Technological determinism vs. human choice

Where is the source for the wisdom to discern the difference between the inevitable stages of technological development and the volitional forms that are up to us? What we would really like is a technique which makes the inevitable obvious.

Kevin Kelly has an interesting and extended meditation on technological evolution and determinism, in which he tries to distinguish the inevitable aspects from those that are dependent on human free will.

Though the points he makes are of great interest, I do feel he leaves out important parts of the story. This is that technology is also shaped by contending forces. Is it really ‘humanity’ that choose to take the path of the car and the whole infrastructure that it entails, or specific social forces that were dominant at the time.

I make this point to highlight the very important role that open design communities will play in the future (and are already playing). Indeed, there is a huge difference in the way a corporate design team will envision a product design, including planned obsolence for example as a key characteristic, or choosing production methods requiring high concentrations capital to exclude competitors, and the way an open design team would. Indeed, an open design community is not limited by ‘relative innovation’ requirements (being better than the competition), but can strive directly for ‘absolute quality’, i.e. the best solution in context of the needs of the creators and users. Almost naturally, such design could be designed in modular ways, that can easily be replaced and upgraded, rather than requiring consumers to change computers, or even making certain parts intentionally unusable over time, to force new purchases.

Such choices are not contained in any objective aspects of the technology itself, but are the result of the social logic behind their creation.

Without further ado, here is Kelly’s own thesis in a nutshell, excerpted from the much larger article.

Kevin Kelly:

“Where is the source for the wisdom to discern the difference between the inevitable stages of technological development and the volitional forms that are up to us? What we would really like is a technique which makes the inevitable obvious.

I think that tool is our awareness of the technium’s long-term cosmic trajectory. By placing technology in the context of a natural extension of biological evolution rising from the big bang, we can perceive how those macro imperatives play out in our present time. In other words, technology’s inevitable forms derive from the dynamics that characterize all extropic systems — the dozen or so attributes I describe as “what technology wants.” These are: an increase in complexity, diversity, specialization, efficiency, consilience, socialization, structure, ubiquity, opportunity, beauty, sentience, and evolvability. All these values are increasing on average in sustainable systems like life, evolution, and the technium.

My hypothesis claims that as more of these long-term trends operate in a particular current technology, the more that technology will be characterized by “inevitable” forces. Indeed, it is these long term constraints which give an opening to the inevitable. I propose that whether a technology in question exhibits a tendency towards increased socialization, say, or moves toward consilience, or whether it increases or decreases volition and freewill, or diminishes or raises opportunities as it propagates, will, in aggregate signal its inevitability. An alignment with these extropic forces becomes the Serenity Prayer Filter. The more an idea moves along the frontier of those dozen qualities, the more inevitable that technology is for that time period.

Let me just give one small example of many. At this particular phase in the technium (at the turn of the 21st century), we are building many intricate, complex systems of communications. This wiring up of the planet can happen in a number of ways, but my modest prediction is that the technological arrangements that will be most sustainable in the long run — which I take as a by product of inevitability since the alternative arrangements drop away — will be those technologies that tend toward the greatest increases in diversity, consilience, opportunity, sociability, sentience, etc. We can compare two competing technologies to see which one favors more of these extropic qualities. Does it open up diversity or close it down? Does it bank on increasing opportunities or assume they wither? Is it moving towards embedded sentience, or ignoring it? Does it blossom in ubiquity, or collapse under it? “

After making some fairly superficial comments on the inevitability of GMO food, Kelly considers the possibilties for a different form of more decentralized agriculture, as an example of his theory of technological adaptation:

“For example is large-scale petro-fuel-fed agriculture inevitable? This highly mechanical system of tractors, fertilizers, breeders, seed producers, and food processors provides the abundant cheap food which is the foundation of our leisure to invent other things, our longevity to keep inventing, and ultimately the increase in population that generates increasing numbers of new ideas. Compared to the food production schemes that preceded it — both subsistence farming, and animal-powered mixed farming at its peak — mechanicized farming was inevitable in that it increased energy efficiency, complexity, opportunities, structure, sentience and specialization.

However, because technological phases are developmental, they are eventually outgrown in the same way our infancy is outgrown. As in most growth, the earlier form is not discarded but subsumed. Our infant organs are not eliminated but are matured. In evolution, earlier structures are rarely extinguished. Usually they are built around by the new. Our own brains are the best evidence of this. We still retain an inner “reptilian” core that generates all the essential instincts that benefited our crawling primitive ancestors. When we are frightened the ancient “fight or flight” circuits are ignited. They have not disappeared. As our brains developed we added layers of cognition OVER the earlier still operating brain. That’s one reason our behavior is so complex. Later on in our evolutionary journey, we acquired mental patterns for social interactions that we share with other social primates, which govern much of our behavior and thinking. Our human consciousness is a very thin layer on top.

Our layers of technological acquisition reflects a similar subsumption pattern. The current “new economy” of information and communication is a thin layer that resides upon a very hearty industrial economy that is not going away. Just as subsistence farming is still the norm for most of the living farmers alive today (most of them living in the developing world), industrial farming will remain the largest producer of food for many decades, just as industrial processes continue to undergird the digital economy.

But just as a more intangible, more diverse, more sentient technology economy has appeared as a thin alternative layer upon the industrial world, so too, can we see hints of an alternative method of food production that is more in line with extropic principles. According to many food experts, the problems with the current food production system is that it is heavily dependent on monocultures (not diverse) of too few staple crops (five worldwide), which in turn require pathological degrees of interventions with drugs, pesticides, herbicides, soil disturbances and (reduced opportunities), and over reliance on cheap petro fuels for both energy and nutrients (misplaced energy efficiency). Alternative scenarios that can scale up to the global level are hard to imagine, but there are hints that a decentralized agriculture, with less reliance on politically motivated government subsidies, or petroleum, or on monocultures, would work. This evolved system of hyperlocal, hybrid farms might be manned by either a truly globally mobile migrant labor force (until pay differentials evened out), or with smart, nimble worker robots. In other words instead of highly technological mass production farms, highly technological personal or local farms. Compared then to the industrial factory farm as found in say the corn belt of Iowa, this type of advanced gardening would lean towards more diversity, more opportunities, more complexity, more structure, more specialization, more sentience, and would therefore more likely to be inevitable, after, or on top of the dominant industrial form of farming now.”

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