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IEET > Security > Biosecurity > Life > Innovation > Health > Vision > Bioculture > Contributors > Rachel Armstrong

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#8 Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature

Rachel Armstrong
By Rachel Armstrong
Next Future

Posted: Dec 24, 2012

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.

According to IEET readers, what were the most stimulating stories of 2012? This month we’re answering that question by posting a countdown of the top 16 articles published this year on our blog (out of more than 600 in all), based on how many total hits each one received.

The following piece was first published here on May 17, 2012 and is the #8 most viewed of the year.

“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.

Image Stockholm Metro via Zeutch.

[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.

Rachel Armstrong is a TEDGlobal Fellow, and a Teaching Fellow at at The Bartlett School of Architecture, in England.
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It’s probably way to late to comment on this article, but you’ve been brought back into circulation by getting into the top 10 (congrats!), so here goes.

I think your article is fantastic, but one thing I wondered is if there is more of a continuum between the way human beings have related to nature in the past and the way they will likely relate to nature in the future that you lay out which I think is spot on.

It seems to me that human beings have always tried to reshape the environment to shape their own needs, but only now are we becoming armed with enough knowledge to do this in a less blunt force way that actually takes into account the living quality of the nature we are trying to shape.

As an example I live on the East coast of the US and was surprised to learn that before Europeans arrived the area was largely without trees because Native Americans had burned them down so they could farm and more easily hunt. The more knowledge of nature we gain the less such blunt force methods of making nature conform to our will are necessary, the more capable we become of tapping into the natural world itself. But just as in the Native American example their should be clear signatures that this is not a naturally emergent order but a designed one.

And I wonder whether this “natural” order has its own issues of sustainability perhaps acting like a continually destabilized immune system with the unintended consequences of our actions requiring yet further interventions with yet more unintended consequences ad infinitum?

“naturally emergent order but a designed one.” What do you mean by that? by a god, or by people? It is indeed, as far as science can tell, the ecosystem that is, is an emergent property of our earth from millions of years of evolution, etc. So, now we have very intelligent minds altering the ecosystem, but intelligent minds are complex emergent properties as well…. brains. Therefore, because we used to rely on the emergent property of the ecosystem (and still do of course!) we must look at geoengineering to fix what we “broke”, even though we really did not brake anything -

See it is the will to live, to live long, happy, high quality lives humans are striving for in the industrialized world. BUT, the industrialized world is composed of emergent brains relying on bodies that have adapted to the emerged ecosystem. So, philosophically, the ecosystem is simply an emergent property as are brains, and for them to coexist, it is up to the more complex emergent system - the brain - to adapt to what it has caused (global warming). Adapt by thinking very hard about the ecosystem and how it functions, so that we can, one day, control it through geoengineering. Now scientists have already acknowledged the fact that geoengineering may effect other species - therefore we must construct an environment (if you believe in caring for animals that are left on the earth, who were and are part of the system) that supports the life of both us and animals. This would take great scientific thinking and implementation, but something that must be done, ethically speaking.

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