The Technium

Type 2 Growth

While technology has gotten us into this climate change mess only technology can get us out of it. Only the technium (our technological system) is “big” enough to work at the global scale needed to fix this planetary sized problem. Individual personal virtue (bicycling, using recycling bins) is not enough. However the worry of some environmentalists is that technology can only contribute more to the problem and none to the solution. They believe that tech is incapable of being green because it is the source of relentless consumerism at the expense of diminishing nature, and that our technological civilization requires endless growth to keep the system going. I disagree.

In English there is a curious and unhelpful conflation of the two meanings of the word “growth.”  The most immediate meaning is to increase in size, or increase in girth, to gain in weight, to add numbers, to get bigger. In short, growth means “more.” More dollars, more people, more land, more stuff. More is fundamentally what biological, economic, and technological systems want to do: dandelions and parking lots tend to fill all available empty places. If that is all they did, we’d be well to worry. But there is another equally valid and common use of the word “growth” to mean develop, as in to mature, to ripen, to evolve.  We talk about growing up, or our own personal growth. This kind of growth is not about added pounds, but about betterment. It is what we might call evolutionary or developmental, or type 2 growth. It’s about using the same ingredients in better ways. Over time evolution arranges the same number of atoms in more complex patterns to yield more complex organisms, for instance producing an agile lemur the same size and weight as a jelly fish. We seek the same shift in the technium. Standard economic growth aims to get consumers to drink more wine. Type 2 growth aims to get them to not drink more wine, but better wine. 

The technium, like nature, excels at both meanings of growth. It can produce more, rapidly, and it can produce better, slowly. Individually, corporately and socially, we’ve tended to favor functions that produce more. For instance, to measure (and thus increase) productivity we count up the number of refrigerators manufactured and sold each year. More is generally better. But this counting tends to overlook the fact that refrigerators have gotten better over time. In addition to making cold, they now dispense ice cubes, or self-defrost, and use less energy. And they may cost less in real dollars. This betterment is truly real value, but is not accounted for in the “more” column. Indeed a tremendous amount of the betterment in our lives that is brought about by new technology is difficult to measure, even though it feels evident. This “betterment surplus” is often slow moving, wrapped up with new problems, and usually appears in intangibles, such as increased options, safety, choices, new categories, and self actualization — which like most intangibles, are very hard to pin down.  The benefits only become more obvious when we look back in retrospect to realize what we have gained. Part of our growth as a civilization is moving from a system that favors more barrels of wine, to one that favors the same barrels of better wine.

A major characteristic of sapiens has been our compulsion to invent things, which we have been doing for tens of thousands of years. But for most of history our betterment levels were flatlined, without much evidence of type 2 growth. That changed about 300 years ago when we invented our greatest invention — the scientific method. Once we had hold of this meta-invention we accelerated evolution. We turned up our growth rate in every dimension, inventing more tools, more food, more surplus, more population, more minds, more ideas, more inventions, in a virtuous spiral. Betterment began to climb. For several hundred years, and especially for the last hundred years, we experience steady betterment. But that betterment — the type 2 growth — has coincided with massive expansion of “moreness.” We’ve exploded our human population by an order of magnitude, we’ve doubled our living space per person, we have rooms full of stuff our ancestors did not. Our betterment, that is our living standards, have increased alongside the expansion of the technium and our economy, and most importantly the expansion of our population. There is obviously some part of a feedback loop where increased living standards enables yearly population increases and more people create the technology for higher living standards, but causation is hard to parse. What we can say for sure is that as a species we don’t have much experience, if any, with increasing living standards and fewer people every year. We’ve only experience increased living standards alongside of increased population.

By their nature demographic changes unroll slowly because they run on generational time. Inspecting the demographic momentum today it is very clear human populations are headed for a reversal on the global scale by the next generation. After a peak population around 2070, the total human population on this planet will start to diminish each year. So far, nothing we have tried has reversed this decline locally. Individual countries can mask this global decline by stealing residents from each other via immigration, but the global total matters for our global economy. This means that it is imperative that we figure out how to shift more of our type 1 growth to type 2 growth, because we won’t be able to keep expanding the usual “more.”  We will have to perfect a system that can keep improving and getting better with fewer customers each year, smaller markets and audiences, and fewer workers. That is a huge shift from the past few centuries where every year there has been more of everything. 

In this respect “degrowthers” are correct in that there are limits to bulk growth — and running out of humans may be one of them. But they don’t seem to understand that evolutionary growth, which includes the expansion of intangibles such as freedom, wisdom, and complexity, doesn’t have similar limits. We can always figure out a way to improve things, even without using more stuff — especially without using more stuff! There is no limit to betterment. We can keep growing (type 2) indefinitely.

The related concern about the adverse impact of the technology on nature is understandable, but I believe, can also be solved. The first phases of agriculture and industrialization did indeed steamroll forests and wreck ecosystems. Industry often required colossal structures of high-temperature, high pressure operations that did not operate at human or biological scale. The work was done behind foot-thick safety walls and chain link fences. But we have “grown.” We’ve learned the importance of the irreplaceable subsidy nature provides our civilizations and we have begun to invent more suitable technologies. Industrial-strength nuclear fission power will eventually give way to less toxic nuclear fusion power. The work of this digital age is more accommodating to biological conditions. As kind of a symbolic example, the raw ingredients for our most valuable products, like chips, require ultra cleanliness, and copious volumes of air and water cleaner than we’d ever need ourselves. The tech is becoming more aligned with our biological scale. In a real sense, much of the commercial work done today is not done by machines that could kill us, but by machines we carry right next to our skin in our pockets. We continue to create new technologies that are more aligned with our biosphere. We know how to make things with less materials. We know how to run things with less energy. We’ve invented energy sources that reduce warming. So far we’ve not invented any technology that we could not successfully make more green.

We have a ways to go before we implement these at scale, economically, with consensus. And it is not inevitable at all that we will grab the political will to make these choices. But it is important to realize that the technium is not inherently contrary to nature; it is inherently derived from evolution and thus inherently capable of being compatible with nature. We can choose to create versions of the technium that are aligned with the natural world. Or not. As a radical optimist, I work towards a civilization full of life-affirming high technology, because I think this is possible, and by imagining “what could be” gives us a much greater chance of making it real.

[This essay began as a response in an email interview with Noah Smith, published in his newsletter, here. His newsletter is great; I am a paying subscriber.]


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