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Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature
Rachel Armstrong   May 17, 2012   Next Nature  

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.

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.


I could not agree more. Very fascinating piece, as usual.

Biosemiotics, I believe, is one of the most important disciplines that will allow us to FINALLY understand the connections between technological expressions and phenotypes. Unfortunately is still quite marginal today. I suppose we really need a paradigm shift here. But, the potential results - in terms of material and conceptual developments - are immense.

Nice to see the UrSprung being recognised
Nature has field tested its designs exhaustively, biomimicry is vastly underestimated so far, with thinking still haunted by the ghosts of nature fearing ego based conquestadors
Symbiosis will out, even the survival of the fittest model, now becoming free of its religious distractions, can be seen as survival of the most co-operative…( the co-operation only seems to be competition through the political lens)

“The issue here is how can we ‘prove’ meaning?”

I feel that meaning must be felt, through connection with meta- nature, this feeling is undeniable, even when comprehension is lacking.

As a practicing architect and (according to AD magazine and ARUP global research), also as a co-discoverer of a new design law of nature, I have to apply one caveat to Turing’s/your assertion that “...mathematical abstraction couldn’t capture the richness of the natural world… 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.”
Schrodinger asked “What is Life” in his book of the same name to which Adrian Bejan replies (in his 2012 book “Design in Nature”): “...anything that flows - movement, currents of energy, matter and information.” His Constructal (behavioural) law has its geometrical analogue in my own Asynsis principle. So to refine Turing, there actually is a reductionist, emergent signature of nature’s self-design (and meaning) - to morphogenesis, the giving of form. It’s derived from the thermodynamic imperative to equilibrium and “Schrodinger’s paradox” - the net increase in the disorder of the universe allowing local order to be transiently extended, like a glider in a cellular automaton.
Beauty is complexity, simply realised. So how does complexity and design in nature analogically, optimally emerge from entropy?
Leonardo da Vinci’s Golden Ratio links the Asynsis principle with the Constructal law, a classical theory of everything revealing nature’s inherent economy, elegance and beauty, its inherent sustainability.
A new optimising, geometric design law of nature in the Asynsis principle-Constructal law, a new paradigm that will serve to promote in enviro-extremis, the global sustainable design and development agenda is upon us.
This dynamical symmetrical behaviour is a temporal signature of energy, mass and information flow, of nature self-organising itself more easily over time, for less energy cost. The reason we see the ratio in statics so often is because it is an archetypal, emergent dynamical trope; a static condensate of those same flows, revealing optimal geometries in natural systems. So one could argue that to best preserve nature - we had also best (& urgently), emulate her - by building these very behaviours into our civilisation. The arguments for green building (and for sustainable development), just got far more compelling as a result; because to be green is actually following a law of nature, the fundamental geometry of which is an icon of art, design and architecture. But will it make our jobs as designers easier (as Einstein remarked to Corb regarding his Modulor), or harder (since we are dealing with a process, not a state - a function, not a form)?
Fortunately, these behaviours also access mathematical singularities (see the determinisitic chaos bands in the Feigenbaum diagram), when pushed far from equilibrium (the so-called “edge of (deterministic) chaos”), so they represent infinite formal creativity as well. My suggested argument is that “Form fulfils Function” in that our technological artifacts, our contingent designed forms must and should arise from a contingent world - but that it is critical that the functions that those forms house also emulate nature’s laws and must be optimal, especially in the use of energy, matter and information. This is also therefore not an argument for only employing flowing organic lines in the forms of all designed artifacts, which is just biomimicry as pastiche of the laws of physics and thermodynamics. This is where existential contingency saves us to express a universe of formal possibility, restricted only by our imaginations, budgets and those same natural laws.
So form (and beauty) is complexity, analogically, optimally realised through dynamical symmetries, through the Asynsis principle-Construcutal law, which are phenomenological, empirical, geometric models (or algorithms - logical “machines”), that with respect, are abstractions that actually do capture the natural world, animate and inanimate morphogenesis and even, life itself.

Cosmological nature is meta-magic indeed: Higgs Boson…first predicted 1964. It’s why everything doesn’t move at lightspeed nor look like the universe as seen from the surface of a black hole. So the HB is why there is a difference between a past, present and future, as lightspeed photons do not experience time. The Higgs field (mediated by the HB particle), allows the 2nd law of thermodynamics, the “arrow of time,” which in turn admits the new thermodynamics-based, classical scale Asynsis principle-Constructal law of design in nature (first predicted by Nigel Reading RIBA of ASYNSIS Architecture+Design in 1995 - which is highly relevant to our planetary scale and to our future sustainable development); where flows of energy, matter and information seek (thermal) equilibrium whilst optimally, analogically creating structure (including us), along the way.
1st publ’d: ADmag-95+11, Asynsis principle-Constructal law, 1st arch 2 co-discover design law of nature:,,,,

“I call it exotropic force. We can’t describe it without supernatural language. It is the force that runs counter to entropy – the force of life if you like. This energy is not evenly spread in the universe but we happen to live in a little corner where exotropy is greatly accelerated to produce not only life, but also minds and now technology from those minds.”
Kevin Kelly, Guardian 2010
Kelly’s “Extropic force” intuition is correct - one manifestation of it is the “Asynsis principle-Constructal law -  a law that places all of Kelly’s human technology (including society, civilisation, language and culture), firmly integral to and as utterly imbedded in, nature.

“Open local dynamical systems when pushed further from thermal equilibrium by energy flows, minimise their energy-mass dissipation but also optimise their information and synthetic complexity over time, through the reiteration of archetypal, asymptotic, analogical feedback processes.”
Asynsis principle

“Given freedom, for a finite-size system to persist in time (to live), it must evolve in such a way that it provides easier access to the imposed currents that flow through it.”
Constructal law

“Design in nature analogically, optimally emerges from Entropy”
Asynsis-Constructal synthesis

I don’t believe that the Higgs fully explains the arrow of time. Surely it is still part of an essentially time-symmetric physical model?

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