The Technium


Upcreation is my term for the peculiar, profound, and still mysterious way by which complex structures appear in the universe. By complex structures I mean galaxies, stars, planets, life, DNA, termite mounds, rain forests, human minds, and the internet. These complexities tend to “emerge” from simpler systems (clouds of gas, pools of molecules, nodes of communication) in a fashion we broadly call self-organization. But in the right circumstances self-organization can often also be legitimately called self-creation. Without an outside agent, the parts cohere into a new organization that brings forth an “emergent” level or self not present before. Since the new emergent level of complexity encompasses, without destruction, the previous “lower” levels of organization, I call this self-creation of higher levels “upcreation.” A set of entities lifts itself up to a new level of organization in a new entity. By this perspective, DNA chemistry “upcreates” life, and life upcreates minds, and a mind might upcreate a supermind. Upcreation takes place in smaller increments as well: Honey bees upcreate a hive, protists upcreate multicellular organisms, corals upcreate a reef, shoppers upcreate a market, web surfers upcreate Google PageRank.

But while this emergence usually “happens” in an almost passive way in the past, we humans would like to be able to make it happen on command. We would like to upcreate artificial minds and artificial life. However, much to our dismay, upcreation turns out to be something very hard to imitate. For some goals, like making a human-like artificial intelligence in computers, bumping a system up to the next level of complexity has so far been a total failure. A large part of the difficulty lies in our lack of a good understanding of what happens during emergence. What does it mean to make a new level, how do we recognize one, and what are its preconditions?

These are ancient questions, and big in scope. The arc of complexity stretches across the cosmological realm, runs deep through the biological world and extends into the technological sphere. If we understood the dynamics of upcreation we could better craft our technology to upcreate more often. Or at least we could prepare preconditions for it. But science has no good theory of upcreation that can be applied across the board to cosmology, biology, anthropology, evolution, computer science, or mathematics. Instead two dozen specialty theories from different fields of science capture different aspects of upcreation.

The list below is a first step to unify the mechanics of upcreation. I’ve borrowed these ideas from the fields of chemistry, physics, biology, cosmology, mathematics, sociology, philosophy and computer science. Each one is properly used in a narrow area of inquiry. But I’ve been struck by their recurring themes and parallel concepts, and I believe all these concepts are reaching for a similar goal: to explain how upcreation happens. I gather them here together to suggest that like the blind men feeling the elephant, they are all describing the same phenomena.

The Mechanics of Upcreation

Goldilocks States – An upcreation system may collapse if the system’s physical parameters vary outside a very narrow range. Many creative forces operate on a fine threshold of not too much, not too little.

Phase Change – The shift in levels birthed by upcreation has its analog in the chemical shift an element undergoes as it suddenly changes from one phase (solid) to another (liquid or gas). Complex systems, too, exhibit sudden distinct phases of organization.

Critical Point — In chemistry this is the specific, precise juncture of pressure and temperature at which a system changes its phase, or state. Until a system crosses that point, there is no hint of the other state. It comes on “spontaneously.” Many other complex systems can display phase changes and critical points. For instance, the addition of a few grains of sand to a growing pile of sand can trigger an avalanche  (a phase change) that alters the slope of the pile. The falling avalanche readjusts the pile of sand so it continues to rest at the almost-avalanching point. In this way the slope is maintained at near-disequilibrial critical point.

Attractors – Dynamical systems with vast numbers of possible phases (versus the three or four phases available to chemical elements) will cycle through these countless possibilities at random but return to a few phases again and again, as if the system is attracted to them.

Fractals — At critical points, systems of upcreation display a type of self-similarity known as 1/f noise or fractals. Visually this can be pictured as a twiggy tree that looks the same no matter what scale you view it at. Whether you draw the reticulation at the lower level of leaves or the higher level of the tree, the branch patterns are self-similar. Many living systems (and many inert processes, too) display “scale invariance” behavior. The pattern of the whole is contained at each level.

Power Laws  — Scale-invariant and scale-free patterns are found in other aspects of upcreation. The distribution of phenomenon can follow a long-tail curve, rather than the normal “bell” curve typical of most matters. (Many physical and inert systems also display power laws.) Distribution of words in a language, letters in DNA, metabolic rate in animals, all obey a power law (also called Pareto or Zipf’s Law). At critical points and in the midst of phase changes, the distribution of order in a system can be self-similar, or scale-free, or scale-invariant, suggesting again, the constant pattern is held in the whole and not in the parts.

Scale-Free Network – Networks whose nodes are arranged scale-free (like networks of interacting proteins in a cell, or servers on the internet) are more robust against the destruction of its parts than other network arrangements. Scale-invariance provides a coherence to the whole, a tendency to favor the whole, and a propensity to generate increasing returns (the rich get richer). (wiki)

Universal Computation – All computation is fundamentally identical. This means a very small network of logic nodes is capable of performing the same calculations that a much large computer or brain does, only slower. Given enough time and space, your digital watch can do the work of a supercomputer. When very small networks capable of universal computing are distributed inside larger systems, their computation “emerges” from that matrix, in a step similar to upcreation. In computer science the simplest possible networks of off-on switches can upcreate universal computation, suggesting that many types of networks are capable of emergent computation and upcreation.

Optimal Evolvability – An evolutionary system must balance order and chaos, change and stability. It must replicate infallibly but innovate without fail. Systems that can keep evolving over millions of years must tune their rate of evolution to an optimal goldilocks amount. That rate must shift as environments shift. It is neither maximum change, nor maximum preservation. Rather optimal evolvability requires a complex network capable of changing itself. It is self-organized change, which manifests itself as new levels.

Sweet Spot — A network’s connections can be arranged so that it generates optimal evolvability while maintaining maximum longevity. Remarkably, the zone of optimal evolvability can be shown mathematically to be the same zone necessary for generating universal computation. This suggests evolution is both a type of computation, and an emergent optima and a product of the sweet spot.

Edge of Chaos — Optimal evolvability in a network or system is found at a point of criticality. Too much to one side, and the system seizes up in rigid order. Too much towards the other side, and the system collapses into chaos. The optimal zone is a narrow goldilocks band between the two phases of order and chaos, right on the edge of both. This sweet phase transition zone along the “edge of chaos” is the root of upcreation.

Persistent Disequilibrium – When a system is self-organized to its “sweet spot” it is not stable. It is constantly almost-collapsing in chaos, almost-unraveling, almost-seizing up in crystalline order, but never falling down.  Most disequilibrial systems collapse quickly. Most persistent systems rest in equilibrium without change. A very few systems can maintain the rare balancing act of persisting along the “edge” of a phase transition. A galaxy is a very large system maintaining disequilibrium. So is a fire, although it does not last long. On the other hand a star maintains a persistent fire (disequilibrium) for billions of years. A living organism maintains persistent disequilibria (the slow fire of metabolism) for many years. (A fire would burn the fuel in an organism in a few minutes.)

Syntropy – Syntropy is a type of complexity. Technically it is defined as a sort of anti-chaos, or negative entropy, but it also can be defined as “effective complexity,” which is a measure of the depth of complexity. Persistent disequilibrial systems (as stars and many chemical reactions show) build up complexity and syntropy, while generating maximum entropy as well. The long-lived nature of a syntropic and persistent system increases the density of power consumed over its lifespan, and this controlled energy enables the construction of higher levels of organization.

Emerging Units of Selection – Meta-organization is sharpened and articulated by the action of evolution. Adaptive pressure transforms emerging levels into the new units of natural selection. For instance, originally natural selection worked on cells, but after cells symbiotically joined into colonies, natural selection worked on the level of colonies or organisms. The history of evolution is the story of evolution moving from one unit as the basis of selection to the next higher unit.

Non-Zero Sum – In closed system, such as fire, or an isolated marketplace, trade-offs rule: gain on one side is offset with a loss on the other. But persistent disequilibrial systems (like life, societies and minds) are energy- and information-open and zero sum accounting does not pertain. In these open systems, a gain on one side can generate a new gain on the other side. That is positive sum, or non-zero, accounting. This is particularly true for systems tuned to optimal evolvability and the sweet spot. Here the growth of one species can create opportunities for more species to grow. Energy channeled to one creation enables, rather than diminishes, another. An idea given away is not lost but can still be given to another. Positive sum dynamics is why upcreation is a net gain. It is an additive process and never subtractive. The persistent viability of one system creates a positive opportunity space for another. In this way, upcreation in a never ending cascade flowing uphill.

Infinite Game – The tendency of a persistent disequilibrial system is to keep going to create other persistent disequilibrial systems. The aim of upcreation is to create something that will keep creating. The object of a great game is not to win, but to keep playing. A system that “wins” is a finite game. A system that generates new systems is an infinite game.  A series of ever-escalating upcreation is an infinite game.

Autocatalysis – Early life had to be an autocatalytic set. A series of chemical compounds in which molecule A catalyzed B, and B catalyzed C, and so on… until eventually Y catalyzed Z, that in turn catalyzed A, in a complete circle. Suddenly the self-perpetuating loop snaps into place. Suddenly, the loop creates itself. Suddenly something new is in the world. This strange loop is present wherever and whenever we find new levels of being. Strange self-causing loops are behind the emergence of life (self-assembling DNA), consciousness (thinking about thinking), behind Gaia (life tilting the climate to favor life), and technology (technology making the world safer for technology). Autocatalytic sets set into motion strange loops of self-causation – which are nothing more or less than upcreation.

Necessary Paradox – At the foundation of every loop of self-causation is a paradox. Where does it come from? From itself, but where does that come from? Which came first, Z or A? What is the cause and what is the effect? These and a thousand more quandaries are the necessary paradoxes of upcreation. The ultimate questions of origin are muddled. Cause and effect, shunted aside. Life is the cause of DNA. Consciousness is the cause of the brain. Technology is the cause of humans. With each upcreation a new set of paradoxes are generated, each of them strange and unanswerable, but necessary.

There are obvious limits to these definitions, analogies, and metaphors. Some of these concepts overlap, while others are clearly limited in their application. For example, certain metals exhibit emergence, in the form of superconductivity, without spawning self-organization. Self-organization itself does not promise upcreation. Proteins self-organize when they fold; membranes, lipid bilayers, colloidal crystals and some reaction-diffusion chemical reactions all self-organize, but none of these examples raise the level of information. And there are huge gaps in explanation waiting to be bridged.

Galaxy Garden

Green galaxy

At the moment there is no single scientific theory that will bridge all these gaps. We lack a Darwin or Einstein of information. The best I could do was string together these hints and bits of technical jargon. When they are all lined up, I believe these summaries suggest a momentum and direction operating in the universe. They reveal an emerging view across many scientific disciplines. In broad strokes this grand story says that the ingredients for bootstrapping self-creation are widely present. Systems can assemble themselves, tune their networks for optimal evolution, and start to upcreate more complex structures over time.  Persistent systems of creation are driven by energy flows to keep the larger system favorable to creation. The dynamics are biased toward positive sums, where possibilities breed more possibilities, and where self-creation becomes the norm. The whole long unrolling parade of ever-more-complex structures becomes an infinite game whose self-made purpose is to keep the game expanding. This entire complex of upcreation is now sitting at our feet. It is ready to create the next level. We can watch it, or ride it.

And we are far from the end.


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