Our blog project is the outcome of two workshops held in 2018 at Lancaster University and at Erfurt (Max Weber Centre for Advanced Cultural and Social Studies) devoted to agency and technosphere. The blog is the medium in which we continue our debates and exchange of ideas.
The workshops aimed at gathering a multidisciplinary group that explored the topic from different angles. Whereas ‘technosphere’ is a concept that originally emerged in the Earth system sciences, ‘agency’ is a concept that is rooted in the social sciences. This reflects the general challenge at research on climate change: Predicting future developments cannot only build on the science of climate but needs to include models of how humans cause climate change and respond to it. For example, this is done in ‘Integrated Assessment Models’, which synthesize climate models and economic models. However, they are limited in scope and depth, because human responses to climate change are also shaped by politics, social change, and other forces.
The notion of the ‘technosphere’ is controversial. It has been created in analogy to the ‘biosphere’, with corresponding implications, such as global reach, systemicity, complexity, and autonomous evolutionary dynamics. Do we need such a concept? Some Earth system scientists think, yes. One of them is Peter Haff who devoted a blog on his project of developing a theory of the technosphere (https://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/anthropocene/1-0-the-set-up/). As an evolutionary and ecological economist, I agree, and argued in favour of ‘technosphere science’ recently (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800917315677). Many social scientists do not think that this is necessary, because, for instance, the ‘technosphere’ would just be conceived as the physical manifestation of the human economy. Hence, for understanding the technosphere doing economics would be enough (or, more specifically, analysing global capitalism).
Some of us think that this is wrong: The economy should be approached as a subsystem of the technosphere. Why? We envision the technosphere as a new emergent level of evolution, to quote Hayek’s famous dictum, ‘by human action, but not by human design’. The concept of the technosphere is a defining element of the ‘Anthropocene’, but at a closer look introduces a tension: The ‘Anthropocene’ is conceived as the ‘human age’, thus possibly suggesting that we humans are in the drivers’ seat from now on. But some of us envision the technosphere as evolving partly autonomously from our design and control, obeying its own laws. The ‘Anthropocene’ might be better called as ‘technocene’, as some have suggested.
This is the point where agency comes into play. The relationship between technosphere and human agency is complex. On the one hand, the technosphere enables and leverages human agency. On the other hand, perhaps partly because of that, the technosphere also channels and constrains our agency. Even more so, our perception of agency may hide the fact that our actions fulfil functions in the larger context of the technosphere which we are not aware of.
Accordingly, we believe that improving our understanding of the technosphere and dissecting the structural and processual determinants of agency in the technosphere is essential for assessing our capacity and potential to meet the biggest challenge of our time, climate change. For designing policies, we need to know what constrains our actions, and to which extent there may be hidden drivers.
This blog is a forum in which we generate, collect and communicate creative ideas about the technosphere and our place in it. It is a collective effort in evolving ideas beyond the constraints of the formal publishing process of academia. The more challenging, the more surprising, the more outrageous, the better!