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In a modification of my last post,  The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, in which I described how memes and paradigms form and spread and combine into social institutions, I added on a few paragraphs describing the fractal geometry of that social institutional landscape, which form the first few paragraphs (following this one) of this post.

The social institutional landscape has a nested and overlapping dynamical fractal structure, with some small subset of memes shared almost universally by global humanity, and the rest by smaller swathes of humanity of every magnitude down to the individual level. Transnational linguistic groups, national or regional cultures, international professional communities, aficionados of theater or a local sports team, local peer groups and families, these and almost unlimited other such groupings can share meme-sets ranging from specialized professional knowledge through games and entertainments to particular opinions or judgments. Rumors, observations, shared jokes, novel insights, technical innovations all swirl and sweep through humanity like gusting breezes through endless grasslands.

Some are highly contagious, articulating well with human psychological predispositions or existing internal cognitive landscapes, or proliferating due to their economic or military utility, spreading far and wide. Some become obsolete, dated by the flow of events or by the duration of attention spans, and contract again into oblivion after “lives” ranging from the very local and fleeting to the very widespread and long enduring.

Individual internal cognitive landscapes are comprised of a unique intersection of these differentially distributed memes, most, though shared in essence, slightly modified in the individual mind by the already existing cognitive landscape of metaphorical frames and narratives into which they fit themselves. And all of this is in constant flux at all levels, new memes emerging, spreading out in branching and expanding tentacles, which themselves are branching and expanding recursively, shrinking back, billions doing so simultaneously, converging into new coherent sets of memes which take on lives of their own.

If we imagine each meme as a color, and each variation as a shade of that color, then we would have innumerable distinct colors and shades flowing in diverse expanding and contracting fractal patterns through the mind of humanity, the hues shifting as the memes evolve, interacting in almost unlimited unique and creative ways as they converge in particular minds and groups of minds, each individual human being defined, in conjunction with its unique set of genes (and subsequent physical affects of variable environmental factors), by its unique set of memes organized into simultaneously shared and individuated metaphorical frames and narratives. This is the graphic of our social institutional landscape: mind-bogglingly complex, flowing and dynamic, throbbing with a life of its own, shot through with the transient borders and categories imposed by our imaginations, borders and categories which themselves are artifacts of the mind in constant flux on varying time scales. (See The Mandelbrot Set: Images of Complexity for a static but in-depth version of the imagery described above.)

But distinct memes themselves are changing as they flow, being modified in individual minds or synthesized with other memes to produce new ones, displacing or disproving others, in a constant dance of creation and destruction interspersed with the flowing patterns of modification, dispersion, expansion, and contraction. Memes are catalysts, interacting with human predispositions, existing cognitive architectures, and the natural environment to produce new forms, new technologies, new social institutions, and to render old ones obsolete or out of favor.

As discussed in The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology, some of those memes are intentionally cobbled into purposive systems, or “technologies,” programming or channeling some set of natural or behavioral phenomena in service to desired ends. Those that program natural phenomena are the ones conventionally thought of as “technologies,” enabling us to do things we were once unable to do, and to produce wealth and comfort and opportunity (as well both intentional and unintentional damage to human beings, their physical infrastructure, and the natural environment) far in excess of what we once were able to produce. These technologies and technological domains (e.g., electrical, digital, etc., as well as, as explained below, market, contractual, etc.) interact with the more haphazardly accumulating and evolving meme-clusters of the social institutional landscape. Technologies can be thought of as the engineered architectures carved out of the social institutional “natural environment,” the latter comprised of the wilderness of foundational linguistic and cultural forms as well as the economic, political, and ideological accretions diffusely growing in conjunction with our various purposive systems.

(The distinction between “engineered architectures” and the rest of the social institutional landscape can be a bit hazy, since the rest of the landscape is a function of human purposive action as well. The difference is that the architectures are consciously invented components, such as the airplane or the US Constitution, while the rest is everything that organically grows around and in conjunction with them, such as social norms, cultural motifs, and folk beliefs. In a sense, it might be correct to say that the entire social institutional landscape is composed of microcosmic “architectures,” if examined closely enough, since it is the accretion of individual purposive actions. Indeed, technologies are to the social institutional landscape what the social institutional landscape is to Nature itself, an increased focusing and intentionality -in a sense, a distillation- of diffusely accreting “purposiveness.” This is one more aspect of the fractal recursiveness of The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix.)

While technologies programming physical phenomena are what we most commonly think of when we think of “technologies,” there are undeniable social institutional technologies as well, such as currency instruments (facilitating multilateral, global, on-going exchange, and the enormous economy based on it), enforceable contracts (allowing people to bind one another to mutually beneficial collective action that would have been difficult or impossible in the absence of such instruments), scientific methodology (allowing a more robust and reliable growth in knowledge of the underlying dynamics of the natural world than had been previously possible, and, in fact, underwriting an explosion in the proliferation and sophistication of new technologies), and legal procedure (allowing a more reliable and vigilant system of determining truth in disputes between individuals or between individuals and the state). The United States Constitution, in fact, is the codification of an intentionally invented social institutional purposive system.

New social institutional technologies are constantly being explored, experimented with, implemented, and either proliferate or languish according to their relative reproductive success. In fact, governments are factories of such technologies, passing laws and regulations, creating administrative agencies, establishing new systems and markets, signing treaties with verification and enforcement provisions, forging new social institutions to deal with emergent or suddenly more salient issues and challenges (such as the creation of the United Nations in the wake of World War II, or of tradable carbon market instruments in the context of the Kyoto Protocol. See, e.g., Political Market Instruments).

But just as new technologies in the conventional sense can be created in people’s garages or in small start-ups formed by highly educated young people, so too can new social institutional technologies emerge in contexts more humble than those of the halls of government or international treaty conferences. Many diffuse technological innovations, of both the conventional and social institutional varieties, have occurred in conjunction with information technologies, which have come to form such a vital framework within our social institutional landscape. The Netroots movement is an excellent example of diffuse social institutional innovation in conjunction with emerging physical technologies, contributing substantially to the success of Obama’s 2008 presidential victory.

A particularly good example of a set of robust social institutional innovations contrived by a very small cadre of political entrepreneurs is described in the book The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado, by (pre-eminent Colorado political broadcast journalist) Adam Schrager and (former Republican Colorado state house representative) Rob Witwer. The book describes a confluence of new state laws (both campaign finance and term-limit limitations), a very small group of highly motivated and capable extremely wealthy individuals (“the gang of four”), and the targeted channeling of huge amounts of money by them into non-campaign organizations such as political 527s, 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, and 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations, each with its own advantages and limitations, to affect state legislature races, transforming the Colorado political landscape in the process.

The Tea Party movement, as well, clearly has both some grass roots political entrepreneurial characteristics to it, as well as more centrally orchestrated aspects, both involving some social institutional purposive systems, channeling the deep well of  jingoistic “Political Fundamentalism” in the United States, and the reactionary anger to the combination of the Obama victory in 2008 and the perception of Big Government (“socialist”) actions and policies, tapping into inchoate bigotries and xenophobia, all in service, ultimately, to corporate interests (“small government” meaning non-regulation of corporate behavior, which in turn means foisting costs of production in the forms of externalities onto the public).

The question facing those who want to affect the dynamical fractal geometry of our ever-changing social institutional landscape in purposive and guided ways is how best to do so, where and how to flap the butterfly’s wings in such a way so as to cascade through the system in reverberating, self-amplifying winds of social change. As I put it near the end of The Evolutionary Ecology of Human Technology:

Negotiating this evolving ecosystem of social institutions, technologies, and their interactions with both individuals and the natural environment involves more than hammering together a set of purposive systems. It is a vibrant whole, a metabolism, more organic than mechanistic. Understanding how it flows, how changes ripple through it, how its complexity and interconnectedness form the roiling currents we are riding, is the ultimate art and science of consciously articulating our lives with their context in ways that allow us to fulfil potentials we have only barely begun to imagine. To some extent, these potentials will be realized by technologies, including social institutional technologies. But human consciousness is more than the sum of its parts, and the more our technologies and ideologies flow and undulate with the rhythms of the evolving natural, social institutional, and technological systems within which they are embedded, and with which they articulate, the more fully we will realize the full breadth and depth of our humanity.

I invite and implore all readers to continue to contemplate this question, to consider how best to dance with these complex systems in ways which yield greater human welfare and liberation, greater realization of our humanity and our consciousness. In the meantime, please consider my own evolving “A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill” (or the short version: The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified) as one possible starting point. This social institutional world of ours is both a product and source of our genius, in an articulation of coherence and individuation, of interdependence and liberty, of collective and individual consciousness. It is the collective mind upon which we draw, and which draws upon us. It is a narrative we write and act out together in a sprawling improvisation, more subtle and complex than any that has ever been bound into volumes or performed on a stage. Let’s write it well.

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I was going to title this post “Fate, Genes, Obama, and the Rest of Us,” but decided that “Cousin Obama” might do more to pique curiosity. After all, am I claiming that President Obama and myself have some traceable genealogical link? (Well, sort of.) Am I referring to our President’s “white” half, and the fact that he is as racially related to whites as to blacks? (No.) Maybe I’m referring to his Kenyan family, members of whom could call him by the title in the title. (No.) What I’m referring to is, well, “Fate, Genes, Obama, and the Rest of Us.”

Fate: The genetic confluence of an obviously gifted left-leaning Kenyan (later) Harvard grad student in economics with a more subtly but similarly gifted woman of English and German descent in a Russian Language class at the University of Hawaii, followed by the rich culturally diverse and sense-of-wonder laden childhood that that mother provided to the immediate product of that genetic confluence, who then goes on to be a very socially conscious, academically brilliant, oratorically gifted politician, experiencing a meteoric rise in prominence, resulting in one of the most exhilarating and emotional presidential victories in the history of the nation.

Genes: We are dealt a hand from the same very large and complex deck, one which defines who we are at birth. Barack Obama clearly was dealt an exceptional hand. The person that Bruce L.R. Smith describes in his Washington Post Column on Barack Obama Sr., reprinted in the Denver Post (http://www.denverpost.com/search/ci_16352336), is a father in whom one can see the son foreshadowed, though the father had virtually no hand in the creation of that son other than to contribute his sperm and his memory. And the mother President Obama has described is similarly but differently endowed, creating the kind of genetic and cultural complement that provides the best chance of producing off-spring which combines and transcends the gifts of both parents.

Obama: The dealing of a genetic hand to each new person born, from the constantly reshuffled deck, produces an endless variety of unique individuals. From the distinctly finite emanates the nearly infinite. President Barack Obama is a unique individual, complete with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices, natural endowments and flaws. He is not just the (more than) sum of his genes, but also of his experience, of how he was raised (by a mother who instilled in him his sense of both social responsibility and wonder about the world, and by grandparents who instilled in him traditional American values), and of the social contexts in which the narrative of his life spun itself out.

The Rest of Us: The description of President Obama above describes each and every one of us. And it does not describe us in mutual isolation, but as unique swirls and eddies in a shared stream, less “individual” than our hyper-individualistic ideology is wont to acknowledge, non-existent without the stream of which we are a part. The river of reproduction is a single flow of interwoven currents. We are all cousins, all related and interrelated, threads in a dynamic tapestry weaving itself as we weave our ways through our own interconnected lives.

We are indeed all genealogically related, all human beings on this Earth, all descendants of “Mitochondrial Eve” who lived between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago (http://hubpages.com/hub/Genealogy-and-DNA-testing). And the clusters and branches within that family, defined through the drama of human history, are generated by fascinating tales. According to one genetic study, 0.5% of the male population of the world is directly descended from Genghis Kahn, who, as is known to have had dozens of legitimate and illegitimate children (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/02/0214_030214_genghis_2.html). How many more such tales exist, that have not been studied, and that don’t always involve historically famous personages?

Who we are genetically, the deck from which our genetic cards have been dealt, was determined most broadly by natural history (carving out the branch of primates that we are), broadly enough to encompass all living human beings in the interim period between natural history and recorded human history called “prehistory,” in broad swathes by both recorded and unrecorded real-life dramas throughout human history, and in most precise detail by the unique (and therefore statistically astronomically improbable) confluence of events which caused the genes of our respective parents to converge in and genetically define each of us.

But there is another, similar, pattern overlaid atop this one, faster, more superficial, but fleshing out the narrative, realizing the potential that the genetic story creates. As I’ve discussed in several essays now (The Politics of Consciousness , Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix), the underlying dynamics of human history echo natural history, the pattern of genetic (biological) evolution being quite closely repeated in memetic (cultural) evolution. The study of geographic and historic distributions and evolutions of languages, religions, technologies, political forms (and social institutional forms in general, including family, community, economy, military, and so on), the combined landscape of all such cultural-cognitive artifacts, maps out a dynamical pattern of how we speak, think, believe, wonder, act, and live that, like the genetic story beneath it, also reshuffles and deals from an ever-evolving deck (one evolving far more rapidly than the genetic one).

We are each instances of these multi-layered narratives, defined by currents both broad and specific, from the general to the particular, determining what kind of species we are, what range of variation we encompass, what developmental branches have been carved out from that range, what sub-branches and twigs have led to the context which produced us, and what combination of particular genes, and unique life experiences, in the end define us each as marginally unique, but deeply similar and tightly interconnected, human beings.

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As Fritjov Capra, author of The Tao of Physics and The Web of Life, noted in the latter book, the dominant scientific lens through which to understand the nature of the universe may be shifting from physics to biology. Complex dynamical systems, even non-living ones, bear a stronger resemblance to organic models than to mechanical ones. It is, perhaps, a fundamentally animate universe in which we live. And the progressive patterns of that universe are repeated across levels and forms in a fractal geometry of dynamical systems. (The main contender for dominant emerging physical paradigm, meanwhile, is a mathematical model of “the cosmic symphony.” String Theory postulates that the ultimate and irreducible building blocks of the universe, from which all subatomic particles emanate, are one-dimensional vibrating strings in an 11-dimensional space! Read Brian Green’s The Elegant Universe if that idea resonates with you.)

As I wrote about in The Politics of Consciousness and Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, the evolutionary process of genes reproducing, occasionally mutating, and competing for reproductive success is echoed in the dynamics of human history, in which “memes” (cognitions) also reproduce (more rapidly than genes), mutate (more frequently and affirmatively than genes), and compete for reproductive success. And that pattern may be reproduced (and accelerated) yet again, in a new form, as the spawn of the spawn of Nature, human information technologies, acquire the ability to reproduce algorithmically adaptive packets of digital information that compete among themselves for reproductive success. Just as human cultural evolution is an accelerated version of the biological evolution, human autonomous technological evolution based on the digital transmission and processing of information is a yet more accelerated process. Thus humans are an intermediate ripple of consciousness in a series of accelerating inferior incarnations.

But it is the reintegration of these distinct ecologies and sub-ecologies which is perhaps most fascinating of all. It is clear that we humans will have to adapt our technologies and social institutions to the ecological context of the planet if we want to continue to have a planet on which to live (ignoring for the moment the possibility of extraterrestrial colonization). Not only did the Earth’s evolutionary ecology create us, but it also challenged us to imitate and integrate with it ever more perfectly and completely (like Bellerophon mounted on Pegasis, aspiring to reach Olympian heights, increasingly risking being thrown to our destruction for our hubris).

Both our technologies and our social institutions are bound to develop in directions that more closely mimic nature, not just in underlying dynamics and functions, but also in form, becoming softer and more “biodegradable,” creating more microtechnologies that scavenge the obsolete hulks of larger orga…, uh, “machines,” recycling them into the production processes. Such organic technologies are likely to utilize more flexible and viscous couplings, aspiring to and copying the natural machinery that remains far more sophisticated than human technologies. A computer that is more like a brain with synapses that are as agile as the brain’s can capture the advantages of both. An economy that is more like an ecosystem can produce less waste, utilize more resources, and recycle everything.

It is, at all levels –nature, mind, and machine– forms of consciousness and derivative consciousness we are talking about. “God” did indeed make “man” in “His” image, because the consciousness that is biological evolution created an echo of itself in the form of the human (or mammalian) mind, and that mind created an echo in turn, in the form of computers. So similar is nature’s “mind” to our own, that we use the language and mathematical tools of intentionality, designed for the study of human behavior, to study evolutionary ecology. Species develop “strategies” for reproductive success, that appear to us to be remarkably intentional: Disguises, defenses, weapons, colonies, divisions of labor; technologies and social institutions remarkably like our own.

Biologists are quick to admonish, “though we use the metaphor of intentionality, anatomical and genetically hard-wired adaptive strategies are not intentionally produced. It’s just a function of trial and error. Nature only resembles us in that way.” Remarkably enough, in one way in which religious faith hit the nail more squarely on the head than scientific scepticism, those biologists got it backwards: It is we that resemble Nature, not vice versa. The consciousness of Evolutionary Ecology precedes and produced us, the fact that it is a function of trial and error notwithstanding. While we have pitted God and Darwin at odds with one another, in reality, what Darwin described is simply one of God’s “mysterious ways”  (or “avatars,” to be more precise). Just as we refer to what we have created in our own image as “artificial (human) intelligence,” we ourselves are really just “artificial (natural) intelligence.”

Nature had its own “collective consciousness” before humans were here to give it a name. It musn’t be confused with human consciousness, just as human consciousness shouldn’t be confused with whatever computer consciousness might emerge (or already exists). Nature’s consciousness is diffuse, not self-reflective, not imbued with an ego or corporeal integrity. It is not the function of a human brain, and therefore is hard to conceptualize, always reduced to that which is most familiar. But it is the Intelligent Being that designed us, as (or perhaps more) similar to the godless mechanisms of an atheistic scientist as it is to the Judeo-Christian God. And it did indeed “make us in its own image.”

Just as we have now made something in ours. It was inevitable that we would “play god,” because “God” made us in “His” image, not in the superficial sense, but in the substantive sense of being designed to “play God.” We cannot help but to create our own monster, just as “God” created “His.” The story of Frankenstein is the Story of Creation, told from “God’s” perspective, with “God’s” horror at what “He” had done. (You might recall that Dr. Frankenstein didn’t fare well in the end, a fate with which we ourselves threaten Gaia, if not Jehovah).

The concept of “collective consciousness,” and the study of the epidemiology of cognitions, predate the invention of the internet, but they gain new significance in a new age of accelerated, geographically liberated network communications. Before this creation of ours becomes an autonomous evolutionary ecology of its own, it has augmented ours, accelerating the communication and analysis of information, and thus accelerating the cultural evolutionary process.

Collective consciousness, and the human cognition which comprises it, is less about the discovery of an objective reality than about the forging over time of an evolving way of interfacing with it. Our conceptualizations of reality are not reality, but rather representations of reality, nested and overlapping metaphors that we use to map an almost infinitely more complex terrain. We argue over individual or sub-group variations in that map, over whether this representation or that more accurately and usefully describes the elusive reality we are mapping; sometimes, in essence, arguing whether it should be topographic or political, whether it should be more detailed (and thus more difficult to use) or simplified.

The construction of our maps is what has been called “the social construction of reality.” It is a shared reality, but with distributed and punctuated variation, with variation both within and between groups, but group coalescences at various levels around shared aspects of individual cognitive maps (and group coalescences reproducing shared aspects of individual cognitive maps). We have religions and denominations, political ideologies and factions within them, scientific disciplines comprised of competing schools of thought. The field of human consciousness is characterized by a combination of commonality and variation,  constantly evolving, with patterns shifting according to extraordinarily complex algoriths that determine the patterns of change.

One model with which to understand this involves a tool called “cellular automata.” Cellular automata are a matrix of cells in which each can trigger changes in the state of neighboring (or otherwise interconnected) cells according to some algorithm. So, for instance, a simple cellular automata model might involve colors as states, with each cell being converted to the color that the majority of cells on which it borders has. Soon, a stable pattern of colors would emerge, perhaps all cells being a single color, or areas of particular colors emerging with sharp borders between them, But cellular automata can be far more complex than that, involving incessantly changing states rippling throughout the matrix, forming constantly shifting patterns.

Consider now cellular automata in which the shifting patterns themselves alter the algorithm by which they shift. Such is the human world. As our technologies and social institutions evolve, the speed of our communications and processing of information accelerates, and the patterns that are formed change at an accelerating rate, and according to shifting algorithms. As our tool (computers and the internet) becomes an autonomous ecology of its own, it both mimics and feeds back into the human ecology. 

How these three levels of ecology continue to co-evolve, diverging from, threatening, reinforcing, and reintegrating with one another remains to be seen. Humans will undoubtedly continue the progression of how “plugged in” we are to the technologically enhanced network that binds us together, moving from desk top to lap top computers, to hand held and then handless devices, eventually, perhaps, to implants that can be accessed with a thought, and, beyond that, possibly even some technology that involves genetic engineering which moves our internet technology in a more biological direction. A human far future of organically and remotely interconnected and augmented human consciousness (a technologically accomplished mass telepathic network) is a distinct possibility.

As our technologies become more organic, not only does the process of their integration into the human ecology accelerate, but they also become the medium through which the human ecology reintegrates with the natural ecology. The acceleration of information processing and communication will inevitably be increasingly applied to the challenge of economic sustainability, which means, in effect, reintegration of human and natural technologies, reducing their incompatability and increasing their mutual reinforcement. And the increasing use of more organic technologies and social institutions may well be a major aspect of what that reintegration looks like.

It can even take on an extraterrestrial aspect, if we use genetic engineering to adapt ourselves to extraterrestrial colonization, completing the reintegration loop, our creature altering that which created us. Here on Earth, meanwhile, the reintegration of these three evolutionary ecologies holds a promise for humanity that tantalizes the imagination, as we continue to transcend limitations that we once thought untranscendable, and continue to become an ever-more conscious aspect of a larger consciousness.

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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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