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The shared human enterprise is multidimensional. Its various dimensions don’t exist in mutual isolation. Each dimension implicates all others. Human efforts and developments within the various dimensions need to articulate with human efforts and developments in all others. Politics can’t be considered without considering economics, and economics can’t be considered without considering technological developments. None can be considered without considering the production and dissemination of ideas and values and understandings and techniques (and the emotional reactions to them), in short, of human cognitions (including emotions).

The evolution of our social institutional and technological landscape is the overarching theme of human history. Wealth is produced and distributed, ideas created and disseminated, wars sparked and fought, buildings designed and built, political forms and processes developed, all due to and through and as an expression and producer of our ever changing social institutional and technological context.

Technological developments pose both opportunities and challenges. They provide new ways, new tools with which, to produce wealth and address problems. But they also create new problems of their own.

The Economist magazine recently provided a glimpse into the immediate future, by exploring some cutting-edge technologies of the present (see http://www.economist.com/node/21552901). Perhaps the most striking aspect of the package of new technologies changing the face of manufacturing is the 3-D printer:

3-D printing is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of “digital manufacturing,” which in turn is one aspect of the larger phenomenon of what can be called an “information technological revolution.” We all are aware of it, but we don’t always incorporate that awareness into our more generalized understandings and strategies. The fact is that the rapid developments in information technologies (i.e., the set of technological innovations that includes computers, the internet, and mobile communications devices that now are hand-held communications and information processing instruments) is transforming our world, and will continue to do so, in dazzlingly dramatic ways.

The impact of this IT Revolution isn’t just that everyone has or soon will have an i-phone, hooked into a global network of thought and information access. It is also that the more generalized processes of conceptualization, communication, creation, development, production and distribution of cognitive material and all of its products is undergoing a major paradigm shift that has deep structural implications that will ripple and reverberate throughout the social institutional and technological landscape in acceleratingly transformative ways.

We’ve seen the first salvos of the political implications in “The Arab Spring” and other geopolitical events and transformations in recent years, with autocratic governmental control of information flows (and thus of populations in general) being eroded by the IT Revolution. We’ve seen it in our own political system, with political organizing and fund-raising and networking enhanced by new tools which favor those who most rapidly become most adept at their utilization (see, e.g., A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?). We’ve seen it in science and scholarship, starting with the development of “Chaos Theory” in the early days of modern computers, and growing from there into an accelerating transformation of our understanding of the nature of the world of which we are a part (including the evolutionary ecology of the social institutional and technological landscape itself; see the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts).

Now we are seeing it in how we create, produce, and distribute the material manifestations of human existence, the machines and commodities and, in general, the “stuff” of our lives.

What does this all mean for those of us who are most consciously engaged in the human enterprise, who are committed to working with others similarly committed to do the best we can in service to humanity? It means we need to start thinking in new ways, ready to utilize new tools. We need to develop new paradigms that incorporate all of this massive information, these massive changes in the processes that comprise our shared existence, this threshold through which we are passing, and address the future not just as an economic challenge narrowly conceived (as some do), and not just as a technological challenge narrowly conceived (as others do), and not just as a political challenge narrowly conceived (as still others do), and not just as a scientific or scholarly challenge narrowly conceived (as still others more do), but as an integrated challenge incorporating all of these together.

One of the lagging components of the paradigm shift we are undergoing (perhaps always the lagging component in all historical paradigm shifts) is the intentional or organic integration of its various parts for maximum human benefit (see, for instance, American Universities: Two Dimensions on which to Improve, for a discussion of the need to better integrate and articulate the products of our scholarship across disciplines). This is where the crucial challenge lies: How do we gather together these various threads of thought and innovation, and synthesize and channel them most effectively for human benefit?

One of the common threads emerging from the IT Revolution is coherent decentralization. Our ability to publish, network, and organize (social media and the blogosphere), to be vigilant (see Counterterrorism: A Model of Centralized Decentralization), to raise funds (see Tuesday Briefs: The Anti-Empathy Movement & “Crowdfunding”), and political and economic collaboration in general (see Wikinomics: The Genius of the Many Unleashed). But it’s not just augmented multi-lateral communications in play, but simultaneously augmented information processing (e.g., the data analysis function of computer technology), and now, the direct translation of information into its physical manifestations (i.e., production and construction). 3-D printers enable anyone anywhere to manipulate the design of an object digitally, integrating mass production and custom design into a single technology, and to manufacture that object remotely, for anyone else anywhere else, on demand.

One of the central implications of our current technological trajectory is that the demand for human labor will be increasingly a demand for highly trained, technically proficient, information-intensive labor. Humans will be more and more relegated to doing the tasks for which humans have –and will long have– a unique comparative advantage over any devices we can invent, and that is in our highest levels of cognitive functioning, in our imaginations and creativity, in our unique human consciousness. Increasingly, developing that consciousness as something more than a set of mechanical skills that can be sold on the labor market will not only be what feeds our souls, but also what imbues us with what will increasingly be the only asset for which there will be a future demand on that same labor market: Brilliant, imaginative, inventive, creative minds.

There will never be a shortage of opportunities for minds thus developed, but there will increasingly be a shortage of opportunities for everyone else. In a society and world where we haven’t yet met the challenge of educating our children sufficiently to meet the needs of the past century, meeting the challenge of educating our children sufficiently to meet the needs of this imminent and in many ways already present future poses an urgent, imperative challenge to us as a society.

This is nothing less than a revolution in the speed and agility of our technologically augmented collective consciousness, and in the speed and agility of our ability to translate that consciousness into action and objects, into wealth and welfare, into opportunity and the accelerating realization of human potential. But it also poses daunting challenges, challenges in how we prepare people to contribute to and participate in this production of wealth, and how we cope with the inequities and inhumanities that will result to the extent of our failure to do so.

There is so much dazzling new cognitive material currently flourishing in our shared cognitive landscape, a garden of possibilities bearing rich new fruits to be picked. But it is through their constant cross-fertilization, through the interweaving of their various vines, that the richest and most abundant fruits will be produced. The future is hanging low on the boughs of human consciousness, of imagination and innovation. We need to stop waiting for its fruits to fall on us of their own accord, and reach up and grap them with conscious intent and design, because, by doing so, we increase their value and quantity. When it comes to human consciousness and all of its products, it is through the act and intentionality of harvesting it that we most effectively cultivate it.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

In the Perspective section of last Sunday’s Denver Post, Ray Mark Rinaldi wrote an excellent piece exploring the two competing development visions for Denver’s Union Station (Who’s on the right track with Union Station plans? http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_19312116). What I like about this article isn’t just the informative discussion of a single issue of current significance, but rather how it focuses on one instance of a more general challenge we face: Public Entrepreneurialism.

In all of the ideological noise, the competition of those who consider government the enemy and those who consider corporations the enemy, we don’t discuss enough the shared enterprise we are in, in which both government and corporations are problematic but indispensable players. Treating the public sphere as a popular entrepreneurial challenge, with one of the issues being how best to articulate that public entrepreneurship with the private sector to maximize our welfare through the most robust and efficacious utilizations of both, is exactly what we need more of. This is a wonderful discussion of that oft-forgotten but critically essential aspect of public participation and discourse: How we can act together in productive ways to improve our social institutional landscape. Let’s hope that is the kind of conversation we have more of in the future, displacing the one we already have far too much of.

Public entrepreneurialism is a concept that can join the pantheon of entrepreneurialisms, along with commercial, political, and social entrepreneurialism. Commercial entrepreneurialism requires no elaboration: It is what is normally referred to by the term. The development and implementation of a commercial idea in pursuit of private profit is commercial entrepreneurialism, and it plays a vital role in the ongoing evolution of our social institutional landscape.

Political entrepreneurialism involves political leadership outside of the established and official political landscape, in service to fomenting fundamental political change rather than preserving or operating through the status quo. Gandhi, King, revolutionary leaders and leaders of radical political movements, are examples of political entrepreneurs. They might leverage assets, mobilize resources, and divert profits of other enterprises toward the political goal. Clearly, commercial entrepreneurialism can be a strategic component of political entrepreneurialism.

And, similarly, political entrepreneurialism can be a strategic component of social entrepreneurialism. Social entrepreneurialism isn’t about changing regimes or merely expanding the franchize; it is about altering the culture. Changing the political landscape may be a means to that end, but, for social entrepreneurs, it is not an end in itself. Political entrepreneurs are often also, to varying degrees, social entrepreneurs: Certainly, King was a social entrepreneur to a very large extent, and Gandhi to a lesser extent. (Gandhi’s goal was primarily political: Indian independence. King’s was primarily social: The end of racism.)

But political entrepreneurs do not need to be social entrepreneurs: Many revolutionary leaders are simply trying to topple the current political power structure and replace it with what they believe to be a preferable one, because they believe the preferable one better serves either the public interest or their own interest, or the interests of those close to them, or some distribution among these, depending on the degree to which they are acting idealistically or cynically, and selfishly or altruistically.

All three of these forms of entrepreneurialism, on average, involve a higher proportion of charismatic authority than other forms of leadership (see What is Leadership?), though rational and traditional authority may well be invoked as well.  Social and political entrepreneurship probably rely more than commercial entrepreneurship on charismatic authority (though commercial entrepreneurs are often charismatic; think Steve Jobs), if only because the rewards of the former two are less immediate and less fungible: Those who follow, or work for, a commercial entrepreneur can do so for the promise of income without being otherwise persuaded, while those who follow political and social entrepreneurs generally have to be convinced of the ideals for which they are working.

Public entrepreneurialism is something different from all of these, articulating them into a single enterprise, and doing so from or through the established power structure rather than in opposition to it. It involves the mayor who has a vision for his or her city, the governor who is focused more on long-term development than short-term indicators, the president who has a vision for the country that guides his or her policies as much as or more than the ephemeral tides of political exigency.

It also involves those who try to influence them, not to change the nature of the game, but to play the game that exists more beneficially. Commercial entrepreneurs exist on a continuum ranging from the purely profit-motivated to the socially idealistic and visionary, and political and social entrepreneurs exist on continua ranging from extreme radicalism to subtle tweaking of existing institutions. Those who occupy the ranges closer to the latter poles become more involved in public entrepreneurialism, in partnership with others who occupy the more visionary range of elected and appointed office and bureaucratic careers.

Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, was less radical, less rejecting of the status quo, than Malcolm X; the American Revolutionaries less revolutionary than their French counterparts. The former were more willing to retain much and make changes mostly on the margins, moving the sophisticated package of human history along a slightly diverted trajectory rather than trying to destroy what was and replace it en masse with what they believed should be.

Public entrepreneurialism is characterized, for instance, by the vision touted by recent Denver mayoral candidate James Mejia, involving developing the river front in much the same way that San Antonia did in the latter’s creation of its famous River Walk; and by the vision espoused by now Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper during his campaign, in which he discussed a vision for Colorado that revolved around articulated roles for political, social, and commercial entrepreneurs (see A Positive Vision For Colorado).

Public entrepreneurialism can emphasize different aspects of our social institutional landscape: The economic, the cultural, the aesthetic, the charitable. It can focus on improvements in education, or in the delivery of social services, or in the production of wealth, or in the promotion of fairness and justice and human decency; but, at its best, it involves at least a little of all of these, emphasizing one more than others in each project, but pursuing projects which, taken together, emphasize all of these values.

We are indeed in a shared enterprise, one which we can participate in by “railing against the machine,” or one which we can participate in by “rallying agents of the organism.” The former is often more emotionally gratifying, assuming the role of someone external and superior to that which is. The latter is more productive and realistic, recognizing that we are indeed a part of something larger than ourselves, something that has a history and a value worth preserving and developing. Public entrepreneurialism can be bold, idealistic, even radical at times. But it is the kind of change realized through the realization that no viable change occurs that does not leverage what is to create what can be.

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

As I’ve been developing in numerous posts (see, e.g., Adaptation & Social Systemic Fluidity, The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Evolutionary Ecology of Human TechnologyThe Fractal Geometry of Law (and Government), Emotional Contagion, 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, Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II), our social reality is comprised of intermingled, sometimes mutually reinforcing and sometimes competing, cognitions and the emotional content that accompanies them (“memes” and “emes”). In Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part I, and Can Wisdom & Compassion Go Viral? Part II, I emphasized our potential to create new marvels of human existence, new social institutional technologies, new attitudes, a new attitude conducive to ever-growing consciousness.

Many of us have grown wary of such claims, having seen “the Age of Aquarius” dawn and disappear more rapidly than the Broadway musical in which it was sung. People who are grounded, who are realistic, who take stock of history and of economics and of human nature, are often, perhaps generally, swept into an ever deepening cynicism and pessimism as their years roll by. We look at most of those who still believe in the possibility of achieving new heights of consciousness, and see a flakiness, a superficiality, an eagerness to grasp at ethereal fantasies that history has proven so elusive as to be delusional, and we wisely disassociate ourselves from that form of thought and aspiration.

But there are other lessons of history as well, lessons that are written with what appears to be invisible ink, for we are blind to their ubiquity and significance. These lessons make clear the constancy of change, and even how profound it can sometimes be, when looked at in the context of the broad sweep of history.

Let’s start with the most obvious, even if routinely too rapidly dismissed as trivial. When we think of human history, we divide it into epochs according to changing technologies: The Stone Age, The Bronze Age, The Iron Age…, and now, The Computer Age. We all recognize that humanity has progressed technologically, and has  passed through a succession of technological thresholds, each ushering in what in many ways is a new age.

We bracket this off from the notion of changes in human consciousness primarily by considering “technology” something distinct from “consciousness,” a lesser cognitive animal, not reaching down deep enough into who and what we are to be considered a form of “consciousness.” Kindness and brutality, reason and irrationality, occupy separate spheres, deeper and more fundamental than the mere mechanisms by which we express them. These mechanisms are ripples on the surface of our shared reality, rather than its defining characteristics.

But how true is this? Technologies are implicated in our consciousness in ways deeper and more essential than we often realize. For one thing, they occupy a broader range than we generally acknowledge: Technologies are not merely programmings of natural (non-human) phenomena to human benefit, but also programmings of human behavioral and social phenomena. Contracts and Constitutions, money and markets and various legal and economic innovations by which they have developed, scientific methodology and legal procedure, our media of communications and information processing and the particular forms that they take, are all technological innovations.

Technologies are also made of the same stuff as the rest of human consciousness, and are inextricably intertwined with the rest of human consciousness. Through scientific methodology, for instance, we have produced instruments both in service to science itself, and in service to other production functions in which we are engaged. Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and String Theory, to name a few, all owe a debt to the social technologies of scientific methodology and mathematics, and to the physical technologies that have become their tools. We are capable of understanding the subtleties of nature in ways never before imagined, and only very generally glimpsed by the most transcendent of historical philosophers and sages, now with a mathematical precision that occupies spheres few today have had the pleasure of visiting, but many fully realize exist.

But, surely, even these admittedly significant developments in our understanding and manipulation of nature do not penetrate into the realms imagined by those who believe that fundamental transformations of human consciousness are possible and attainable? After all, we use them in service to exploitation and dominance, not harmony and liberation, ever-more voraciously consuming the host body of the Earth upon which we are increasingly robust parasites, and seemingly advancing not at all toward a more compassionate and just state of collective being…. Or is it really that simple?

Never before in industrial society has there been such an extensive and deepening sense that we have to change our paradigms to align our collective existence better with the natural context in which it is found, and with the evolving sense of social justice that has blossomed rather dramatically in the developed world as a whole (America being a notable hold-out in many ways). True, many pre-industrial, tribalistic societies that lived “closer” to nature adhered to ideologies far more cognizant of the need for harmonious coexistence. But this went hand-in-hand with the actual limits on the capacity for exploitation; few such societies did not reach out for the products of more exploitative technologies when they came into view.

Many are more impressed with how inadequate these changes remain, with so few so shallowly committed to such minimal modifications in our existence, still generally driving individually owned fossil-fuel propelled vehicles, living in excessive houses and consuming excessive resources. This is true: We are on the first steps of a long road, one along which our journey will continue to accelerate as urgency continues to impress itself on us. It may be too late; we may destroy our host before we either temper our appetites sufficiently to save it or achieve the technical abilities necessary to abandon it and colonize new ones. (I am not commenting on the desirability or undesirability of the latter prospect, but only recognizing it as one imaginably plausible way for humans to survive indefinitely). But, while we exist, it is probably wise to continue to consider the possibility that we will continue to exist, and to contemplate how to navigate the possible paths into the future.

Some may acknowledge what I’ve written above, that we have undergone transformations in our understanding of and relationship with nature, and that we may even be beginning a process of institutionalizing checks on our own avarice in service to our sustainability, but still contend that none of it reaches into who and what we really are, into our own human nature, and that therefore none of this represents true changes in human consciousness, but merely changes in the clothing that consciousness wears.

In a sense I agree with this, though, on the margins of this discourse, I am going to push the envelope in ways which some will consider too fanciful for any practically grounded conversation. Yes, thus far and into the foreseeable future, it would be correct to say that there is some immutable defining nature to being human, one that we have never transformed, and, according to the most prevalent conventional wisdom, either will never be able to transform, or perhaps should never be tempted to transform.

Some radical thinkers dismiss the notion of “human nature,” rightly reacting adversely to the overly reductionist ways in which it has generally been conceptualized, but wrongly (and absurdly) missing the fact that, given that there is a category of species called “human,” and given that there is no real ambiguity about which creatures are and are not members of that category, it must therefore be the case that there are some defining characteristics which distinguish all members from all non-members and which describe all members without fail. Therefore, the question is not whether there is any such thing as “human nature,” but rather what its precise scope is.

(The notion that it is no more than a set of physical, biological parameters ignores the fact that there is no real divide between our physical/biological aspects and the rest of what we are, and that therefore to fabricate such a distinction is just another departure from reality. One interesting example is that certain facial expressions, such as a smile, are common to all cultures, and mean the same thing in all cultures. More profoundly, language itself is common to all cultures, a fact examined more closely  by Psycholinguist Steven Pinker in The Language Instinct.)

My marginal aside is that we may in fact soon be capable of transforming that fundamental, “immutable” human nature itself, through genetic engineering (I am only identifying the possibility, not commenting on its desirability). This of course raises all sorts of issues, such as how decisions would be made concerning this next level of manipulation of nature, and whether it could ever be wise to try to ride the Pegasus of our technical abilities to such Olympian heights, or whether it would dash us to our collective destruction in disgust at our hubris. That is a discussion I leave for another time.

My marginal aside is telling in a more fundamental way: Part of our nature includes the ability to transcend itself, as we currently know it, in multiple ways, whether for good or for bad, and to do so ever-more dramatically. We even have a deeply embedded meme reflecting this: Our cognitive divorce of “human” from “natural,” as if they are two distinct things, rather than one subset of a larger sphere of phenomena. We fundamentally believe that we have transcended nature, that we are distinct from nature, that we can be in conflict with nature. Personally, I consider this a delusion, even were we to genetically engineer new variations on the entity known as human: It’s all “natural,” because there is no exit from that which is “natural.” It is all-encompassing.

It is not the “unnaturalness” that is key here, but rather the accelerating ability to transform ourselves and our environment. And that may be an integral part of our “nature.” We transform our social institutional and technological landscape, both constantly, in a cumulative, gradual progression, and through thresholds of dramatic metamorphosis. We reduce, for those to whom our social institutions permit access, the ravages of disease, and do so through increasingly sophisticated means. One such emerging technology is particularly illustrative: Stem-cell research. Not only does it hold it great promise, but also meets with great resistance, some feeling that it tampers too much with life (destroying embryonic life) to warrant its service to life (saving mature and fully realized lives).

Embryonic stem-cell research is also telling because it illustrates how comfortable rational people can become with such dramatic manipulations of nature. Most rational people recognize, implicitly, that our prohibition against killing human beings is based on a protection of conscious beings (or beings who have been and will again be conscious), not a mere moral abstraction. A cluster of cells is, to such minds (at least to mine), less deserving of such protection than a fully conscious large non-human mammal that would actually experience terror and pain and lose a life that the being had some cognizance of, because it is consciousness rather than membership in the human in-group, that is worthy of such respect and compassion, the degree of deference being a function of the degree of consciousness rather than the particular category of membership.

But if we can become comfortable with cultivating embryos to treat diseases, can we also become comfortable with (hopefully cautious and restrained) manipulations of our genetic architecture, reducing aggression, increasing cooperation, and, in general, making humans less the haphazard product of the logic of reproductive competition and more the product of our dreams and aspirations as conscious beings? Would it really be so horrible? (The caveat here is not that it would be inherently wrong to do so, but rather that it is too easy to inadvertantly wreak havok on the sensitively balanced natural systems which we are, and of which we are a part, by doing so. Our degree of caution and restraint would have to be commensurate with the heat of the fire we are playing with, which, in practice, is rarely the case.)

Whether through such (legitimately scary) dramatic manipulation of nature’s building blocks, or through more subtle and less intrusive means, humans are clearly capable of, and even defined by, our ability to transform ourselves. We have successfully transferred a great deal of our violence into social institutions that maintain some checks on it, that make it more reflective and less reflexive, even if woefully imperfectly so. We have systems of justice within our nations (some better than others), and systems of diplomacy and rationalized warfare among them (still mostly in a barbarian stage of development, but, though in a historical lull and belied by the brutality of its failures, long developing toward increasing institutionalization and pacification). The glass may seem well more than half empty to those who are rightly aware of how brutal and animalistic we remain, but it clearly contains some significant drops to those who examine the greater attitudinal brutality so ubiquitous throughout human history, and the growing yearning as the centuries pass for something more conducive to human welfare.

It’s true, as one aspect of The Variable Malleability of Reality, that we change our most superficial aspects most frequently and easily (e.g., the technologies we employ, and the arrangements by which we coexist), and, the deeper into our essence you delve, the more beyond our reach our nature becomes. But changes on the surface can and do ripple outward and downward, incidentally affecting our deeper natures by changing the context of our lives, and providing us with ever-more sophisticated tools with which to change ourselves more dramatically, both superficially and ever-more profoundly. We are, in fact, for good or for ill, on the threshold of having come full circle, the echo of natural history (human history) acquiring the capacity to manipulate that biological evolution itself at the genetic level (we have long affected it through agriculture and animal husbandry).

Human consciousness does not, and should not, change with the snap of a finger. Lofty aspirations with short time horizons are quickly dashed, and their adherents justly (if perhaps unkindly) ridiculed. But it does change, and dramatically so. And we are participants in it.

However, it does not always change for the better, particularly in the short run. America, or at least one prominent and consequential current within America, is currently deeply embedded in a period of regression, entrenching its bigotries, rejecting reason and imagination and compassion, embracing extreme individualism and a shallow and brutal political economic ideology. This, too, is real, and has enormous significance to our collective welfare. I will address it in an upcoming essay, “The Mutating Memes (and ‘Emes’) of Organized Ignorance.”

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

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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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Brian Arthur’s thesis on the evolution of technology in his book The Nature of Technology (with thanks to Rick Munoz for the gift) dovetails so nicely with my broader paradigm of human social institutional ecology, addressing precisely that aspect which I had mostly left to the side (see, e.g., The Politics of Consciousness, in which I identify “social institutional and technological regimes” as the paradigms into which evolving memes aggregate, but focus on social institutions and ideologies), that this post is largely a synopsis of Arthur’s ideas, extended into and blended with “my own” marginal contribution. (The book is well worth reading; my summary here does not do it justice).

In brief, Arthur’s thesis is that technologies, which are essentially “programmed” natural phenomena, are comprised of assemblies and components, and subassemblies and subcomponents, down to an elemental level, with constant marginal modifications and recombinations of subcomponents, creating technological domains (e.g., digital, electronic, genetic, etc.), thus evolving within the context of these technological ecosystems (an idea I began to address before reading Arthur’s book, in The Evolutionary Ecology of Audio-Visual Entertainment (& the nested & overlapping subsystems of Gaia), Information and Energy: Past, Present, and Future, and The Nature-Mind-Machine Matrix). The entire corpus of technology, in articulation with the evolving economy and legal system, evolves as well, causing cascades of destruction of linkages to technologies made obsolete by innovations, and cascades of new technologies made possible or necessary by other recent innovations.

The key to Arthur’s paradigm is that technologies are purposive programmings of natural phenomena (including human behavioral phenomena), and so both include (along with what is more conventionally visualized as “technology”) those social institutional innovations that are purposive (e.g., currency instruments) and exclude anything that developed haphazardly (e.g., informal social norms), though they both coevolve, adapting to one another. Technological evolution differs from Darwinian biological evolution primarily in the fact that new “species” (i.e., inventions) do not emerge merely as the result of an accretion of incremental changes selected by virtue of their relative reproductive success, but also by virtue of rather sudden new configurations of old technologies, and applications of new principles to old challenges. But these novel forms, whether the small increments of engineers making new applications of old technologies to solve novel problems, or the larger innovations of inventors utilizing new principles to address new or old challenges, are then subjected to that same Darwinian lathe.

Some of the distinguishing characteristics of technologies are that they are recursive (they are comprised of components that are themselves technologies, which in turn are comprised of components that are in turn technologies), modular (comprised of main assemblies performing main functions and subassemblies performing auxiliary functions), programmings of natural phenomena, and constantly evolving from earlier forms, midwifed by human ingenuity, but generated, in a sense, by earlier innovations. Each problem confronted implicates both backward and forward linkages, affecting the components of the technology worked with, and the possibilities with which new problems can be addressed.

Technologies form a kind of language within their domain, which practitioners draw on the way a composer or author draws on the musical or written language that is their medium, expressing a desired objective through recourse to the known phrases and grammars of those languages. It develops according to a combinatorial evolution, with something that developed in another domain for another reason available to those who recognize a novel use for it elsewhere. The memes of technological evolution are free radicals, able to attach to any other group of memes where they may have a particular basis for thriving.

Technology evolves in tandem with science, both the means of scientific discovery (the instruments used) and informed by science (finding the principles on which to base technological advances).

Technology evolves from few to many, from simple to complex, beginning with direct exploitations of natural phenomena (fire, sharp objects, etc.), and growing on the possibilities created by their exploitation, with new technologies and technological domains opening up new opportunities for yet more innovations. This is not unlike the evolution of biological and social institutional forms, which evolved from a single cell into the plethora of life now on Earth, and from more or less homogeneous primate cultures to the great variation of human cultures generated by geographic dispersion and differentiation.

Nor is the winnowing out process particularly different, in which some technologies (species, cultures) become dominant and widespread, eclipsing others, sometimes even eliminating them all together, forming distinct branches where an undifferentiated continuum would otherwise have been.

The processes of innovation rippling through the system (by posing new problems and creating new opportunities, by requiring new auxiliary assemblies, by rendering old ones obsolete, and the linkages that depended wholly on them obsolete as well), sweeping up economic and legal structures with it (creating new needs for new infrastructure, new forms of organization, new legal contexts, etc., while rendering others obsolete and archaic), includes a variety of stages, such as “standard engineering” (adapting an existing technology to varying contexts), adding on (improving performance and addressing problems by tacking on new subsystems), reaching limits and being faced with needs (trying to capture new potentialities that would require some improvement that current technologies can’t yet provide, and seeking a new principle to exploit to provide it), and undergoing a paradigm shift as a result (creating a new technology, that then sets in motion all of the rippling changes new technologies set into motion).

What does this mean for public policy? Public policy is, essentially, the attempt to establish and implement social institutional technologies, based on principles of human behavioral phenomena. From the haphazardly accumulated mass of social institutional materials, the challenge is to find components and assemblies that are usable, to combine and recombine them in fluent ways, in pursuit of specific objectives. One example would be what I have called “Political Market Instruments” (see Deforestation: Losing an Area the Size of England Every Year), which simply adapt the combined technologies of market exchange and regulatory oversight to the goal of increasing the production of a public good or decreasing the production of a public bad. It is an excellent example of Arthur’s modularity in action, since it is the integration of technologies that had not previously been so combined.

Some examples of social institutional technologies and how they combine include Democracy, the U.S. Constitution, and corporate business organization, resulting in, among other things, constitutionally protected massive funding for commercial-saturated campaign cycles. Many would argue that new technologies are demanded by the problems created through this combination of old ones. Another example is the borrowing from markets to combine its principles to public education in the form of vouchers. These examples point to the fact that while we gain much from our technologies, we also create new problems with them, and need to pick and choose how and when to implement them, always in service to a vision of how to forge our way into the future most in service to human well-being in the fullest sense.

Human social institutional and technological evolution is not something that occurs exclusively “in” the human mind, via the differentially successful reproduction of memes and their aggregation into paradigms (shifting in response to accumulations of anomalies). At least in regards to successful purposive systems, the natural phenomena upon which those memes and paradigms are working are in some ways (as Arthur points out) more the “genetic material” of those evolving forms than the packets of information working them. The programmed phenomena themselves form the alphabet and vocabulary of technological innovation, which the memes order into a grammar.

An example of an obvious human behavioral phenomenon on which the social institutional technologies of markets draw is: People will exchange what they have for something they value more highly. Another one, which allows the shift from barter to currency, is: People will recognize some fungible and generally fairly compact thing of agreed upon value, in large enough supply to serve the purpose but small enough supply to retain its value, as a medium of exchange. Many such social institutional technologies exist, based on how we respond to potential costs and benefits (including hierarchically imposed rewards and punishments and diffusely imposed  social approval and disapproval), how we internalize values, and so on. The need to base social policies on an understanding of these phenomena is critical.

But, in a sense, there are two interwoven currents in our social institutional evolutionary ecology: The evolution of technologies (“purposive systems”), including social institutional technologies, and the haphazard maelstrom of psychologically and emotionally (rather than social systemically and economically) motivated reactions to it. The distinction is similar to the natural landscape around us, from which we have sculpted some architectures of our own. (Both, it might be argued, are evolutionary ecologies, and bear some of the characteristics described by Arthur, since even the haphazardly evolving social institutional landscape can borrow from other cultures or social institutional milieu and combine forms in new ways).

The purposeful and utlilitarian stream is characterized by a relatively high signal-to-noise ratio (see The Signal-To-Noise Ratio), utilizing the grammar of various domains relatively fluently. The psychologically and emotionally unreflective reactions to it are characterized by a relatively low signal-to-noise ratio, speaking internal languages whose correspondence to external reality is less disciplined (see Ideology v. Methodology). Technologies correspond to scientific and legal methodologies, while the evolutionary currents around them correspond to collections of arbitrary or unreflectively formed beliefs and rituals. The latter evolve as well, and may serve many human needs, but with less precision and reliability.

To be sure, sometimes technologies are quite toxic, and cultural rituals are quite benign. But the toxicity of the former can not be nullified by the benign qualities of the latter: It can only be addressed through another purposeful system, another technology, designed with the intention of addressing it. When there is a purpose beyond the inherent value of the thing itself, an architecture is required (such as shelter from the elements); when there is no purpose beyond that inherent value (such as a conversation with a friend or a party), no architecture beyond that which facilitates the event is required.

So the purposeful processes by which technologies emerge and develop, particularly social institutional technologies, and particularly those mediated by government action, slog through the viscous resistance of emotionally and psychologically motivated beliefs and rituals, bludgeoned by Luddites and chased by torch-bearing mobs. The progress of human consciousness (including that portion designed to address the problems caused by other products of the same process) is thus encumbered by those clinging to some sacred tradition and determined to tether all humanity to it.

The result is not stagnation, since change is constant. It is not an avoidance of the pitfalls and dangers of progress, but rather a blindfolding of it, an assurance that though forward progress will be slower and clumsier, it will also more certainly and more heavily be laden with the catastrophes of self-destruction that are inherent to stumbling down unexamined and danger-strewn paths.

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 forms 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.

Ironically, the haphazardly formed social institutional landscape from which technology carves out its architectures is approximated again in the ecology of that architecture itself. It is not the escape from that beautiful dance of chaos that holds the greatest promise for humanity, but rather the perfection of the art of dancing to its rhythms.

(See The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change for a continuation of this theme).

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Changes in the social institutional and technological landscape ripple through the system, demanding and facilitating adjustments and modifications throughout, which in turn demand and facilitate adjustments and modifications of their own. Choices we make affecting the framework within which this occurs help determine how robust this process is, what kinds of positive and negative consequences it generates, and in what ways and to what extent it affects the human and natural world.

One recent set of technological innovations has had epoch-making implications. Accelerating developments in Information Technologies (computer and communications technologies combined) have rippled through the economy and culture, changing the way we communicate, seek and disseminate information, access entertainments (and the entertainments available), and even conceptualize the nature of reality (with complex dynamical systems analysis, a child of computerized mathematical modeling techniques, transforming several of our underlying scientific paradigms).

These developments have partially displaced and challenged the viability of newspapers and the postal service, vastly increased the liquidity and volatility of financial markets, vastly increased the robustness and diffusion of both the flow of information and the unreliable “noise” that accompanies it, and has become an indispensable tool in virtually every economic, academic, professional, and technological human endeavor.

Other examples abound. The invention of the internal combustion engine led to an enormous demand for oil, which turned the Middle East into a region of vital geopolitical significance, and led to a vastly increased rate of environmental contamination and destabilizing climate change. The invention of the airplane led to the development of a widespread rapid global transportation system, and transformations in warfare, economics, and epidemiology.

Even slight modifications can have rippling consequences. Improvements in the thrust of jet engines, for instance, have necessitated improvements in the strength and heat resistance of composite materials (both giving rise to a demand for their creation and providing new engineering opportunities elsewhere, which gave rise in turn to other systemic demands and opportunities). These together made larger jet airliners both technologically and economically feasible, resulting in new demands on airport designs, requiring more space and creating new challenges for municipal governments seeking to establish international airports, all in turn merging into a vibrant international air traffic system.

Not only technological, but also social institutional innovations have similar effects. The invention of currency, for instance, freed markets from the necessity of a double coincidence of bilateral wants imposed by a barter system. (In a barter system, two people each must have something that the other wants more than they want what they already have, whereas currency allows an unlimited ongoing multilateral exchange via a medium that stores and transports value in the abstract). The consequences of this social institutional innovation have been enormous.

The establishment of the American Political system, codified in the American Constitution, drawing on and marginally refining existing forms and emerging ideas, is another example of a highly consequential set of social institutional innovations. It has proven to be a highly robust general model, not just in the United States but around the world. And it too unleashed myriad complex, rippling, unforeseen and unforeseeable dynamics.

Governments have always been vital agents in these processes. From the great architectural monuments of ancient history (e.g., the pyramids and the Great Wall of China) to our most robust modern technologies (e.g., computers, and myriad technologies emanating from space exploration), governments have been uniquely situated to mobilize massive resources in concentrated purposive endeavors that could not have otherwise been accomplished.

Not all such endeavors have necessarily served human welfare, and not all government functions that do are necessarily massive in scale. But the vital role of governments as concentrations of human organizational action for purposes other than profit or cultural expression is undeniable. The challenge is to free ourselves from the stiflingly non-productive debate over whether government has a vital role to play in the human endeavor, and focus our energies instead on the meaningful and multi-faceted question of what precisely that role is.

The answer lies, of course, in understanding the nature of the social systems within which it is embedded, and how the tandem processes of social institutional and technological evolution can most effectively be simultaneously invigorated and channeled by collective decision-making via the instrument of government. To do so, we face several interrelated challenges, some in tension with one another. At a bare minimum, we must liberate and lubricate the processes by which innovation and its rippling effects occur, while catching and mitigating negative effects (i.e., effects ultimately destructive to human welfare).

Despite the conservative myth that government is in general an impediment to economic growth, the exact opposite is true (and has been proven true repeatedly by historical experience). The obsessive ideological commitment to starve and shrink government is the true impediment to economic growth. This is so because it creates a bottleneck in the system, decreasing the fluidity with which innovations ripple through the social institutional field by eliminating our ability consciously to adapt to them, to facilitate and channel them. It impedes the development of human and material infrastructure which has played such a vital role in the astronomical acceleration in the production of wealth that characterizes the modern era.

Moreover, it forces an unconsciousness onto these robust, highly consequential, constant and constantly accelerating transformations rippling through our social institutional landscape. It relies on an empirically discredited certainty that these transformations automatically always serve human welfare as long as we close our collective eyes tightly enough. It relies on a set of idolatries (see “Political Fundamentalism”, “Constitutional Idolatry”, Liberty Idolatry, Small Government Idolatry) rather than on living minds taking on living responsibilities, within a legal and political framework that has developed from the Constitution, and faithful to the Constitution. It eschews the responsibility that comes with freedom and self-governance, the responsibility of thinking, and understanding, and acting in a world that poses constant challenges to those who exist within it, and cannot simply be relegated to blind ideologies and false certainties posing as patriotism.

Social institutional and technological evolution occurs not only through chain reactions of adaptations and innovations rippling through our social system, but also through our own collective adaptations to it. Coordination of efforts and imposition of consciousness and foresight upon them have always been vital, if insufficiently employed, ingredients. Government is nothing more or less than one such organizational overlay of human consciousness on these processes, providing one more vehicle to harness and channel the dynamo that we have created, and that has created us.

As I’ve often said, the agency problems involved, that form the basis of the ideological rejection of government, are both real and normal, common to all principal-agent relationships, though such relationships are a vital and robust aspect of modern social organization. The principal-agent relationtionship between a polity and their government, along with the diverse interests and beliefs of the principal, and the uneven distribution of resources with which factions within the principal can influence the agent, form part of the complexity of the challenge of using government to maximum advantage. They do not mean that government is any more problematic than any other social insitutional arrangement, however, since all such arrangements have similar or analogous problems embedded in them.

It’s time to stop wasting our human cognitive resources on the enervating debate over whether this organizational overlay called “government” is “good” or “bad,” and instead focus on the more meaningful question of how best to use it.

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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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