Towards an Appreciative View of Technology

Recently I encountered the perfect punchline for my ongoing exploration of technology: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from nature. The timing was perfect, since I’ve been looking for an organizing idea to describe how I understand technology.

Looking back over the technology-related posts in my archives over the last five years, this technology-is-nature theme pops out clearly, as both a descriptive and normative theme. I don’t mean that in the sense of naive visions of bucolic bliss (though that is certainly an attractive technology design aesthetic) but in the sense of technology as a manifestation of the same deeper lawfulness that creates forests-and-bears nature. Technology at its best allows for the fullest expression of that lawfulness, without narrow human concerns getting in the way.

I will explain the title in a minute but first, here is my technology sequence of 14 posts written over the last five years. The organizing narrative for the sequence comes from this technology-is-nature idea that informs my thinking, whether I am pondering landfills or rusty ships.

Contemplating Technology

  1. An Infrastructure Pilgrimage
  2. Meditation on Disequilibrium in Nature
  3. Glimpses of a Cryptic God
  4. The Epic Story of Container Shipping
  5. The World of Garbage

What Technology Wants

  1. The Disruption of Bronze
  2. Bay’s Conjecture
  3. Hall’s Law: The Nineteenth Century Prequel to Moore’s Law
  4. Hacking the Non-Disposable Planet
  5. Welcome to the Future Nauseous
  6. Technology and the Baroque Unconscious
Engineering Consolations
  1. The Bloody-Minded Pleasures of Engineering
  2. Towards a Philosophy of Destruction
  3. Creative Destruction: Portrait of an Idea

Technology is central to all my thinking, but my relationship with it is complicated. I no longer think of myself as an engineer. On the other hand, though I think and write a lot about the history, sociology, psychology and aesthetics of technology, I do not have the humanities mindset. I am not a humanist (or that very humanist creature, a transhumanist). I am pretty solidly on the science-and-engineering side of C. P. Snow’s famous two-cultures divide.

Engineering is generally understood in instrumental terms by both practitioners and observers:  as something you do with a set of skills. By contrast, I have tended in recent years to understand it in appreciative terms.

So you could say that my writing on technology over the years has turned into something resembling art history of the critical variety (the connection is made somewhat explicit in one of my posts in the previous sequence).

Perhaps as a result, I have been accused in the past (with some justification) of turning my technology writing and thinking into a sort of sloppy anthropomorphic thermodynamic theology based on loose notions of technological agency, entropy and decay.

While there is certainly a degree of wabi sabi in my technological thinking, in my defense I would say that when I lurch into purple prose or bad poetry, it has less to do with deeply held conceptual beliefs and more to do with attempting to convey the sense of grandeur that I think is appropriate for the proper appreciation of technology.

We reserve for overtly showy things like cathedrals the kind of awe that should really be extended (multiplied several times) to apparently mundane things like shipping containers. We cannot make sense of the modern human condition until we begin to understand that interchangeable parts for everyday machines are actually a far greater achievement than more narrowly humanist expressions of who we are.

I will leave it at that. I think I am going to be writing more about technology appreciation in the future.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. We cannot make sense of the modern human condition until we begin to understand that interchangeable parts for everyday machines are actually a far greater achievement than more narrowly humanist expressions of who we are.

    Isn’t the triumph of the will expressed by technological skill exactly the reason why many humanists with a ‘critical’ angle departed from humanism? They couldn’t stand the rhetorics anymore you would despise as “high modernism” in other contexts.

    Just a few days ago you reviewed a Trend Report on Forbes, which included 50 or so slides which gives a litany on how nature-culture vanishes in the black hole of its “re-imagination” in the form of identical mobile gadgets. Technological naturalism is replaced by mind-toys while humans fall back into the self-indulgence of the familiar and the social and they do this primarily with touching gestures ( not with language and its pathetic distance between mind and reality. Touching is nothing but positive: you only touch what is there and when you are touching wrong there is already a correction button to touch ).

    Siding the second culture in C.P.Snow’s cultural divide, which is more about different subjectivities actually, may be besides the point today because it doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe it existed once and we could also somehow enjoy our alienation-as-humans and regain-as-nature in that medium but since technology got humanized the sharp distinction ceased and is mostly remembered or continues to live on as a cliché. The Morlocks have been sucked up in their own manufactured normalcy field.

  2. Alexander Boland says:

    The one that got my attention was “disequilibrium.” I’ve been trying to understand equilibrium for a while, not out of a desire for comfort, but because I think by completely pooh-poohing equilibrium we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I’ll give an example where I feel like there’s something like “equilibrium” at play:

    I took on a low carb diet (not for weight loss but for dealing with some health conditions) a little over a year and a half ago. Incidentally, I started losing a lot of extra weight pretty fast. Within 2-3 months without trying very hard, I went from being around 175 pounds to around 160 pounds, bringing me to what is pretty much an ideal amount of body fat. While some were terrified that I was going catabolic, I was confident it would stop at the right point; which it did, I have hovered around 160 pounds for a very long time now. This to me seems to be some kind of “equilibrium”–it seems well known in fact that body weight works this way, hitting a particular distribution of set points rather than going up and down linearly depending on someone’s calorie deficit and surplus on a weekly basis.

    I know there’s more at play here because part of the system is that people do naturally respond to energy surpluses and deficits in ways that balance things out (i.e. our minds and bodies are part of the same system; sorry, Sartre.) Just as a disclaimer, I’m not saying that people exercise with an energy excess and sit around with an energy deficit; it’s actually the other way around in the short term, but I digress.

    So the question I have is how can we apply the notion of equilibrium to better understand how systems hit what I’d call “sticky points”? Clearly everything is in destructive/cyclical flux, and I think even better was what NNT said on his FB page: “in life, equilibrium means death.” But it seems abundantly clear to me that systems hit points where they at least temporarily ratchet up and down to new points of relative stability. If I exercise every day (which I don’t believe is a good heuristic, actually), then the “force of habit” is going to sustain a certain pattern using less energy than before.

    Could we instead of think of “equilibrium” on some gradient of magnitude that requires annealing of greater magnitude to break it? And can’t we use the concept of “equilibrium” to create a more tractable picture of how to set goals and expectations?

    And as a bonus question, is there a yin-yang to equilibrium and entropy? When entropy can’t immediately impact a system, its eventual impact gains magnitude (e..g the U.S. can go tens of trillions into debt before creating disaster, an earthquake is greater when short-term resistance builds up the pressure, etc). This itself might be some very important scale-invariant property of a healthy “ecosystem” of the world.

  3. Nature is insufficient. It scales through self-organisation only, rarely moves without stress, and is highly path-dependent. It does not do wheels for locomotion or fire on demand, even though they may be lying closely alongside its existing solutions.

    On the other hand, it’s great for complex systems under uncertainty – much better than the reductionist, chain-like (as opposed to web-like) approach so characteristic of what we understand as technology.

    The way I see it, whether a system is simple or complex – whether it is legible or illegible – depends on the scale/the level of abstraction at which you consider it. Wander around in a jungle and it looks pretty illegible; look at the Earth from orbit and the distribution of jungles in the world seems a hell of a lot more legible.

    I would argue that technology and nature necessarily remain distinguishable – the link to magic is much better because the magical is used to accomplish things the natural cannot (at a given SHARED level of abstraction). But both definitely stem from the same underlying principles and demonstrate many similarities if compared on appropriately different scales.

    • Just for the fun of the human classification drive:

      Religion ( nostalgia, god -> human -> god )

      Man is a creature, caused by an original act of creation. The meaning of it became obscured since we have lost touch with the creator, except for occasional prophecies and witnesses ( e.g. the holy bible ). Knowledge is lost but will be recovered at the end of the days. The return of the creator will end the world as we know it.

      Futurism ( optimism, nature -> human -> naturalist gods )

      Our past is subject to scientific research and although we might never know with certainty what actually happened we can exclude non-naturalist hypotheses. However our future is obscured and accelerated technological evolution will bring us in contact with beings that our ancestors could have only worshiped as gods. Those hyper-intelligent beings exceed human comprehension but when we act carefully this will be for our own good.

      Naturalism ( stoic, nature -> human -> nature )

      Man is nature. Only pride and a humanist delusion inherited from the mythic world view of religion, made us believe that we are somehow special and above it all. But science and technology will increasingly destroy this myth, not all at once but step by step. What looks like an act of nihilist destruction is in fact necessary to achieve ecological conviviality and regain a cosmic unity.

      Humanism ( pathetic, nature -> human -> human )

      Man is a rupture in nature. Man originated in nature and became alien to nature. Craft and technology as well as the arts and religion express our practical and emotional needs within a delimited horizon centered around ourselves. Humanity is challenged by the blind forces of nature, economy, technology etc. but human reason is able to develop a deontological ethics, establish the laws of the state in political debates and we will be finally able to live accordingly.

  4. Do I detect a hint of loathsomeness with such observations?

    Universal (“Art History” styled) critques necessairly implies that your intended audience consists only those who have been properly prepared to join such a conversation. At times I feel that I am not one of those so chosen, both in my interactions with you and some of the other gifted commenters here.

    This all begs the question why do so in such a very public fashion and invite dispassionate observers inside to appreciate your own grand cathedrals of logic and prose?

    Not that I against the idea of well crafted semiotics. I just tend to get annoyed when those engaging in that long liberal arts tradition seemingly wish to avoid the label, “Semiotic” even as it describes them perfectly .

    Up until now you seemed very much to be simply the rhetorically gifted engineer informing those of us without the insight that such education and experiance would grant you.

    Perhaps my uneasiness on the part of your obervations is that you seem to have just come to the realization that blogging itself is necessarily semiotic?

    After all aren’t words themselves the most interchangble piece of technology ever invented? I suppose it depends on wether you view writing, either as, “Expression” or as, “Technology.”

    • I have no idea what you’re talking about, what I am supposed to have just realized, what semiotic angle you see here, and what you mean by “words are interchangeable.”

      Of course joining any conversation requires a certain level of preparedness. The conversation is public because enough people seem to have that level of preparedness and because I can’t tell a priori who’d be interested in various things I want to talk about and how to find them.

      You are possibly complicating something fairly simple. There are conversations I don’t understand, and therefore don’t join. Sometimes that’s due to a lack of adequate training/education and sometimes it is lack of privilege or access to certain circles. Sometimes it is sad that people lack those things, but well…how is that news?

      • I’m rather surprised.

        A thesaurus is the recognized source for the, “interchangability of words.” Just as “interchangable parts” might have very very slight variations in material or workmanship so to do words.

        This dovetails into my point about preparedness. To use your own defintions your writing is “craftsman” quality and as such you can only properly enter converastions with those individuals who understand the substance that you craft. I for one, dumb as I am, have never quite been sure what that might be.

        You have touched on this sort of reader-lag before when you refer to your, “Ribbonfarm Absurdity Marathon.” You know some of us aren’t getting it. And in my post before I very imprecisely reference this.

        As I said before I don’t mind semiotics per se, but I do get a bit annoyed when a semiotic or rhetor doesn’t admit that that is what they are doing.

        My only real contention then is that any blog is by nature rhetorical and semiotic and subject (as you again point out many times before) to self-reference and private symbology (that, in the end, builds an in-group (and the need for the “Absurdity Marathon” in the first place!)).

        And this of course why both of us are so annoyed by this process. We both are inside of closed-thinking loops while engaging on the internet, the bloggosphere makes any meaningful breakthroughs impossibe outside of face-to-face leveling. Which is a natural impossiblity given the constraints of the medium.

        Not sure if this clears things up (it probably doesn’t) but this is the best I can do within the constraints…

  5. Jake Hamilton says:

    My concern is that this aesthetic-appreciative approach not crowd out the potential for a more rigorous, bivalent discussion that it seems you’re pretty uniquely qualified to become involved in. The resonance between the domains of technology and nature is a good place to start, but at the (swiftly approaching) end of the day, humans stand in a decisively different relation to technology than they do to the natural world: I would argue that our unique, originally coevolutionary mode of involvement with it is what essentially characterizes ‘humanity’ and ‘technology.’

    You may not think of yourself as a humanist, but it’s worth questioning how strongly you mean it, and what purpose the commitment serves. I’ve sent links and frantic exhortations to read your posts to some others working around the current early-phase generational reboot of metaphysics – realist, object-oriented, and deeply concerned with the technology/knowledge nexus this time – and as far as I can tell, you would’ve enjoyed the ensuing discussions.

    • Well, at least on the thin surface of Planet Earth, we co-evolve with “nature” as well. We’re responsible for the ongoing mass extinction cycle for example and we are nearly as effective as geology and ice ages in carving up the landscape.

      But point taken. There are differences.

  6. What would be an example of “sufficiently advanced technology” that is indistinguishable from nature?

  7. This is getting close, isn’t it?

  8. Bharadwaj says:

    Intriguing idea in your opening statement. Similar to AI that has been trying to mimic human intelligence, and robotics research taking this idea to its limits..

    It’d be really cool if you can design a Turing test for equivalence, ambiguity and draw a conclusion about whether it is a natural phenomenon or not. The obvious next step is how to design technology that would fake the test.

    Can you think of any examples?

    Also, thanks for the reading list. Enjoyed all of them.

  9. No, I don’t think “supertrees” are close except in a superficial ways.
    Supertrees are distinguishable from nature:
    Don’t grow
    Don’t reproduce
    Need massive inputs
    Leave waste products behind in manufacture and when usefulness is over
    “One of the sustainable features of the Flower Dome is that horticultural waste feeds a massive steam turbine and generates the electricity on-site to help maintain the cool temperatures of the biome.” This kind of massive input depending on an industrial society is not “sustainable” other than in a very short term perspective.
    Don’t interact with species in environment
    Once they are spent how will the supertrees decompose?

  10. I love how these summary-narrative meta-posts seem to encourage an even higher level of abstraction in comments! Perhaps in 10 years time, if you’re still running this blog (and other economics aside I wouldn’t be suprised), you can create a summary-narrative of summary posts and reach an even higher level of abstraction.

    In the nearer future, I hope you can get your hands on the appropriate information streams to continue these kinds of analysis, I wouldn’t be suprised if there are engineers out there with schematics, anecdotes and time series for the systems they work on that they’d love to see this kind of lauding and analysis of. It could even be an alternative form of PR!