Recently, the term ‘technosphere’ is increasingly used in a slightly different sense than in the Earth system context (see the new issue of ‘The Economist’ and the briefing that inspired and informed this post). The technosphere would be the world of the internet, roughly defined. This refers to the global and comprehensive connectivity and the growing inclusion of all other kinds of technology, i.e. the ‘internet of things’, which suggests the vision that eventually technology is being integrated into one ‘sphere’, which is increasingly controlled via artificial agents that emerge from the development of artificial intelligence. Clearly, this use of the term harmonizes well with the Earth system view, in the sense that the important aspect of the regulatory mechanisms of the technosphere is highlighted. The digital part of the technosphere is limited as long as we still use a hammer to hit a nail into the wall, but once even the hammer would be equipped with some fancy digitalized mechanism connected to our smartphone, such that an app helps us to improve our technique of hammering, the ‘technospheres’ in the two senses would indeed merge into one. The visionaries of our digital future would point to the fact that smart homes already exist, so places to hide will be more and more difficult to find.
However, we are also increasingly aware of the obstacles in realizing such visions. These obstacles are human. There are two major domains where the growth of the technosphere appears to be limited. The first is political economy, the other is the concern about human freedom and autonomy.
Regarding the latter, technosphere evolution raises important questions about privacy and autonomy which has linspired various demands and initiatives that would build firewalls against the encroachment of the technosphere into our individual lives, such as the European Union regulations on data privacy. To a large degree, this is indeed akin to instituting constitutional protections against political power, such as claiming and safeguarding private property in data. In other words, there is a growing concern about demarcating the human domain vis-à-vis the technosphere via explicit institutional design. Of course, this does not directly impose constraints on technological evolution, but on human actors employing the technology. In that sense, we can speak of spillovers from the human domain to the technosphere. However, and this relates to the first domain of political economy, obviously there are differences across countries which reflect their respective political system. This is most evident in the differences between China and the Western democracies: Apparently, the ‘Chinese technosphere’ can expand without constraints because the authoritarian Chinese state has built an alliance, exploiting the technosphere for controlling the population, moving towards a Benthamite panopticon. Most Chinese do not express concern about this development, because they mainly experience the advantages offered by the Chinese internet companies, such as Alibaba. The Corona crisis also seems to demonstrate that Chinese digital governance has been crucial for avoiding a second wave of infections.
Things have become messy with the open competition between the US and China over controlling the future of the digital technosphere, as both sides recognize that digital technologies define competitive advantage both in the economy and the military. However, this produces the side effect of constraining the global integration of the technosphere. The scenario evokes the various stages in globalizing the world economy, currently apparently falling back on protectionism and hostile ‘digital policies’. The solution may be similar, i.e. creating a global institutional framework, such as the Bretton Woods institutions after WWII. But that was accompanied by the transition to cold war divisions. Hence, the basic political differences between China (and other authoritarian countries, such as Russia) and Western advanced democracies will block any attempt at establishing a global institutional framework for the technosphere. As a consequence, the technosphere may remain fragmented, which has the side-effect of leaving ‘interstitial’ spaces for human freedom independent from explicit and formal institutional design.
How about the forces of global capitalism which so far drove the integration? Clearly, Chinese internet behemoths act like capitalist enterprises, and Alibaba founder Jack Ma was on the verge to launch the global expansion of Ant, the most successful fintech company so far. But the Chinese government stopped the Ant IPO, concerned about the power balance between party and business. This reveals an interesting paradox in the alliance between political power and the technosphere. As I have argued in other posts, global capitalism can be conceived as the core of technosphere regulation, as far as the expansionary forces are concerned. As we see, this stays in tension with the political instrumentalization of the technosphere. Hence, the alliance can only go so far.
At the same time, though, global competition in the digital technosphere can erode the constitutional safeguards in Western democracies. Many analysts point towards the fact that China’s authoritarian system is a competitive advantage in developing artificial intelligence, because there are no legal or factual constraints to collecting and exploiting user data. Currently, Europe is ahead of the US in protecting individual rights in the digital technosphere. But Europe is also perceived as a laggard in that most dynamic part of the global economy.
The conclusion? It is our human messy life that constrains technosphere expansion. Don’t expect much from any attempts at constructivist and constitutional measures to control the technosphere. It is the contradictions, the tensions, the conflicts, the craziness of our human ways of life that will protect our freedom and dignity vis-à-vis the technosphere. Perhaps we just stubbornly stick to our hammer and hit our thumb, but we keep human.