which Achilles keeps buying better stereos and the Tortoise keeps bringing new records that can destroy them when played. I said, “Good lord… any system is inherently vulnerable… this explains infectious disease… hell, even a system of laws can be analysed and targeted… and changing the law, like getting new antibodies, will only work for a while…” It also explains AIDS (attacks the immune system itself; new and poorly understood when I read GEB) and computer viruses (unheard of at that time, but predictable if you understood computers well enough; I didn’t then).

    This exactly what I meant about new political ideas taking information theory into account. Godel himself understood this; when he went with Einstein to take his citizenship test, he blurted out that a flaw in the Constitution could make a dictatorship possible. He seems to have meant Article V, concerning amendments: Article V says how an amendment needs to be passed, but not what it may say. Could not a new amendment say “The rest of theConstitution is void, all hail the King!” Link:

    It’s been said over at the Singularity Institute forums: “Anything that can be done, can be done meta.”

    As for the meta laws of the universe, I gather that a multiverse is the only explanation for fine-tuning of constants that does not require a God. But for what kind of multiverse we live in, I think Max Tegmark has the right idea, having divided possible universes in a Linnean taxonomy. He has a killer diagram which I wish you could buy as a Cool Toolish poster:

    I urge a peek at his site for further explanation, but he posits four levels of multiverses: Quote:

    “Level I: A generic prediction of inflation is an infinite ergodic universe, which contains Hubble volumes realizing all initial conditions – including an identical copy of you about 10^{10^29} meters away.
    Level II: In chaotic inflation, other thermalized regions may have different effective physical constants, dimensionality and particle content.
    Level III: In unitary quantum mechanics, other branches of the wavefunction add nothing qualitatively new, which is ironic given that this level has historically been the most controversial.
    Level IV: Other mathematical structures give different fundamental equations of physics.”

    More simply: Level 1, far away; Level 2, other inflationary bubbles; Level 3, Many Worlds, which can be just like Level 1; Level 4, any mathematical structure.

    This obviously makes Tegmark a mathematical Platonist; I think he’s right. The reason mathematics explains so much of reality is that reality is a mathematical pattern so complex that it can have minds and galaxies in it, making us like birds in a tapestry: on one level, we fly and sing; on another level, equally true, we are just colored thread.

    • @Tom Buckner: I agree about GEB of course, but also am in alignment with your comments about Max Tegmark and his four levels of multiverses. It’s pretty cool.

  • Tom Buckner

    Correction: Tegmark Level 3 multiverse has the same features as Level 2, not Level 1.

  • Andy Havens

    One of my best writing professors in college, Dan McCall (, once told us that all great writing is about two things:

    “It’s about what it’s about, and it’s about great writing.”

    That falls under, I think, “the creation of creation,” but is highly specific. Unless you’re seeing a lecture or video, almost all literary critique and education will be in written form. Which makes an interesting paradox (or complexity, at least): how do you write about great writing if the audience doesn’t yet understand how to read great writing? Which, obviously, doesn’t make doing so impossible. But like “thinking about thinking,” it may be more of a loop than a step.

  • orbnotedgo

    I’ve always felt that Tyler Volk, a biology professor at NYU, has asked almost all of the right questions about the issue of ‘meta’ — quite specifically in the book, “Metapatterns,” which is still the most wonder-producing book I’ve read in the last ten years.

    • @orbnotedgo: I have not heard of the book but will chase it down. Thanks.

  • gmoke

    Working with Synergetic geometry and studying Dr Arthur Loeb’s work on symmetry, I realized that basic geometry is inherent in the structure of space/time and Universe. The triangle is the minimum polygon, as Buckminster Fuller taught, because it is a mirror of the structure of the universe. When you absorb that fact, it changes everything.

  • Mark Dow

    “Cybernetics is the study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves.” Louis Kauffman

  • ea

    wow…, i realize that this isn’t very eloquent, but none the less, wow.

  • Bob Welch

    Tom Beardon, in his book “Excalibur Briefing”, lays out a “metalogic” where “a”=NOT “a”. The “figure”,indeed, INCLUDES the “ground”.I can’t do his whole 4 page symbolic notation here, but the book, esp. for that section, is worth a look.

    Bob Welch

  • Arthur Smith

    I don’t think you’re too far off in the general discussion here, but Hofstadter’s “strange loops” are more than simple recursion, and a computer’s infinite loop is not a good example at all. Hofstadter’s loops are loops that break out of themselves, that transcend meta-level-ness, in some fashion. Your “creation of creating” list is an example of transcendence in that fashion, but it’s not simple recursion.

    • @ Arthur: Yes, they start off as loops in “simple recursion” then –and this is moment that fascinated Hofstadter (and me) — they somehow break off into complex recursion, upping the meta-level. Why and how they do this is not scientifically described yet. But we intuitively feel it when it happens. At what point does a video camera pointed at its monitor shift to the meta level — if ever? There is both a continuum and a discontinuity — which is why they are called Strange.

  • Kenneth Rougeau


    Thanks so much for including my Turtles All The Way Down artwork in your blog post. I did notice, however, that the image isn’t linked to anything in particular. Would it be at all possible to change it so that the artwork links directly to my online shop? In this manner, anyone who might want to could find and perhaps purchase the artwork for themselves. It would mean a great deal to me. The address to my shop is

    Thanks & have a wonderful day!
    – Kenneth Rougeau