Posted tagged ‘stewart brand’

Afterthoughts on technology futures

October 14, 2011

Technology looms large on most futures discussions, and when I put together the Rough Guide I tried hard not to constantly have tech in the foreground – I hoped that this would give a clearer view of social, political, or economic questions.

But reading around since then I’ve got the feeling there is some unfinished business with technology. The tensions between various strands of futures talk often seem to come from views of technology (and/or nature). The recent essays in revisionist environmentalism by Stewart Brand or Mark Lynas put a lot of emphasis on technological development, engineering know-how, and pragmatic approaches to problem solving as our best hope for tackling current and near future crises, and Mark Stephenson’s Optimist’s Tour of the Future still more so.

Others, Ray Kurzweil being the most prominent, continue to forecast a technological singularity, in our lifetime – a forecast based on the inexorable working out of a law of accelerating returns.

Kurzweil’s vision is easy to doubt, in spite of all the exponential performance curves he compiles. Paul Allen, who knows a thing or two about technology, offers one recent, convincing critique here. But there are of course also plenty of critics of the pragmatic optimism of Brand or Lynas. Their distaste for what is usually seen as an unwarranted faith in technical fixes is one legacy of our long experience with technology now, and of its sometimes undesirable second and third order effects.

I lean toward the Brand/Lynas view, but mainly from a vague feeling that there is an astonishing range of technological possibilities in prospect, and a lot of R&D folk ready to work on them, given the incentive. It would be nice to have a better reason.

I flipped through Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology: What it is, how it evolves when it came out on 2009, but didn’t take much in. Having just read it properly, it seems his theory of how technology evolves, or develops by descent – which is brilliantly and clearly argued – might offer some support for a middle of the road optimism. He ends by stressing reasons to be ambivalent about tech, and certainly does not see it is a panacea. But his account of its development through human history does give reasons to expect a lot more technology, with a lot more uses.

His view is that all technologies develop from existing technologies, put together in new combinations. No need to summarise it again – he does it very well at the end of the book: “all technologies are combinations of elements; these elements are themselves technologies; all technologies use phenomena to some purpose…  technology is a programming of nature.”

He shows how those principles work themselves out through human history to allow a wider and wider range of principles – disclosed by science which is is both enabled by and enables technology – to be exploited for human purposes. There is human agency involved,  along with an element of bootstrapping. Indeed, if you bracket out the agency, technology appears to be self-evolving or creating – autopoietic in what was originally the biological sense.

The details are beautifully laid out in the book. Some implications. As there is more tech, the number of combinations increases, so the whole ensemble gathers more possibilities for extension into new areas of capability, and need. This is, in some degree, exponential, though not in the way Kurzeil charts. It is a simple combinatorial effect.

The order in which new combinations are tried is contingent, and that is one way the history of technology is path dependent. In fact, “indeterminacy increases as the collective develops”. Put those things together and you may conclude that technology will continue to develop faster and faster in future – as there are more technologists, too, then presumably more combinations are tried. They will not necessarily be a larger proportion of the possible combinations, though, as their number will increase a lot faster. That means, I think, that technological futures become harder to chart, even approximately.

But it also supports the general prediction that there will be many more, and perhaps more surprising technologies, in future. In one of his (carefully rationed) flights of language, Arthur says: “in its collective sense, technology is not merely a catalog of individual parts. It is a metabolic chemistry, an almost limitless collective of entities that interact to produce new entities – and further needs.”

He is careful not to equate this with progress, in any simple sense. But it does carry strong implication of a one-way path, I think. No back to nature or return to a simple life in this reading of history (which is fine by me). As he says, his theory gives “a sense of technology expanding into the future”. That is one of the reasons it’s going to be interesting.



Afterthought to the afterthought. I guess the next thing to read in this area is Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. My other key authors on technology are David Nye and Thomas Hughes. Who am I missing?


Communicating climate change – and other things

January 19, 2010

Two notes from a day of small ironies, and an anecdote re-told.

Small irony one: sitting down with the nice chap who was taking all the measurements for a survey for Refit West – designed to lead into informed choice about spending cash on making our leaky old house a more efficient user of heating energy. As we discussed why one might want to do this, it emerged that he (who had retrained specially for the job) had been having second thoughts about whether CO2 is really responsible for climate change. These stemming from the fact that  some people stand to make loadsamoney from carbon pricing, it could all be due to natural cycles of some kind, and you can’t trust the science because all scientists (yes, all) are in the pay of industry <sigh>

I let it go there, but I’m thinking some potential customers may become less keen on costly retrofitting projects in their homes if they drift into that conversation.

Small irony two. Talking to a science writer friend over lunch recalled David King and Gabrielle Walker’s good introduction to global warming The Hot Topic. It suddenly struck me again that King had just spent five years as government chief science adviser, explaining stuff like this to people in high places who really need to know about it. On leaving, though, he hooked up with a (very good) science writer, presumably to tell the story more effectively. Perhaps science advisers should work in tandem with science writers before they leave high office?

Anecdote repeat. Interesting chat from Stewart Brand (whose arresting new future-oriented book I reviewed in the Guardian the other week) at St George’s Bristol last night. He was on stage with Brian Eno, an old chum, who recalled making a comment to an audience in Australia to the effect that, perhaps, it was not always necessary to dismiss nuclear power out of hand, for ever. They hissed, apparently. The reaction from the less demonstrative folk of Bristol to Brand’s new born nuclear advocacy was quieter, though a few walked out muttering…  (including this chap, I think – he blogs at Forum for the Future, who as it happens are custodians of the aforesaid Refit West scheme, which I suppose is a third small irony, or just shows how cleverly this post is constructed). More seriously, both reactions suggest how hard the pragmatic case for nukes Brand wants to make will be to sell.