Technology, Agency and the Future of the Earth Workshop


~1,600 words


Last modified: December 1st, 12,018 HE

We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race.

The Institute of Social Futures (ISF) at the University of Lancaster ran a workshop the other day titled Technosphere: Technology, Agency and the Future of the Earth Workshop that aimed to explore the concept of the technosphere as a distinctive approach to understanding the changes occurring in the Earth system that go under the general name of the Anthropocene, the technosphere being proposed as a newly emerged Earth system comparable to the other dynamic Earth systems such as the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, with some similarities to Vernadsky, LeRoy, and Teilhard’s noosphere.

Dr Bronislaw Szerszynski, Introduction

First up was an introduction by the Lancaster’ Sociology Department’s own Dr Bronislaw Szerszynski. He detailed the aforementioned aims of the workshop, linking the historical development of such ideas of technological emancipation from human control to the 1863 article cited above, Weber’s 1905 discussions of the iron cage of modernity and Horkheimer & Adorno’s 1944 critiques in Dialectic of Enlightenment. What sets the idea of the technosphere apart from these previous ideas, thought Szerszynski, was its emphasis on physics, its conceptualisation of the technosphere as part of the an Earth system (a la the noosphere), and its focus on the popular notion of the Anthropocene, or that we are now living in a distinct geological epoch primarily defined by the impact of humans on their environment.

At stake, added Szerszynski, was nothing less than the future of the Earth. The more optimistic predictions suppose heroic levels of agency when confronting climate change and other existential threats to humanity, and Szerszynski suggested that, if the technosphere does exist, this could result in a catastrophic reduction in humanity’s agency.

Prof. Dr Carsten Herrman-Pillath, Towards Technosphere Science

Following this, Prof. Dr Carsten Herrmann-Pillath of Erfurt University’s Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies—a technosphere early adopter, according to Szerszynski—took to the stage. Herrman-Pillath suggested that technosphere studies needed to be established as a new discipline as a matter of urgency, arguing that the technosphere was the biosphere of the Anthropocene epoch. As the Anthropocene is defined by human artefacts rather than humans themselves, it is these artefacts that make up the technosphere—humans do not control or design the technosphere, despite controlling and designing its constituent parts. An economist by inclination, Herrman-Pillath suggested that anything humans design and control can be considered technology, and this includes markets, which in turn drive further technological progress. Technological evolution is driven by human agency, and then feeds back to impact that same agency, he argued.

As economics builds on the idea of individual agency as a clearly definable foundation for all theories and hypotheses, Herrman-Pillath accused economists of rarely asking questions about interdependencies. Markets, when considered in this light, are not mathematical systems, but rather material technologies. The technosphere can be seen as a beehive in Earth system dimensions. Herrman-Pillath then further criticised his fellow economists, suggesting that evolutionary economics takes neo-Darwinism [i.e., competition and selection] as the most compatible mechanism of technological development, as part of a broader pattern of tak[ing] mainstream ideas from other fields in order to claim scientific authenticity.

He then proposed a principle of bimodality that would consider all artefacts [to be] physical mechanisms following efficient causality, as is the current conception, and simultaneously also being semiotic machines following formal and final causality. As a result, the proposed discipline of technosphere studies must bridge the divide between the sciences and the humanities—Snow’s two cultures—using semiotics and design-as-focus. For example, the first type of study would identify that a car moves people, whilst the second, semiotic one would assess that the same car could be a status symbol.

The core area of Herrman-Pillath’s technosphere studies would be the study of cities, as they represent the most complex human artefact, evolving with limited human control. As an application of his principle of bimodality to the studies of cities, Herrman-Pillath proposed that the types of networks by which a city could be analysed include the technological networks—roads, water, electricity—as well as social networks, and that mathematical models of both are needed.

Dr Bronislaw Szerszynski, The technosphere as a late-planetary sphere

After a brief Q & A, the stage returned to Szerszynski for his talk, The technosphere as a late-planetary sphere, late-planetary being, he informed us, a phrase I’m playing around with at the moment. Szerszynski rhetorically posed the questions of when are we? and how can technology be a sphere?, countering the latter with how can archaea be a sphere, when they just seem like shitty blobs? He suggested that planets make mistakes, and that arguably the biosphere is a mistake, opening up the planet to more hazards than it would otherwise have to deal with. For a workshop based around the diminishment of human agency, he was certainly willing to impart a surprising amount onto a lump of rock and magma.

Despite get[ting] an A at A Level, Szerszynski confessed that he was not a physicist. He defined a sphere as a far-from-equilibrium system and a dissipative structure that followed the maximum power principle and the maximum entropy production principle. Autopoiesis, or self-making was also vital, and he cited Maturana & Verela’s definition:

An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.

Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living

In short, we don’t determine where a sphere ends, the sphere does. He then described the emergence of spheres in terms of Deacon’s three orders of emergence: in first-order emergence, all global properties emerge from smaller parts; in second-order, a bottom-up procedure produces macroscopic structures, shifting probabilities on the microscopic level (e.g., the hydrosphere, which is kept out of equilibrium by wind patterns); and in third-order, forms of memory develop. Szerszynski wondered if the biosphere need necessarily be the only form of third-order emergence. The technosphere is autonomous, he claimed, constituting a space of possibilities to fill and the dynamism to do so. He ended with the following quote, and a question—what can matter do without a biosphere atop it?:

It was only in places where eternal, still death reigned, where neither the sieves nor the mills of natural selection were at work, shaping every creature to fit the rigors of surivival, that an amazing realm opened up—of compositions of matter that did not imitate anything, that were not controlled by anything, and that went beyond the framework of the human imagination.

Stanisław Lem, Fiasco

Dr Andrew Jarvis, Is there evidence that technology is behaving in predictable ways?

Next it was Dr Andrew Jarvis of the Lancaster Environment Centre. Jarvis was interesting in see[ing] how far we can push the physical view by considering energy as a factor of production—in doing so, labour disappears, and it all becomes thermodynamics. Via the visualisations of road networks presented in Roads to Rome, Jarvis pointed out that there had been no design in any of the networks. Rather, as 50 % of primary energy use is moving $ x $ to $ y $, he proposed that they emerged through thermodynamic processes. He cited some research that plotted household incomes by US stated and which found that growth increased inequality—a rising tide does em raise all ships, or at least not equally—and suggested that we had to instead design networks that are thermodynamically inefficient.

He also cited Grubler’s work in analysing how long it takes new technologies to diffuse in to an economy, finding a mean value of 41 years, as evidence that it would be optimal to evolve a pool of technology to match the growth rate. He claimed that biology places spread bets as a hedge against unprepared-for events, and that we can now weight the technosphere—the flow of matter through society in 2015 was apparently 2.8 trillion tons, whereas the biosphere is estimated to be 3 trillion tons. He ended by suggesting that civilisation interfaces between known energy reserves and the environment, drew a link between the energy reserves of a building—3.7 gJ/m3—and those of a human being—7 gJ/m3—and proposing that buildings could be thought of as technological cocoons.

Unfortunately, I missed the final speech of the event. Of the three, Jarvis’ was the most interesting, although looking back over my notes some of that seems to have been lost in translation. The idea of the technosphere seems to me to a new set of clothes over an old idea, and nobody seemed to have addressed the central issue of what such a phenomenon’s effect on human agency would be.