Saturday, 8 February 2014

Technological determinism

Technological determinism is, broadly speaking the idea that technology drives history. It signifies the force of convergent evolution (particularly convergent cultural evolution).

In my article on that topic, I wrote:

Technological determinism provides a modern theoretical foundation for the progressive theories of evolution championed by Herbert Spencer.

Technological determinism contains the term "determinism" - which some interpret to mean: "completely determined". However obviously the future is only partly determined by technological forces - chance events play some role.

Kevin Kelly's recent (nice) book "What technology wants" is all about technological determinism - though it rarely mentions the term. Another book on the topic is Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism.

Evolution is apparently getting at progressively better at crossing valleys between adaptive peaks - using techniques such as scaffolding and simulation to bridge the gaps. Unless the valleys are getting deeper and wider it would seem reasonable to expect technological determinism to become increasingly true over time - as civilization progresses.

As far as I can tell, this means an ever-closer approximation of universal instrumental values - and increasing abilities at dissipating free energy and generating entropy.

Unless things go wrong, that is. Some models of evolution permit outcomes which do not involve extinction - and yet do result in constrained and limited growth. These models typically involve one agent taking over the evolutionary process and then guiding the process according to its own whims. Such messed-up, short-sighted agents would presumably be assimilated by the first aliens they meet - but, if they are plausible, they could curtail evolutionary potential for an extended period of time. This situation - while it lasted would probably represent a failure of the thesis of technological determinism to make good predictions.

We don't really have much experience with such universal monopolies. However, we can see the negative effect that various monopolies have had in human history. However, some believe that we should create such a monopoly - to avoid the harmful effects of conflict - or to coordinate on a universal scale. For instance, here is Michael Anissimov on the topic. Apparently this is a desirable way to avoid burning the cosmic commons, via hardscrapple frontier folk.

Of course, such global monopolies are widely derided and denigrated as representing "the new world order" or "totalitarianism". Most seem to regard these outcomes as being undesirable. I share their views.

It is not clear whether such an outcome is consistent with evolutionary theory. Monopoly is like monoculture - and it quickly becomes the target of parasites. However, we can't yet be sure that such outcomes are completely implausible.

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