[Neil Gershenfeld] is accelerating a set of connections that packs computer intelligence into materials and materials into self- reproducing things.
—Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species
Some of us remember the old Star Trek series which introduced the Replicator into the minds of a whole generation in the late 60’s. At that time it was a fanciful idea of replicating anything in the universe out of thin air. A cup of coffee, a meal, a martini… Of course there were under the hood complex theoretical physics and engineering involved which went untold and unexplained in the TV series.
The notion of a replicator works by rearranging subatomic particles, which are abundant everywhere in the universe, to form molecules and arrange those molecules to form the object. For example, to create a pork chop, the replicator would first form atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc., then arrange them into amino acids, proteins, and cells, and assemble the particles into the form of a pork chop.
This process requires the destructive conversion of bulk matter into energy and its subsequent reformation into a pre-scanned matter pattern. In principle, this is similar to the transporter, but on a smaller scale. However, unlike transporters, which duplicate matter at the quantum level, replicators must be capable of a large number of different materials on demand. If patterns were to be stored at the quantum level, an impossible amount of data storage (or a set of original copies of the materials) would be required. To resolve this, patterns are stored in memory at the molecular level.1
In our own moment we are seeing the beginnings of a replicator revolution with the advent of 3D Printing. Crude in its beginnings using plastics and other materials to replicate and copy existing parts from various models and simulations it is slowly evolving into a complex machinic process that will eventually surpass even Gene Rodenberry’s introduction of the molecular replicator in efficiency and design.
Speaking of Neil Gershenfield and his company RipRap which is in process of doing just that, creating machines to make machines through 3D Printing processes, Anna Greenspan and Suzanne Livingston in Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species tell us that this process is producing machines that “emerge from machines fully made, mechanically complete at conception – one very sophisticated moving piece, not a kit of separate parts. Most importantly, they have the potential to be packed with data, able to see, hear and sense.”2
This is the intriguing aspect, not only can these 3D printers be made to copy and replicate, but they can also become additive – they can add data, intelligence, and sense-making processes to otherwise passive molecular materials that were void of such qualities. Tom Igoe, one of Arduino’s founders, along with Gershenfield, worries that the name ‘Internet of Things’ puts too much attention on the gadgets constituting this new technological wave. What is shifting, he explains, “is not so much how we see computers, but how computers see us.” (FM)
If Nick Land is correct in his assumptions of the emergence of a Techno-Commercium – of a machinic civilization emerging into the Mechanosphere as his progenitors Deleuze and Guattari in their two works on Capitalism foresaw then we are well on our way toward socio-cultural transformation, mutation, and metamorphosis that will leave all our present notions of what it means to be human in the dust bin of dead metaphysical ideas.
Kevin Kelley one of the cyberhypers of California style technics and technology, entrepreneurialism and the techno-geek philosophies of Silicon Valley asks: So what does technology want?
Technology wants what we want— the same long list of merits we crave. When a technology has found its ideal role in the world, it becomes an active agent in increasing the options, choices, and possibilities of others. Our task is to encourage the development of each new invention toward this inherent good, to align it in the same direction that all life is headed. Our choice in the technium— and it is a real and significant choice— is to steer our creations toward those versions, those manifestations, that maximize that technology’s benefits, and to keep it from thwarting itself.3
Technium, the Good Life – Techno-Utopia: a sort of California dreamland for techno-geeks and their sponsors? This notion that technology wants what we want is a part of a whole trend into that idealism which brought about the very problems we already face in our world today. Optimism. Hope. The transformation of life and technology into the American Dream of commercial and financial success. Upward and ownward. Gun ho. Technology can fix everything. An attitude that blindly allows us to follow a course in which capitalism and technology fuse in a dreamland of profit and benefit, producing a techno-world of gadgets.
Greenspan and Livingstone speak of Hans Moravac and his notions of robotics in generational or temporal process of artificial evolution as pets, companions, and then as masters who could “could replace us in every essential task and in principle operate our society increasingly well without us. They would run the companies and do the research as well as performing the productive work.” (FM) They go on to say that
Moravec’s imagination extends still further, reformatting the intermeshed relation between human and machines. Not isolated, or distinct from one other, the exchange between nature and artifice is no longer one of simple tasks, where machines serve us, but one of mutual evolution, where organic and inorganic parts learn from each other on a massive, unprecedented scale. The human body unfolds, melding with the mechanosphere. (FM)
Deleuze and Guattari would speak of the rhizome in the same way as we think of the bee and flower in the exchange, mutation, and mutual cycles of pollination and reproduction. The flower attracts the bee, and the bee will appropriate the seed that it will carry to another flower which it will plant in the process of feeding and consuming the honey of the various flowers. Neither flower nor bee is of the same species, nor do they ever consciously know that their symbiotic relationship is mutually benefiting the organic continuance of their respective species. It is a rhizomatic relationship of two disparate systems benefiting each other without any conscious awareness or intentional knowledge of the fact.
Our relationship to techics and technology is rhizomatic as well. We are dependent of technology, and in reciprocal fashion it is co-dependent on us. There is an underlying process that is channeled and re-channeled in this relation between humans and their technologies that has been there from the beginning. A co-dependency on the part of both material forms which is very little studied. Philosophy of technology has always floated between an extreme form of technological determinism and its opposite. What D&G brought was the notion of an emergent symbiosis that “undermines the comfortable, commonly held assumption that technology is just a tool, designed to fulfill our desires and serve our needs. The idea that machines “must now and ever be man’s inferiors” masks a more threatening, subterranean reality.” (FM)
Greenspan and Livingston remind us of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon which in the latter half of the Nineteenth century brought us the first dystopian vision of this machinic takeover of civilization in which “humans function as mere component parts until, one day, a machinic takeover makes debris of us all, persuaded civilization to implement a rigorous technophobic program. All machines were abandoned, our cyborg future was snuffed out, and technological evolution was brought to an end.” (FM)
Luddites and Technophobes have always had a love/hate relationship with the industrial age and its successors. Neil Postman in his Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology is probably one of the more literate of this Luddite tradition, telling us in this work how for him and others “technology became a particularly dangerous enemy”.4 Following in the footsteps of such scholars as Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Herbert Read, Arnold Gehlen, Ivan Illich, to name a few, Postman would remind us that Cultures may be classified into three types: tool-using cultures, technocracies, and technopolies. (T) Each a successive move toward technological totalitarianism:
Technopoly, in other words, is totalitarian technocracy. As I write (in fact, it is the reason why I write), the United States is the only culture to have become a Technopoly. It is a young Technopoly, and we can assume that it wishes not merely to have been the first but to remain the most highly developed. Therefore, it watches with a careful eye Japan and several European nations that are striving to become Technopolies as well. (T)
The basic underlying axiom or principle within a Technopoly according to Postman is that the “system can do the thinking for them”. (T) Nothing new here he tells us, one need only go back to the work of Frederick W. Taylor The Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911, which contains the first explicit and formal outline of the assumptions of the thought-world of Technopoly.(T) These include the beliefs that the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that in fact human judgment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts. (T)
Efficiency, calculation, mistrust in human judgement and decisions, the demise of the Liberal Subject, quantitative analysis and scientistic reductionism, and the ‘Rule of Experts’. This underlies the technopoly of the U.S.A. Postman tells us. We might add that neoliberalism and the newer world of the techno-commercium (i.e., network financialization of capitalism through algorithmic governance, block-chain technology, 3D Printing, etc.) has improved on these early principles and added thier on local colors (tropes) to the mix.
Another of those Luddite thinkers of our age Derrick Jensen in Endgame: The Problem of Civilization has for years been asking anyone who would respond: Do you believe that our culture will undergo a voluntary transformation to a sane and sustainable way of living?
For the last several years I’ve taken to asking people this question, at talks and rallies, in libraries, on buses, in airplanes, at the grocery store, the hardware store. Everywhere. The answers range from emphatic nos to laughter. No one answers in the affirmative. One fellow at one talk did raise his hand, and when everyone looked at him, he dropped his hand, then said, sheepishly, “Oh, voluntary? No, of course not.” My next question: how will this understanding—that this culture will not voluntarily stop destroying the natural world, eliminating indigenous cultures, exploiting the poor, and killing those who resist—shift our strategy and tactics? The answer? Nobody knows, because we never talk about it: we’re too busy pretending the culture will undergo a magical transformation.
Yet, for Jensen and those like him the great problem facing humanity is this sense that we are headed in the right direction, that our involvement with technology and the technological fix is not only okay but the best way. As he states it: “It has to do with a characteristic of this civilization unshared even by other civilizations. It is the deeply and most-often-invisibly held beliefs that there is really only one way to live, and that we are the one-and-only possessors of that way. It becomes our job then to propagate this way, by force when necessary, until there are no other ways to be.” (E)
A hundred years after Butler’s allegory and satire of the first industrial age Bill Joy of the defunct Sun Microsystems would tell us in Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us:
“Robots, engineered organisms, and nanobots share a dangerous amplifying factor: They can self-replicate.” (FM)
As the authors of Future Mutation tell us Joy “warns that technology escapes our control”. (FM) Joy would offer a future scenario of nightmares as biogenetics, robotics, AI, and any number of new technologies enter into the emerging paradigm of self-replication and artificial selection. As Greenspan and Livingstone put it humans “appear to have an almost willful lack of awareness in the face of technological evolution” (T). It is Joy’s recognition of this unconscious, wide ranging apathy, rather than his ultimately implausible appeals for global controls, that is, in the end, what makes Joy’s future imaginings so haunting. We don’t reflect upon new technology. Instead, we passionately, compulsively, addictively, engage. (T)
Like the serpent in the garden offering a new Eve the technological apple of the mechanosphere we are hooked, our desires captured and enticed, entranced and fascinated by the technological pop-land of Disneyfied gadgets, robots, and AI’s that are no longer fantasy but becoming more and more a possibility.
Yet, as we all know things seem to drift away, seem to be both too close and too far away, we are all caught in the mesh of a temporal dislocation in which the nexus of time and our temporal psyches are both conjunctive and disjunctive. As Greenspan and Livingston following the cultural critic Venkant in Welcome to the Future Nauseous remark on his notion of “manufactured normalcy”:
The overall effect of ‘manufactured normalcy’ is to absorb the future whilst fabricating an extended present that traps us, comfortably, in the past. Our collective attitudes towards the technological future, then, function to reduce the world of tomorrow to “a crazed-familiarity.” (T)
We are always moving into the future with our eyes glued to the rearview mirror, seeking out the known and familiar landscapes and environments of comfort even as they are replaced by the unknown and unfamiliar dangers of a future speeding toward us at the speed of light. As our authors comment,
We live in an era of unprecedented technological intimacy, affect and display. Never before have we been so uninhibited. We are constantly, compulsively touching our screens, obsessively uploading every fragment of data about ourselves. Many of us can’t stop. Even touch is no longer enough. We want our technology closer, embedded, under our skins. Alongside our terror is a yearning for the alien intelligence we are in process of becoming. After all, in the end, we are evolutionary creatures ourselves. We fear change but, as our deep and profound complicity with technology makes clear, what we long for is to evolve. (T)
Maybe that is it in a nutshell. We are creatures caught in the glue of time, members of an organic heritage stretching back into the primordial slime of antediluvian worlds out of mind, and yet what we seek above all else is to be other, to be different, to be elsewhere. All of our metaphysical systems have been based on this need to transcend our animal heritage to enter into other worlds, where time and creativity and an immortal life await us. Whether in religious of secular philosophies this need to escape out human nature has been a guiding thread in all its great literatures, paintings, sculptures, etc. A need to evolve into some higher form, exit the changing and metamorphic worlds of the organic that decay, entropy, and dissolution: falling away into the zero world of cold death and zero intensity.
Yet, as the authors of this work remind us a different and more materialist trend is reversing all that idealism. As Greenspan and Livingston remark,
By 2014, half a decade into the first great economic crises of the second millennium, something is stirring in the realm where humans meet machines. The eventual results of this mutation are still uncertain, yet some contours of the changes to come are starting to be apparent. In fields as diverse as network science, space engineering, genetics and robotics, the closed realm of state led research, powered by enormous government expenditure, is giving way – or at least being coupled with – a whole host of cheaper, more decentered experiments that are being driven from below (e.g. private space missions, citizen science, bio-hacking, DIY robotics etc..). Alongside the possibilities opened by a new culture of entrepreneurial making is a corresponding intellectual and cultural shift toward stuff. In theoretical and philosophical circles this is being tracked by a trend towards the ‘new materialism’; a transcendental turn that rejects the idealism of postmodernism which privileges thought and discourse over matter. More prosaically, our way of thinking about digital technologies is in the midst of a transformation. No longer is everything reducible to information; bits and codes, zeroes and ones. (FM)
Rather than the abstraction of thought divorced from things, we are seeing a tendency of reinfusion in the material stuff around us with intelligence, of optimizing things with the power of intelligent becoming and self-replication, composition and dynamism. Matter, not thought is becoming the in vogue of a cultural turn toward things rather than Mind. As the authors remark to “put it somewhat reductively, we are in the midst of a cyclical return from software to hardware (which perhaps explains our current obsession with everything 3D) which more fundamentally affects who and what we are a species. The pure age of the Internet, of hype over social media and excitement over the latest apps, is itself evolving.” (FM)
Ultimately the Mind, Technology, and Software are being naturalized, becoming ubiquitous and normalized in the everyday objects of the world around us to the point that we will barely notice that the world of the actual has been virtualized. “Technology is plotting its own evolution and the purely human advantage is becoming increasingly small. New fusions and adaptions between the organic and the near organic continue. Silicon, once sand, the second most common element built into the earth’s crust, carries deep with in it an ironic reminder of our own amphibious evolutionary past. Our roots, as cybernetic organisms, come from the same source. Though we are often blind to the machines that surround us – technology is the ocean within which we swim – these exchanges and interactions fuel us. As evolutionary beings, we are willing participants, hungry to transform.” (TM)
Even now as we speak of posthumanist worlds in thought and discourse, the world around us, the world of stuff is already mutating and becoming machinic, emerging from the cold conclaves of solitude and dead ideas of matter into a volcanic world of dynamism in which things will take on many of the qualities of humanity even as humanity take on the qualities of machines. The rhizome is giving way to a marriage of ubiquities, a partnership of organic and anorganic systems that will cooperate in mutually beneficial symbiotic relations that for the most part will go unnoticed in peoples daily lives. Hypernormalized to these new intelligent environments we will become non-human members of a multiplicity of new species. Our lives will give way to a plurality of non-human systems that will regulate and transform our flesh beyond recall. Biogenetics, nanotechnology, robotics, AI, 3D printing, etc. … Let the mutation begin…
Kant once flamboyantly challenged his readers to Sapre aude: Dare to know! In our time the challenge has become: Dare to mutate!
- See: Replicator (Star Trek) Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replicator_(Star_Trek)
- Greenspan, Anna; Livingston, Suzanne. Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species (Kindle Locations 185-187). Time Spiral Press. Kindle Edition.
- Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants (Kindle Locations 3939-3943). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.
- Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Kindle Locations 61-62). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.