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I almost titled this post “Knowledge AND Power,” as a play on my previous post a week or so ago titled “Knowledge is Power,” but decided to be less cute and more descriptively precise. Denverpost.com published today an article on a Boulder company’s contribution to smart grid technology (http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_16199737). “Power Tagging,” the name of both the technology and the company, involves embedding “a digital signal deep in the flow of electrons that can be read through the noise.” The larger implication is the gradual evolution of more efficient energy delivery systems, by, for instance, incorporating real-time cybernetic feedback loops that allow energy delivery to adjust to conditions, much as a thermostat turns on and off the heat or air conditioning in a home. But the implications of a smart grid, and particularly of this new technology, are that the more information flows with the energy itself, the more efficiently the demands on the system (e.g., producing exactly the right amount of energy to balance the grid in real-time, a physical requirement of energy production and distribution) can be met.

More generally, information and energy are the intertwined life-blood of human and natural systems. The biosphere on Earth is fueled, ultimately, by the sun (starting with photosynthesis, at the start of the food chain), and evolves through the reproduction, occasional mutation, and competition for reproductive success of packets of information (genes). Human systems are embedded in, and echo, this pattern (as I discuss in my post “The Politics of Consciousness”: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=187). In our earliest form, on the African savanna, our fuel came from that solar-powered food-chain and, eventually, the combustion of some of its products (i.e., fire). Our early development involved ways in which to utilize that energy source (feeding domesticated animals, and using fire in the preparation of food and tools, for instance). Much of human history thereafter can be understood in terms of the evolution of energy sources and the technologies for utilizing them (from levers and pulleys to nuclear reactors and solar panels).

Parallel to, and informing, this evolution of energy sources and technologies, is our own cultural evolution involving the innovation, diffusion, and synthesis of ideas. But just as our own evolutionary process is an echo of Nature’s, we in turn have created a technological echo of our own, by creating information technologies which vastly accelerate the reproduction, mutation, competition, and evolution of human cognitive information. And now, we are increasingly taking steps which will allow that information to operate independently of us, just as a thermostat does, with technological systems reacting to information that no human being need ever be aware of.

The potentials for increased efficiency and efficacy in how we address the challenges and opportunities which face us are enormous. Despite the hyperbole that has sometimes surrounded the Computer Revolution, few recognize just how dramatic a threshold we have entered in just the past few decades. From a historical perspective, it may come to eclipse the Industrial Revolution in importance, just as the Industrial Revolution in many ways eclipsed the Renaissance and Enlightenment which were preludes to it.

Just as our own echo of natural evolution is a vastly accelerated process, so too the technological echo we have created promises a new quantum acceleration once again. Human history is an acceleration of natural history due to the increased rate of information-packet reproduction (as fast as we can communicate), mutation (as fast as we can modify), and selection (as fast as we can choose what to believe or what technology to utilize). The secondary evolutionary echo that may occur as a result of information technologies operating autonomously could be another quantum acceleration still, communicating, processing, modifying, and selecting information not only at the accelerated speed that modern computers can, but with the accelerating acceleration (i.e., increasing nth order rates of change) produced by the accumulating innovations themselves. We’ve already begun to experience the first whisper of this new acceleration, with the rapid communications and data processing capacities of modern computers, ushering in new wonders of comprehension and capacity at an accelerating rate. But that is still restrained by our own cognitive speed, still the bottleneck through which our computer-augmented data processing must pass. It is when the evolutionary process of self-replicating, mutating, adapting packets of information by-pass us completely that the new echo begins in earnest.

In a book about speculative future possibilities that I read decades ago (and can remember neither the title nor the author), one idea the author floated was the prospect of robotic combination space-faring/mining machines that could self-replicate with the materials that they mined from extraterrestrial bodies, bringing back virtually unlimited material resources to Earth. (Obviously, we would also need to invent self-replicated garbage collectors removing the equally prolific production of waste, else be even more deluged by garbage than we already are!) Now, imagine combining such machines with any variety of self-replicating and self-disposing/recycling machines to perform any variety of tasks. Finally, imagine their ability to process information about changing conditions or potential design improvements diagnosed from experience, and self-modify when reproducing in order to adapt to this information.

Such an accelerated process may well also accelerate our ability to safely and cleanly tap and utilize the universe’s abundant supply of energy sufficiently to meet any demands placed upon it. Both drivers of evolution, of progress, -information and energy- would be placed on autonomous growth curves, with problem-solving algorithms incorporated into them. It is even conceivable that self-replicated computerized machines could create not only their own off-spring, but their own novel inventions as well, new self-replicating computerized machines to accomplish new tasks newly identified.

Of course, the immediate future offers prospects more modest than these far-fetched possibilities, but dramatic prospects nonetheless, and prospects that will become increasingly dramatic with the passage of time. What it requires of us is a willingness to progress, an understanding that we have not yet arrived at our final condition, that our lot in life can indeed be dramatically improved, and that it is incumbent upon us to facilitate our advance toward an ever-more robust, sustainable, and fair social order to the best of our abilities.

But, as Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and great potential for disastrous unintended consequences. This is true on several dimensions; technological, environmental, and social institutional. As some have noted, we may be on the brink of creating what is essential mechanical life-forms, and unleashing forces we will no longer be able to control. The most common and imminent concern involves nanotechnology: The creation of microscopic machines that can be used, for instance, to target diseases in the body, and can be programmed to reproduce and adapt to changing conditions by reprogramming themselves as they do so. Michael Crichton, in one of his typically scientifically-almost-plausible-but-extreme renditions of this concept, wrote the novel Prey, which depicted swarms of such nanites becoming very effective predators.

Clearly, more dramatically exploiting Nature, both on Earth and beyond, means more dramatically risking the destabilization of the complex systems which comprise us. We must always remain vigilent, and increasingly so, that our increasingly robust harvesting of Nature’s bounty is not done at the expense of the stability and sustainability of the systems which produce that bounty.

And the fear that informs conservatives, that the more we act with a concentrated will, the more we risk losing ourselves to the center of power thus created, takes on new dimensions as well in a future such as the one I have outlined. Vigilantly avoiding the possible pitfalls of falling prey to our own technological and institutional inventions is one more demand upon us, and one we must keep forever at the forefront of our contemplations. But the liberating possibilities of both a more effective and expansive social institutional context, and a more effective and expansive technological context, both  facilitating the provision of needs and wants and opportunities beyond all but our wildest dreams (just as the present is beyond all but the wildest dreams of those of generations and centuries and millenia past), freeing us to grow and celebrate life in ways more profound and subtle than merely meeting the demands of survival which were forever our first and most formidable shackles, is a dream not to be denied.

Despite the risks involved, I find the path we are on more exciting than frightening, one which, when combined with our inevitable increasing mimicry of nature in the production of more organic and organic-like technologies and social institutions, holds the promise for a very bright future indeed.

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  • Here’s an exchange in response to this post from Facebook:

    Bradley Jarvis: We’ve got to be pretty careful with that stuff, even if we do get the chance to develop it. Unchecked development tends to have more negative consequences than positive ones, like the mass extinction event we’re causing and may become victim to ourselves

    Steve: Complex systems are always on the brink of the abyss, but evolution itself is unchecked development. I agree that we have to be very conscious about potential unintended consequences, unlike the haphazard careening into the future of the past. But the future is going to happen, whether we’re afraid of it or not.

    It reminds me of a story I’ve told about a canoe trip in which we got pushed sideways by the rapids into a fallen tree, and the next thing we knew we were holding on to the trunk for dear life, about to be swept away by the current. Until we stood up, and the water was just two feet deep. In any case, you can’t hold onto the fallen trunk forever; one way or another, you’re going downstream.

    Bradley: This has nothing to do with evolution. Rather, it’s about taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions. As I suggested in a recent discussion on LinkedIn:

    A good rule of thumb to follow would be to limit the scale of what we do to our knowledge of its impacts and when negative consequences are likely. If we choose to grow, we should first increase our knowledge and understanding to the point where a responsible path can be found.

    Unfortunately, we’re acting like any other species without competition or predators, growing as fast as we can until we’ve depleted the available resources and overpowered our environment with waste. The consequences for other species are already catastrophic (see http://gbo3.cbd.int/), and we may die off ourselves if we don’t radically change our ways.

    Steve: I agree that we may die off due to our actions, and that our impact on our environment is extreme and dangerous. But it has everything to do with evolution, as I explain in the essay (memetic rather than genetic evolution). The difference of opinion on that is that I recognize that “evolution” isn’t necessary benevolent; whole species have died off as a result of their evolution before (a species of elk with dysfunctionally oversized antlers, for instance, which signalled to potential mates the ability to acquire enough surplus nutrition to “spend” it so ostentatiously, but which eventually impaired all of their ability to survive).

    There are a couple of other things that I respectfully disagree with in your argument. One is based on what I consider to be the error of both those who consider us to be above Nature (that we are its lords) and those who consider us to be an extranatural threat to nature. We are neither; we have never exited or transcended nature, we remain a part of it. That does not mean that we cannot destroy ourselves, other species, or the entire Earth, but it does mean that our conceptualization of our role in the natural world and universe is saddled with a hubris at both ends of the debate that does not serve the goal of sound judgment based in sound understandings.

    Your rule of thumb isn’t possible to follow, because we never fully know the impacts or negative consequences of any action, including getting out of bed in the morning. One can argue that there is a spectrum of potentially disastrous unintended consequences for actions with varying degrees of impact, and that the line to be drawn involves a degree of impact of our actions rather than merely some unattainable certainty that there will be no negative consequences, but such a rule would relegate us to a pre-industrial existence, which may or may not be desirable, but certainly is an unrealistic political economic agenda.

    Whether it’s a good idea or not, humans will not willingly impoverish themselves in order to diminish our impact on our natural environment. Even those making the argument are engaging in the consumptive processes that they are recommending we all somehow cease to engage in. But how would that happen? By imposition of a benevolent dictator who knows that it’s in our best interest, and sends storm troopers out to impose it (and how would he or she motivate those storm troopers to comply with his or her agenda? There would have to be some compensation, unless enough could be found with the same degree of conviction, and the same willingness to impose it on others). By all sponaneously realizing that we need to return to a more primitive lifestyle? When you analyze it carefully, you realize that the suggestion that we try to “undo” the products of our development by going back the way we come suffers the same defect as suggesting that we all become universally altruistic and farsighted in all of our actions: It’s an unrealistic wish rather than a viable agenda. (We can, instead, look at things that are within our power to do which approximate in their effects some aspects of the goals that had motivated our wish).

    The more viable way to address the destabilzing effects we’ve had and are having on the systems which comprise us is to develop in ways which make such systems endogenous to our concerns. For example, GDP doesn’t currently identify unharvested natural resources as having value; they are given value by harvesting them. But, clearly, as limited resources, there is a cost as well as a benefit to harvesting them. So we need to rethink our economic models to incorporate the value of stock natural resources in our economic calculations, and to “internalize the externalities” of environmental impacts of our production and consumption activities. Similarly, we need to strive to produce closed systems, in which waste products of one activity become in-puts for another, emulating ecosystems in both our technologies and our economy.

    I don’t believe that humans have to seek a politically unattainable self-impoverishment in order to avert the environmental collapse that we are capable of catalyzing, and, perhaps more importantly, I don’t think it’s even remotely possible that we can achieve any meaningful pursuit of such an agenda on any significant scale. Nor, aside from universal self-impoverishment, is there any way to realign our activities with the capacity of our natural context to bear them that does not involve retaining the benefits of past development and incorporating new developments into the process which recognize the need to realign our own microcosm of the natural world with the macrocosm in which it is embedded.

  • Continued:

    Bradley: Actually, I don’t believe “impoverishment” is necessarily the way to go. If you check out my Web site (http://www.bigpicexplorer.com/), you’ll see that I’ve actually modeled a variety of scenarios, including growing our population as fast as possible within the laws of physics. Whether soon or in the far future, we will face a point where we, as a species, will need to accept limits to growth – especially exponential growth, which is inherently destructive and unsustainable.

    I understand evolution to be at its simplest a means for life to occupy niches (sets of environmental conditions), and technology has indeed enabled us to occupy (and create) new niches that our biology can’t do on its own. But even technology has physical constraints, and one of them is time — time enough to develop and be adopted by enough people to serve the societal purposes we have for it. The crisis we face now is one of time: our primary resources are on the verge of becoming scarce before we can find adequate replacements for them, and in the process we’re destroying the set of free, pre-made technology (the other species in the biosphere) that keeps our planet habitable. We are arguably past the point where we can decide how we’d like to live, and need to define how we CAN live. If there is anything left over (and estimates suggest we’ve already overshot the Earth’s natural carrying capacity by 40% or more), we can use it to explore other options.

    If I share the bias of human exceptionality, it is to the point of expecting us to be able to keep from acting like a cancer that kills its host, and itself, in the mindless pursuit of growth. Such growth may be natural, but it isn’t wise.

    Finally, the alternative I presented was admittedly idealistic. Science, the mechanism we have for learning how the Universe works, is very much a trial-and-error effort, and depends on taking chances as much as any human endeavor. But we need to be a lot more careful than we are, especially given the fact that we have global reach with our “experiments.” Evolution that doesn’t result in extinction depends on relatively isolated populations where its experiments can be carried out without endangering everyone. We no longer live in such a world (though, if we had time, and we could restrain our exploitive impulses, it would be a good argument for settling other planets).

    Steve: Bradley, you present your position well, and it does indeed form one of two opposing pillars of understanding the issue at hand, neither of which definitively trumps the other.

    On one side of the debate is your position, sometimes referred to as “neo-Malthusian”, favored in general by biologists. On the other is the position sometimes referred to as “cornucopian”, favored in general by economists. Malthus himself, who first articulated your position, almost identically, was proved wrong due to changing technologies, which changed the carrying capacity of the Earth as we know it. The theoretical premise that there is some inviolate carrying capacity that technology cannot transcend (without extraterrestrial colonization) is one thing; the claim to have precise, or even ballpark, knowledge of what it is is another. The problem with the latter position is that we don’t yet know the ways in which future technological innovations will change the context, just as Malthus didn’t know in his day.

    Models incorporate assumptions in the form of parameters. The best and most useful models are very explicit about those assumptions and their limitations, and offer a series of possible results based on the widest reasonably conceivable range that the assumed parameters might take under changing technological and social institutional regimes. In this case, a pretty good imagination is needed to identify that range appropriately, given how unimaginable our own world would have been to preceding generations.

    Your time horizon issue is highly salient. We are in a race of future innovation against the consequences of past and present carelessness, a race, as I’ve repeated several times, we are in no way guaranteed of winning. Nor are we guaranteed of losing it either.

    The most salient point, however, is the nature of collective action, of human history, of social institutional and technological innovation. Despite superficial overlays of varying degrees of centralization (in the form of social institutional hierarchies, such as governments, corporations, and religious orders), it is fundamentally decentralized. It makes little sense, from a pragmatic approach, to say what “we,” meaning global humanity, should do, because their is no such decision maker who can take or not take any recommended course of action. Instead, those of us who are so inclined need to examine what we as individuals and organized clusters can do which affects the more complex decentralized ecology of human socieities in ways which move it in directions that hold more rather than less promise.

    To my mind, the best synthesis of the neo-Malthusian and cornucopian perspectives is to be thoroughly informed of and motivated by the severity and imminence of the problems caused by our growing population and growing consumption-per-capita of that population, the very real dangers it poses to our continued existence, and the need to address the challenges involved with the same or greater commitment that we address a military threat (cultivating such commitment being a daunting enough political challenge as it is), and then seek to innovate our way out of it by pursuing the kind of sustainable development agenda I’ve outlined.

    If it’s not impoverishment that you’re talking about, I don’t really see how there can be much disagreement between us, because we currently have about 7 billion people, looking at a demographic curve that will result in between 12 and 25 billion before we reach global zero population growth, with the vast majority craving to live with even a fraction of the comfort that a small minority currently does. I do not see any choice that does not involve either: 1) condemning humanity to perpetual impoverishment; 2) mass genocide; 3) prompt extraterrestrial colonization; or 4) innovations which increase both our systemic integration into our natural context (e.g., creating less waste, using energy more efficiently, etc.), and the Earth’s carrying capacity. Number 4 seems like both the most attractive, and the only politically viable, option to pursue as the main strategy (not to say that cultivating more modest lifestyles wouldn’t have a useful role to play as well).

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