The Challenge: Agency in the Technosphere

For some scholars, the technosphere should be approached as a physical phenomenon in the first place. For example, geologists would measure it in terms of artefacts that accumulate in layers of sediments, such as plastics, or Earth system scientists would approach it as the artefacts that make up the infrastructure of human societies, buildings, roads, factories and so on. In that view, the scientific approach to the technosphere would focus on certain regularities of its emergence and evolution. An important example are the scaling laws that shape the growth and diffusion of its networks through which materials and energies flow. Indeed, if we approach cities as an important part of the technosphere, visible from outer space as areas of bright lighting (as in the image used on top of this blog), physicists have contributed important insights to our understanding of urban development. Economists have even shown that lighting is a very good proxy of GDP.

What is the relationship between those regularities and human action? Most scholars, especially economists and engineers, approach them as constraints. This establishes a clear boundary between human agency and the technosphere: The technosphere can be object of our design, and we are free in doing whatever we want as long as we observe the physical constraints under which the technosphere operates. In fact, this view also explains that humans mostly have interpreted the technosphere as a domain in which their agency is leveraged, scaffolded and enhanced: Technology creates new forms and manifestations of human agency in the world.

However, there is a long tradition in philosophy and the social sciences which adopts a different perspective: These scholars claim that technology is a force that eventually limits our agency and reduces our autonomy as human beings in subordinating us to the functional necessities and autonomous dynamics of technosphere evolution (Lewis Mumford is a classic). This is a minority view, as I perceive it. The difficulty lies in our understanding of agency. This is deeply shaped by our Western enlightenment tradition in positing the autonomy and freedom of the human individual, which, after all, also underlies the view of technology as being designed and controlled by us. The perspective of limited agency seems to reflect the common cultural pessimism of certain intellectual elites, since the first backlash against the enlightenment by the romantics (Steven Pinker’s ‘Enlightenment Now!’ lucidly diagnoses this).

Recent developments in cognitive sciences and social sciences have offered a way to bridge the two contrasting views of agency in the technosphere. I condense them in the concept of ‘distributed agency’. In human society, one form of distributing agency is collective agency. For example, in herding phenomena (such as on financial markets) individuals would follow certain patterns of aggregate behaviour of a population of agents, thereby relinquishing their autonomy and following the emergent decisions of the collective. In fact, human societies have created many arenas and media by which collective agency is enabled and seen as desirable: Social movements, such as now the ‘Fridays for future’, create psychological states, such as via the effervescence of public rallies, by which shifts of identities happens, and many other social actors start to perceive collective agency of an otherwise diffuse group, the ‘young generation’, and they may start to respond to that. There is a difference between Greta Thunberg’s individual agency and the emergent collective agency, and that translates into leveraging individual agencies, like a phase transition in physics: The group achieves much more than just the sum of individual agencies. But clearly, once collective agency is established, this also affects and changes individual identities, and thereby their agency. Pupils may start to speak out against climate change as they never did before.

Social scientists and cognitive scientists have explored another form of distributed agency, systematized in theories such as Actor-Network Theory. This is agency that inheres assemblages of individuals and artefacts. For example, the society-wide diffusion of time-measurement devices in industrializing Western Europe created entirely new forms of social coordination and self-control of actions. Individual agency differs fundamentally with or without an environment in which clocks and watches are ubiquitous. Indeed, one of the characteristics of modern society is that individual agency is deeply embedded in artefacts. The diffusion of time measurement means that a physical mechanism is inextricably enmeshed with our existence, and that enhances our agency (for example, collective agency at Fridays For Future rallies relies on everybody being there in time), but also disciplines and constrains it, often ingrained in habits and unconscious attitudes.

This perspective raises entirely new questions about the relationship between agency and technosphere. If the concept of distributed agency tears down the borderline between technology and individual, what are the consequences for our belief in human autonomy? In distributed agency, regularities of the technosphere are no longer constraints of our actions but become essential properties of our agency. As a result, like as watching a Necker cube, we can see technology as an extension of our agency, or we can see us as extension of technology. Who is in charge: ‘We’ or the ‘watch’?

The concept of distributed agency implies that we can no longer take human autonomy for granted. Agency is no longer ontologically tied to the human individual, naively equated with the body. If our agency is embodied in assemblages of artefacts and bodies, ‘autonomy’ becomes an achievement that we need to struggle for. In the technosphere, there is the constant need to reassert what it means to ‘be human’ (Peter Haff has this in the title of his blog on the technosphere). For being able to do that, beyond mere cultural pessimism and escapism, we need to understand the technosphere. This is a scientific endeavour of its own, combining many disciplines, reaching from physics to the humanities. Only based on a thorough scientific grasp of the technosphere, we can create the spaces of our autonomous agency, and eventually be able to govern the technosphere.

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