‘Ways of Being’ in the Technosphere

James Bridle’s new book ‘Ways of Being. Beyond Human Intelligence’ bristles with inspiration for thinking about the technosphere, although he does not tie up with the Earth system sciences and economics in detail. His key concern is how we can approach both the living world and technology in similar frameworks of understanding more-than-human intelligence. This corresponds to the more abstract view that I champion, that is approaching both the technosphere and the biosphere as information processing and generating evolutionary systems that humans cannot fully know, oversee and control, also referring to the emergent interactions between the spheres. From this follows what Bridle discusses in many variants of a common theme, namely which categories and concepts would apply equally across the domains, with his main concern being the implications for our human ways of life. For example, what is the consequence if we recognize that a slime mould operates like a system of artificial intelligence? Can we learn from the slime mould how to design AI systems better? Can we imagine combining both in a new kind of meta-intelligence? One challenge is to move away from anthropocentrism in understanding ‘intelligence’, which is still mostly defined according to human standards: Some think the highest aim is to enable AI to attain human capacities for intelligent action, though quantitatively leveraged, and some deny personhood to non-human living beings because they are lacking human intelligence. From the evolutionary systems perspective, such distinctions are meaningless and misguided, as human intelligence, embodied in the brain and how it connects with other brains via communication and interaction, is just another evolutionary system.

One of Bridle’s important contributions corresponds to the concept of technosystem services that I introduced on this blog. He argues that humans can use technology to communicate with other living beings and to create scaffolds of living together with them in a symbiotic way, enabling shared flourishing. I just give one example. The physical expansion of the technosphere encroaching on territories of non-humans is the main cause of the loss of biodiversity. In simplest terms, biodiversity is an emergent evolutionary capacity that depends on the size of populations and their geographical scope. When ecologist started to employ technological devices tracking the factual reach of animal territories and mobility, they reached startling conclusions: Many animals move much farther in their lifetime than commonly assumed when delineating their ‘territories’. This reveals that the impact of human infrastructure is even more deleterious for biodiversity than originally thought, since so many corridors for wide-ranging animal mobility are blocked. The consequence is that the technosphere needs to be designed with recognizing these networks of multispecies mobility on different scales, reaching from connecting green spaces in cities within larger and integrated urban local ecosystem to continental scale architectures of corridors linking many local ecosystems. However, there is a challenge: Mobility patterns change continuously, especially considering the impact of climate change. Bridle shows that the new systems of GPS tracking of animals and analysing mobility ‘big data’ can help us to communicate with non-humans, understand their needs, and accordingly adapt our infrastructures. In a sense, we would deal with animal mobility as a political process of ‘voting with the feet’. This is another important concept Bridle suggests: more-than-human politics (which was already called for by others, such as Bruno Latour).

As I understand Bridle, we should not discard this as inferior form of communication. This is a view that follows from biosemiotics, another approach that I am championing. Human language is just one form of semiotic system, and it is also limited among us humans, even in our daily conversation, and is enhanced by our interpretive powers that take into consideration many other signs, such as facial expressions. Interpreting animal mobility takes this as a sign system, and we just must feel addressed. Clearly, there is a vast range of other forms of human-non-human interaction that humans can activate to deepen our understanding of non-humans, and even talking back, though probably not in the narrow constraints of human language. In the future, this might be enhanced by technological means.

Bridle’s book shows the way to symbiotic and co-evolutionary design principles for technology. Recognizing more-than-human forms of intelligence has the important implication that this even strengthens our roles as ethical human beings, since we have the responsibility to take a distance to the technology that we continuously create, without full control and oversight. The first and easy step is giving up the common notion that technology serves human needs and aspirations. As I argue in many posts, the technosphere has evolved into a new regulatory layer of the Earth system, and hence Earth system functioning is its main role. We humans must develop approaches to designing this role. As the example of animal mobility and territories shows, this boils down to practical measures that can be even easy to implement, such as creating corridors for animal movements. The problem is less with the technology, but with us humans who must discard the notion that we can keep ‘nature’ confined to special zones of ‘protection’. Symbiosis between biosphere and technosphere implies a fractal structure of co-existence on many levels, which we must accept as the way of being human in the Anthropocene.

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