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Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature

Posted: Sun, October 21, 2012 | By: Rachel Armstrong



by Rachel Armstrong

In Western cultures, nature is a cosmological, primal ordering force and a terrestrial condition that exists in the absence of human beings. Both meanings are freely implied in everyday conversation. We distinguish ourselves from the natural world by manipulating our environment through technology. In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly proposes that technology behaves as a form of meta-nature, which has greater potential for cultural change than the evolutionary powers of the organic world alone.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” [1]

With the advent of ‘living technologies’ [2], which possess some of the properties of living systems but are not ‘truly’ alive, a new understanding of our relationship to the natural and designed world is imminent. This change in perspective is encapsulated in Koert Van Mensvoort’s term ‘next nature’, which implies thinking ‘ecologically’, rather than ‘mechanically’. The implications of next nature are profound, and will shape our appreciation of humanity and influence the world around us.

The Universe of Things, by the British science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones (2010) [3] takes the idea of an ecological existence to its logical extreme. She examines an alien civilization whose technology is intrinsically alive. Tools are extrusions of the alien’s own biology and extend into their surroundings through a wet, chemical network.

The idea of existing in a vibrant, organic habitat is an increasingly realistic prospect as living technologies are now being designed to counter the ravages of global industrialization. These can even be implemented at a citywide scale. For example, Arup’s Songdo International Business District, in South Korea, is being built on 1,500 acres of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. Incorporating rainwater irrigation and a seawater canal, this design suggests that the building industry is aspiring to use living technologies to revitalize urban environments via geoengineering. The Korean artist Do Ho Suh had proposed to build a bridge that connects his homes in Seoul and New York by harnessing natural forces and using synthetic biologies to literally ‘grow’ a trans-Pacific bridge.

 

The apparent science fictional nature of ecological-scale projects has prompted science fiction author Karl Schroeder to observe that the large-scale harnessing of ecologies might explain our current lack of success in encountering advanced alien civilizations. Schroeder explains the Fermi Paradox – the apparent contradiction between the likelihood that extraterrestrial civilizations exist and the lack of evidence for them – by speculating that we have not yet encountered our cosmic neighbors because they are indistinguishable from their native ecology.

Despite our visions and desires for a more ecologically integrated kind of technology, the scientific paradigm, which underpins technological development, considers the world to be a machine. Ecologist Fern Wickson argues that humans are intertwined in a complex web of biological systems and cannot be included within a definition of nature where “an atom bomb becomes as ‘natural’ as an anthill” and wonders whether there is a better definition of nature [4].

Changing the definition of nature is not the solution to Wikson’s conundrum. The scientific method is actually responsible for this paradox. If the problem of human connectedness to the natural world is to be resolved, then science itself needs to change. Modern science relies on ‘natural laws’ that use mathematical proofs and the metaphor of machines to convey its universal truths. In the 1950s Robert Rosen observed that when physics is used to describe biology, a generalization occurs that distorts reality [5].

Alan Turing noted in his essay on morphogenesis that mathematical abstraction couldn’t capture the richness of the natural world [6]. Life is a complex system that is governed by a variety of unique processes that machines simply do not possess. Life responds to its environment, constantly changes with time and is made up of functional components that enables life the ability to self-regulate [7]. Complexity challenges the epistemological basis on which modern science and industry are grounded.

So what does complex science mean for our relationship with nature? Are we separate from or intrinsically connected to the natural world? In a complex system we are both. Our actions through technology are intrinsically governed by the physical and chemical constraints of the terrestrial environment, yet we also possess agency and a capacity to modify our surroundings. But if we are connected to nature, then is Wikson right that our propensity to innovate through technology becomes a meaningless idea?

Science Fiction author and cultural commentator Bruce Sterling proposes a further play on Clarke’s dictum and wryly observes that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from its garbage.”

You’ve got to hand it to Sterling – his observational powers are immaculate! Garbage explains how we can be connected to nature – but not in an unlimited way. We subjectively distinguish ourselves from the natural world by ‘editing’ our networks through the process of making garbage. We choose what is important to us by applying cultural, rather than material criteria, which does not lend itself to empirical measurement. Turing had already grasped the importance of personal bias in dealing with complex systems and devised the ‘Imitation Game’ to address the conundrum of intelligence, which evaded an easy empirical solution. This is now more popularly know as the ‘Turing Test’ and is now being used more widely to fathom complex systems and to identify ‘life’ [8].

Suppose then, that scientist observes distant aliens that are so highly advanced that their technology works in concert with the generative natural forces of their planet. Using our current empirical methods of observation, scientists will note the alien landscapes, but they will not be able to discriminate the meaning that is flowing within its organizing networks. Yet the flow and structure of information within the planetary terrain is of vital importance in establishing just exactly what is technology, what is garbage and what is ‘life’. The issue here is how can we ‘prove’ meaning? Currently we do not have the right tools, materials and methods that enable us to ask the ‘why’ questions that Aristotle was so fond of, and which could be most revealing in this context [9].

The development of living technologies and the cultural questions that Next Nature asks are important steps to be taken along the journey towards a more ecological kind of human development. Until complex technologies can be built and deduced from their meaning: Any sufficiently advanced civilization will be indistinguishable from its nature – and also from its garbage.

Rachel Armstrong is a TEDGlobal Fellow, and a Teaching Fellow at at The Bartlett School of Architecture, in England. She was described as a ‘polymath’, at the TEDGlobal Oxford conference, by TED’s Community Director, Tom Reilly. Her extensive interdisciplinary practice engages with a fundamental driving principle – the fundamental creativity of science. Her work uses all manner of media to engage audiences and bring them into contact with the latest advances in science and their real potential through the inventive applications of technology, to address some of the biggest problems facing the world today.



Image Stockholm Metro via Zeutch.

Notes

[1]Clarke, A.C. (1973) Clarke’s Third Law, quoted from the essay Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination in Profiles of the Future, Harper and Row, p. 21.

[2] Bedau, M., (2009). Living Technology Today and Tomorrow, Special Issue: Living Buildings: Plectic Systems Architecture, Technoetic Arts A Journal of Speculative Research,  Volume 7, Number 2, Intellect Books, pp.199-206.

[3] Jones, Gwyneth (2010). The Universe of Things. Seattle: Aqueduct Press.

[4] Fern Wickson, “What is nature, if it’s more than just a place without people?”, Nature 456, 29 (6 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456029b. 2. Editorial, “Handle with care,” Nature 455, 263-264 (18 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/455263b.

[5] Rosen, R. 1996. “On the limits of Scientific knowledge” in /Boundaries and barriers:on the limits to scientific knowledge./ (J. L. Casti and A. Karlqvist, eds.). Reading: Addison-Wesley. pp199-214.

[6] Turing, A.M. (1952). The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, /Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, /Vol. 237, No. 641. (Aug. 14, 1952), pp. 37-72.

[7] Maturana, H. R. and F. J. Varela. 1980. /Autopoieses and cognition: The realization of the living. /Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

[8] L. Cronin, N. Krasnogor, B.G. Davis, C. Alexander, N. Robertson, J.H.G. Steinke, S.L.M. Schroeder, A.N. Khlobystov, G. Cooper, P.M. Gardner, P. Siepmann, B.J. Whitaker, D. Marsh,. (2006) “The imitation game—a computational chemical approach to recognizing life” Nature Biotech., 2006, 24, 1203-1205.

[9]Rosen, R. 1996. “On the limits of Scientific knowledge” in /Boundaries and barriers:on the limits to scientific knowledge./ (J. L. Casti and A. Karlqvist, eds.). Reading: Addison-Wesley. pp199-214.

This essay was also published by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, here



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