I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.
Technology is a scary thing, especially if you think about it hard enough. Example: you’re reading these words by virtue of an immense interconnected network of processors that unites the world. This network came about as a direct result of the Cold War, for it was in the machinations of (D)ARPA, the US government’s advanced research arm, that TCP/IP packeting was first invented. The network we use today is a result of war, as ARPANET was meant to connect key US facilities in the event of nuclear holocaust. That’s something to think about the next time you post a comment on a youtube video.
DARPA is famous in conspiracy theorist circles, as the bulk of their adorable naivety centres around DARA’s secret weather control/contrails/fluoride in the water/Tesla technology/gene manipulation/mind control bibble. Of course, none of this is true, but it’s worth noting just how shadowy the origins of the internet are. I’ve learned this from watching Adam Curtis’ stellar documentary All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace (2010), which chronicles how computers have shaped the world around us.
Curtis makes some interesting points, and some shockingly simplistic arguments. He claims, for instance, that Ayn Rand’s philosophy (called “Objectivism”, but really warmed-over old school liberalism) encourages sociopathic selfishness, which is a contentious point, but the main thrust of his documentary is that we tend to adapt ourselves to a new technology as much as we adapt itself to us. Large computer networks tend to inform the way we think as much as we inform how they are designed, which may sound confusing, but goes something a bit like this: in the invention of the machines that support us, we drew as much on quaint ideologies (like Rand’s Objectivism) as we did on ourselves. The modern world is a queer product of naivety, idealism, and hard-faced reality: we expect machines to do the grunt work of managing information, yet we also look to them for something close to spiritual guidance. We have taken, Curtis argues, to regarding ourselves as machines, and the world we live in to be an extremely complex system of energy being passed backwards and forwards like information.
The most interesting claim he makes is that the field of Ecology was dominated during the 20th Century by systems theory: the theory that an ecosystem tends towards equilibrium, or the “natural order”, and can only do so in the absence of external influence. This idea is endemic in our culture – we think of mankind as an external force that destroys ecosystems, pillaging the ranforest, destroying the ocean, and emptying the sky. Without humans, goes the thought, the world could find balance. Seeking that balance, where “man lives in harmony with nature”, has been a driving force of modern spiritual practices, as well as the motivation to prevent climate change and reduce our impact on the world.
The reality, says Curtis, is far from that. Nature never seeks an equilibrium, and there is no natural state of being. Species in nature, from the lowliest archaebacteria to the blue whale, are fighting a pitched battle with all other species for dominance. There is no “natural order” of things, as evolution and internal forces seek to enforce superiority. This argument seems to make sense if you think about it. The idea of a “natural order” is comforting, particularly if you like natural stuff, but anyone with a little knowledge of evolutionary theory (say, Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene) can see that the sentimental picture of Mother Nature is a myth: genes seek to replicate themselves, and will do so at any cost, blindly devising ever more complicated methods of replication or, to put it bluntly, beating the competition.
The idea the man stands outside nature, and is a force of destruction, speaks of a weird kind of anthropocentricism: we see ourselves, as we always have, as outside the natural order of things. Therefore, anything we do that doesn’t fit with how nature does things is bad, evil, malevolent and wrong. This was, and is, the thrust of the argument of many hippy, quinoa-eating “save the stickleback” types who, in the words of Vyvian from The Young Ones, “lie down in the way of PROGRESS, ie the humane gassing of millions of woodland creatures to make way for a brilliant and totally dangerous nuclear power plant”. This argument, I’m starting to believe, is faulty.
The fault lies in our believing ourselves, and our creations, to be somehow “outside of nature”. Now, I’m inclined not to believe that, being a practicing Taoist.
“practicing” is a loose term and looks a lot like this.
Taoism regards everything as part of “all the stuff that is”, and I’m afraid I can’t be more specific than that; it’s an ineffable wisdom sort of deal. What it does mean is that nematode worms, malaria, baby harp seals, sticklebacks, jumbo prawns, elephants and chinchillas belong to the same world as Grunge music, cigars, Mini Metros, industrial run-off, radioactive isotopes, plastic byproducts and probiotic yogurts. There is no outside nature. There is just what is.
In this view, which tallies with Adam Curtis’ argument, human beings and the things they produce to ensure their survival, including all of the wickedly brilliant and totally dangerous technology they employ, are part of the struggle to survive. They are part of the greater natural world. Birds create nests, spiders create webs, beavers create dams, and human beings create shotguns, Spandau Ballet, bubblegum, vibrating marital aids, and all the wonderous filth of the human condition. We aren’t a creature disrupting the natural order any more than a spider building a web is. This is what we do to survive. We are smart, and we create. That’s our evolutionary strategy.
And to return to my starting-point, the internet and the developing technologies of the 21st Century are our evolving evolutionary strategy. This is the second scary fact about technology: it doesn’t go backwards. There’s a hoary old chestnut among biologists that evolution never downgrades: species gain traits and lose useless abilities, but they never regress to a previous point. Even if a species radically simplifies, it does so in a new way. All evolutionary roads lead forward.
And that means, if I’ve done my sums right, that we can never get “back in touch with nature”, and we can never “live in harmony”, even if it were possible that we once had. It’s too late. We already have nuclear power and ICBMS, downloadable pornography and heroin. These things can’t be undone. The only way forward is just that: the way forward.
Human evolutionary strategy has always been to force a crisis and think our way out of it. Early humans hunted the big animals, the Megafauna, to extinction, and when they’d done so and were starving, they had to invent agriculture to cope. There are many crises that will be forced on us in the coming decades and centuries, and as ever we will be forced to move forward.
An example: agriculture. We know that human beings will eventually face the Malthusian Catastrophe, so named for Thomas Malthus, who argued in the 18th Century that demand for food would continually outstrip production and lead to starvation. In a world of seven billion people, that seems pretty near. With the infrastructure we have, and the way we live, arable land is at a premium. This is a problem that is not sneaking up on us.
There are two schools of thought: the first argues that the way we live now is untenable, that we should downsize, return to a pastoral existence, grow our own crops and weave our own baskets. The world can’t support any more pesticides and fertilizers, they say. In the latter case, they’re right: pesticides and fertilizers as they stand now are a plain hazard to people, animals and plants. The former case is quite wrong: returning to traditional farming and a more agrarian society is plainly impossible. I mean, how am I going to charge my laptop? With barley?
This butters no electronic parsnips, yo.
The answer, I believe, is to use technology we have, or is attainable within a timeframe. I despair of people who argue against genetically modified food: a fear of “Frankenfoods” is a sign of somebody steeped in the fear of the new. It’s new, it’s unproven, it’s bad and dangerous and scary. I don’t want it. I don’t even want to think about it. Take it away.
Public opinion is rarely something to be held in high esteem, and always so with its attitude to GM. For starters, most species we know and use for food are genetically modified: cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, wheat, corn, rice and barley, plus most fruits and vegetables bear no relation to their wild counterparts. They have been cultivated, which really means they’ve had their genes modified through thousands of generations of breeding and cross-breeding, splicing, mixing, and all of the weird and wonderful things that go on in the gardener’s shed. Cultivation was genetically modifying food before genes were discovered. The fact that it happened in a garden rather than a laboratory is the main difference.
The goal is clear: to produce better food less dependent on pesticides, yet not rampantly dangerous to existing ecosystems. GM is, bizarrely, our best bet for saving the environment. There are also many other weird technologies that will soon be producing our food: vertical farming, hydroponics, and eventually cell-grown meat. This last makes me very excited: imagine a perfect, juicy steak that didn’t have to have the intervening period of being inside a methane-belching, land-hogging cow. Cows could become a thing of the past, something you’d only see in zoos or museums. No more deforesting of the Amazon rainforest. No more methane buildup. Cow farms could be converted to grain production. It would be a pure and wonderful future that didn’t feature cows, battery chickens, or pigs being slaughtered while still conscious.
The problems that assail us, and will continue to assail us, are problems of technology, and it is technology that will fix them. In the same way that evolution never moves backwards, neither does technology – having been invented, people will always need electricity, much as they will always need antibiotics, writing and sanitation. We can’t return to a pastoral existence because we have evolved beyond that point. Take a caveman from the Neolithic period and drop him in our world, and he would eventually adapt, whereas a modern human would perish in the reverse. Human beings used to eat raw meat until someone invented the technology of cooking…one hundred thousand years on, our gut fauna have evolved to the point where raw meat is almost unpalatable (I say almost, I have great recipes for Steak Tartare and Sashimi somewhere). Today’s humans are too flabby and intelligent to live as primitive hunter-gatherers. We can’t go back to that. We are forced to move forward.
And technology is the key. We have destroyed habitats and species in our evolutionary drive, taking on the appearance of a force of nature, but these are the effects of a species still improving. What is needed is a better and smarter application of technologies, not a devolution. We need clean fuels, more organized manufacturing and recycling processes and a more developed understanding of the world. Having come this far, shying away from the demon Technology is a worse option than continuing, for without it things can never be repaired. The only thing more scary than technology is its absence.
What the future requires of us, if I can get to the main thrust of my argument without stumbling, is that we change the way we think. Unlike Adam Curtis, I don’t think that technology changing our behaviour is necessarily a bad thing. As we adapt to the machine, so too do we adapt the machine to us. The world is the most complex machine we know of: a network of immensely complex systems, and human civilization forms one system within it. The goal of the future is a terrifying one: to evolve the world as we evolve ourselves, and to preserve the things that matter to us: clean air, good food, Tuna, and Taiwan
. We are the system- for better or worse, we are part of nature, and accepting that is the first step towards a more intelligent and more radical future.