3.2 Technosphere Now

In this essay I sketch out a physical framework for the technosphere, Earth’s newest sphere. My goal is to articulate some of the implications of being human in the Anthropocene, given our inescapable role as parts of the technosphere.  Its great and unknowable complexity can be skirted to some extent by focusing on limitations and imperatives incumbent on both human and technospheric behavior as imposed by physical necessity, i.e., by the requirements of organization and of physics.

Extending an observation by Stuart Kauffman about the biosphere, I note that there can be no Newton of the technosphere. There exists no fundamental “equation of motion” that, given sufficient information about initial conditions, can be used to foresee the technosphere’s trajectory through time. The reason is that, unlike in Newtonian physics, the space of possible states that the technosphere might come to occupy cannot be specified in advance. The behavior of the technosphere, except over short time scales (times less than the time required for major changes in its large subsystems), is unpredictable even statistically.

The technosphere has no equation of motion because its state-space cannot be specified in advance. Its future is unpredictable except over short time scales.

Although the technosphere lacks long term predictability, there is enough regularity in the world to have made possible our survival and the survival of other biological organisms, as well as the persistence of technological systems. Humans, as components of the technosphere, contemplating what tomorrow may have in store, feel their way ahead in short, uncertain (Bayesian) steps. Thus a reasonable starting point for investigating the human condition in the Anthropocene is to analyze the extant technosphere, i.e., to paint a picture of “technosphere now”, from which one hopes to gain some insight into “technosphere tomorrow”.

I thus proceed on the assumption that technospheric behavior will be sufficiently stable that it is meaningful to use a dynamical “snapshot” of “technosphere now” as a reference point for studying possible evolution pathways over timescales of interest to its human parts.

Certainly rapid shocks could occur that would upset this assumption, such as global nuclear war or impact by a large asteroid, but even much smaller changes in “technosphere now”, like an increasing rate of long-distance information transport, can be large enough to have significant effects on humans. Study of the dynamics of “technosphere now” can help develop our understanding of deviations from that standard for the same reason that the physiology of a healthy (homeostatic) human body provides a good reference point for studies of organismal pathologies. Several scenarios for modest temporal excursions from “technosphere now” will be examined in later chapters.

In order to move forward it is necessary to write down a suitable dynamics for the extant technosphere, that is, a set of rules that governs how the technosphere “works”. In the next few posts I will discuss general rules of system behavior applicable both to the technosphere and to its human and technological components.

Further reading

Why there can be no Newton of the biosphere [nor of the technosphere], S. A. Kauffman (2013), “Evolution beyond Newton, Darwin, and entailing law: the origin of complexity in the evolving biosphere”, pages 162-190 in Complexity and the Arrow of Time, (eds.) C. H. Lineweaver, P. C. W. Davies, and M. Ruse, Cambridge University Press.

Persistent citation for this post: P. K. Haff, 3.2 Technosphere Now, in Being Human in the Anthropocene blog, 2018. https://perma.cc/6NU6-NSBZ

Next up: 3.3 Regulative and constitutive rules. Discussion of rules of necessity (regulation or framing of a system) versus rules of implementation (constitution or specification of a system).

2 thoughts on “3.2 Technosphere Now

  1. The idea of an open and evolving state space is central for any kind of evolutionary theory, so it seems that there cannot be a Newton of the technosphere, but a Darwin! Yet, I think that there is another, deeper reason why we cannot predict technosphere evolution. This is the reflexivity of information processing in the technosphere, or its self-referential structure. There is already a physical theory on that developed by David Wolpert: Wolpert, David H. (2001), ‘Computational Capabilities of Physical Systems’, Physical Review E, 65, 016128 and Wolpert, David H. (2008), Physical Limits to Inference, arXiv:0708.1362v2. Basically, this builds on Gödel-type structures.

    1. The only point was that Newton is predictive but Darwin is not (nor by extension are we re the technosphere), in the sense that these gentlemen each introduce mechanisms of change, but in Newton’s case (atmosphere, hydrosphere) one can in principle visualize/compute the future state, whereas in Darwin’s case (biosphere) one cannot, because the space of available states cannot be stated a priori. Thus atmospheric scientists can meaningfully attempt predictions of weather and climate change, but biologists cannot evolve the future of the biosphere based on Darwinian principles, nor futurists the future of the technosphere (whatever dynamics might be invoked). I am not sure about the immediate relevance of Wolpert’s results (such as his monotheism theorem) for the question of the human condition in the Anthropocene (the math is too detailed for me to make a reasonable independent comment at this time), but like other abstract insights into the universe, for example the eternalist notion that the fluctuating quantum fields underlying reality simply work themselves out however they may, including any so-called predictions that localized regions of such fields (humans) may make, I think, as I say, that such insights do not make easy contact with the practical usages envisioned here for the present analysis of the technosphere paradigm. If my discussion of the technosphere does not so far seem destined to a practical end, it is only necessary to wait.

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