I want to share some efforts of mine over the past few years to develop a framework for thinking about the status and future prospects of humans in the Anthropocene Epoch—the proposed new unit of geologic time that includes the age of modern humans, technology, and their effects on the rest of planet Earth. The main engine of the Anthropocene is the technosphere, the global network of humans and technology, which I argue is Earth’s next great sphere after the biosphere. Being Human in the Anthropocene is intended as an extended essay on the nature of the technosphere and our relation to it, organized according to the following scheme:
Tentative Mile Posts
1.0 The Set Up
2.0 The Anthropocene–What it is and my way of trying to understand it
3.0 Being a System–You, I, and the technosphere are systems. Rules for systems
4.0 Being a Part of a System–You and I are parts of systems. Rules for parts
5.0 The Technosphere and Its Parts–The human-technological world analyzed from a physical perspective
6.0 Being Purposeful in the Anthropocene–All parts and systems, humans and otherwise, have agency. Physical principles of agency.
7.0 Being a Human Part of the Technosphere–What it means to live inside the technosphere
8.0 Being Human in the Future–Human opportunities and challenges in an accelerating technosphere
The focus of this effort is to describe a physical framework for study of humans as constitutive elements of the technosphere. To construct the framework, I appeal to physical principles that are independent of specifics about human behavior or the state of technology. The idea is to identify emergent conditions that are physically necessary for the existence of the human population, but which are not human- or technology-specific. In this way it is possible to gain insight into the world-at-large today even when the details of how humans interact with each other, with technology, and with their environment remain murky or unknown.
I argue that the technosphere is Earth’s next great sphere after the biosphere.
In this framework-based approach complexities and biases endemic to world-views such as those arising in sociology, economics, psychology, and biology, and more generally in world cultures and traditions, fade away. All that remains visible are the bare bones that are required to support the dynamics of any physical system, including the technosphere. This perspective does not detract from the contributions of disciplinary knowledge or other ways of knowing and living. But, I believe it provides guidelines that are useful, and that any analysis of fundamental conditions that govern human life in the Anthropocene must respect.
Looking at the world this way erases information specific to humans (or to any other particular kind of part or component). However, the gain that ensues is some tractability and insight into the basic challenge of existence and function faced by every system component, including but not limited to human components, as they struggle to survive. (See note below on my use of anthropomorphic language like “struggle”.)
The approach adopted here is to acknowledge our anthropocentric interest in humans, but at the same time to pursue that interest from as nonanthropocentric a perspective as possible. The goal is to learn something about those aspects of the human condition that are shared by all components of the technosphere, but which transcend the sticky and often unknown particulars inherent in a more focused analysis. This approach, perhaps surprisingly, turns out to generate useful knowledge about living in the Anthropocene, and is the reason for devoting significant attention to discussions that on the face of it may appear beside the point to readers eager for the human payoff.
Note on anthropomorphic language, which we do not hesitate to use in this essay when doing so makes for clearer understanding: Anthropomorphic language often works effectively as a communication tool because human-inflected language can point, at a deeper level, to certain physical conditions or relationships that are required for being a part of a system (or being a system itself), whether the part (or system) is human or not. This is one of the insights that become clear in the stripped-down dynamical description of the technosphere presented in this essay.
My argument will be developed incrementally, through the uncertain process of corralling a herd of untamed thoughts and trying to fit them into a reasonable (comprehensible and believable) order. Because this is a live (real-time) project, a draft rather than a vetted product, some inconsistency of narrative, an occasional circling-back or unproductive cul-de-sac of thought, or outright crashes of reason, are inevitable. I’ll try to deal with these on the fly if and when I become aware of them.
More positively, Being Human in the Anthropocene aims to sustain a scientific stance toward the questions it addresses. It is, however, not intended as a series of journal articles complete with pointers to the scientific literature. I will try to provide connections to the literature if asked, and will include a few relevant references in each post. But the goal is mostly to communicate some ideas about the human condition on the modern Earth by deconstruction of the technosphere. Where opinions are expressed, they are my own unless otherwise indicated. I encourage input from interested readers.
As I tend to be a slow writer, it may take several weeks for each new installment to appear—somewhat less frequent than what my blogging mentors tell me is an optimum rate for sustaining reader interest. I’ll do the best I can.
Persistent citation for this post: P. K. Haff, 1.0 The Set Up, in Being Human in the Anthropocene blog, 2018. https://perma.cc/JSF7-JFJY.
Next up: What is the Anthropocene? Where I address the question, is the Anthropocene about humans, or about the Earth?
12 thoughts on “1.0 The Set Up”
It seems to me that a central problem is how to define the ‘physical’ here. In Anthropocene studies, there is an emerging tension between physical approaches and cross-disciplinary ones that put much emphasis on human agency and autonomy,. Technology studies manifest the same debate, with many approaches arguing the technology is fundamentally ‘social’. In my own work, I have suggested that the central concept bridging these disciplinary differences is ‘information’. However, physicists tend to interpret this in terms of Shannon information only. I believe that the solution lies in developing a cross-diciplinary valid semantic theory of information beyond Shannon. This theory would be ‘physical’ in the sense as treating information as a basical physical notion, with different manifestations across emergent evolutionary levels of physical organization, including the technosphere.
Carsten, I agree that the treatment of agency in the Anthropocene is key, and plan to devote a number of posts to this topic. You were too modest to include reference to some of your own work in this area, such as: The Case for a New Discipline: Technosphere Science. (Excerpt: “Agency is no longer seen as a property exclusive to humans, but as being distributed in networks of ontologically diverse entities.”)
I believe that the recent debates about ‘New Materialism’ in the social sciences offer a great opportunity for rethinking the meaning of ‘physical’ here. But one problem is that this literature ignores physics, strangely. Borders between disciplines are very rigid, it seems. Therefore, in my own work (which I dare say here, but did not mention in the paper that you kindly cited) I think that one has to go back in intellectual history to a point of time when those disciplines gradually separated. This was the late 18th and 19th century, and, it seems to me, German idealism (Kant, Hegel and others). I think Hegel is most promising, but that shocks most people, and they just shrug shoulders and turn to seemingly more relevant topics. My motivation is that this was the time when the sciences became independent from ‘philosophy’ (after all, Newton was a philosopher, like Adam Smith etc.), and later the social sciences. But scholars such as Hegel still tried to build encompassing conceptual frameworks, and we can learn a lot from them. One topic is exactly agency: According to Hegel, ‘the will’ is nothing that resides ‘within’ individuals, but is an externalized structure of action in a social and natural setting. I think that for American readers the easiest way to access this way of thinking is to reflect upon what is often called ‘American philosophy’, which is pragmatism: Peirce, Mead, Dewey, and others. They all had read German idealism, and produced a fascinating synthesis: That is, adding the contributions of Charles Darwin (somewhere I read that Mead is ‘Hegel plus Darwin’). American pragmatism is deeply ‘naturalistic’, but at the same time recognizes the ontological specificity of ‘the social’. This is where I think lies the solution.
I am unlettered in philosophy, German or otherwise, but I do know some physics and geology. So, somewhat to your point (I think), I try to keep a few simple physical principles first and foremost in my development of this essay. If it turns that the consequences of these principles bump up against philosophical expectations, then at that point we will learn something.
Allow me to draw you attention at the discussion that has been launched here: https://www.earth-syst-dynam-discuss.net/esd-2018-27/#discussion. This is about the attempt at building an integrated model of the interaction between humans and the Earth system. I was invited to give a comment, and I was inevitably drawn into philosophy. Perhaps this is my personal fault, but I think that behind even apparently simple facts deep philosphical issues lurk. One argument that I present there is the following. Can we really oppose the ‘Earth system’ in the physical sense and ‘human’ domains such as culture? I think, no. Science is human, and all what we know about the ‘Earth’ is the product of our activities. In other words, our knowledge about the Earth is limited, and probably wrong, as every serious scientist would admit (who believes in progress of science). This is not sophism or unnecessary philosophical play. The problem of the cultural and social construction of ‘reality’ has been discussed for decades, and I do NOT support radical constructivism. What is most interesting is that what scientists do, is deeply involved with the technosphere. We believe that science approximates reality because we rely on complicated technological tools in our experiments, laboratories and so on to test our theories. Of course, these are part of the technosphere. If they work together properly, this is reality. However, our interpretation of that ‘working together’ remains our own, and is probably wrong, in the sense of being incomplete, at least.
Therefore, I would argue that we need to treat science (your ‘physics’) as endogenous to technosphere evolution. There is no external standpoint, and in this sense the ‘Earth’ is itself a product of technosphere evolution. Well, that’s indeed mind-boggling philosophy. But I think we need to free ourselves from many prejudices about disciplinary boundaries and unwarranted assumptions about what are ‘facts’, what is ‘nature’ and so on. If you refer to the discussion cited above, my philosophical élan was triggered by the authors’ fascinating formulation: ‘World-Earth system’. Start to think about this: What is the difference between the ‘world’ and ‘earth’?
This looks like a great way of developing ideas about the technosphere, through one of its most amenable forms of internal communication – the blog. I like the idea of having a general plan but not knowing precisely where the path may take us – thinking as a kind of journey, destination uncertain! Looking forward to following your thoughts …
Thanks Matt. It is an uncertain journey. Hoping to negotiate successfully any hairpin turns that might show up.
Sounds very interesting, waiting to see and follow how this blog project progresses. I fully agree that the technosphere is a most important sphere (either as part of the anthroposphere, or as an own sphere), strongly interacting with all other earth system spheres.
Thanks Reinhold. Good to exercise some caution at the outset when it’s unclear where the road is going.
Peter, this is great in so many ways. Firstly, to read your recent thinking on the technosphere, in an extended format. Secondly, to see you do it in real time, as it were, and in a more relaxed and speculative format than is usually the case in publication. Thirdly (joy of joys) to be able to join in via the comments function! Greatly looking forward to all of this.
Thanks Bron. I hope to touch on one of your favorite topics at some point–new modes of mobility in the technosphere