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?