Why we can regain agency and how – a riposte to James Dyke

I fully agree that at the current stage, we may suffer from partial blindness to the limits and constraints of our agency in technosphere evolution. However, at the same time I believe that in improving our scientific understanding of these, we can regain our human agency and find an escape route, as James hopes for.

There are two central aspects here which relate to the biased view of most scientists towards the technosphere, centring on its materiality and physical mechanisms. As I argued in other posts, this is exactly the kind of ‘alienation’ (‘Entfremdung’) highlighted by classical critical theory in distinguishing itself from standard theory. It is a paradox, as the scientists argue with forceful criticism about the current crisis of climate change. But in factually supporting a pessimistic and defeatist stance towards their own analysis, they may factually contribute to our loss of agency. In other words, science as it is practiced today mirrors the technosphere, it is the ideology of the technosphere, even if it presents a lucid and objective analysis of our current tragedy and opens our eyes for the looming catastrophe. We are left with either techno-optimism or techno-pessimism. On this blog, Axel Kleidon tends towards the former, James to the latter. From the social science and philosophy perspective, both do not move far enough into the domain of the humanities in understanding the technosphere.

Technosphere reductionism overlooks the fact that our human systems are symbiotic to the technosphere, down to the level of agency. This is clearly recognized in the social sciences, even in economics: Technology combines physical and social mechanisms in creating integrated patterns of technologically enhanced action. One implication of this is that the notion of technology needs to be broadened. This overcomes the conceptual separation between institutions and physical mechanisms, especially when it comes to the economy. It is overly simplistic to refer to large-scale constructs such as ‘capitalism’, and then discarding it, as James does; instead we need to recognize that the core of capitalism is a set of technologies in the domain of money and finance, which are  not inherently ‘capitalistic’ in the ideological sense. Goetzmann’s book ‘Money changes everything’ makes this abundantly clear, finance is a material technology like building roads or ships. This technology shapes our agency, as Marx thought, though on a different conceptual basis, in creating affordances that drive our actions. In fact, the technological core of capitalism is also the core of technosphere as it evolves today. But that also means that once we recognize this, we can redesign the engine.

The first evolutionary economist, Thorstein Veblen, believed that there is a fundamental contradiction between economy and technology, and that the former drives the latter towards technologically suboptimal developmental trajectories. I think this is reflecting suboptimal design of financial technologies. Let me give an example. Via legal changes in the US, tech companies can go public today even when they accumulate huge losses over years. One example are the mobility platforms such as Uber. This is exclusively driven by profit expectations of investors, and not by technological criteria of optimizing transport systems of the technosphere. Uber and the likes further cement the technological trajectory of individualized mobility and passenger car technology, only adding components of electric engines and automatic driving. Experts already expressed concerns that this will put even larger strain on urban traffic, as the number of individual rides will actually increase, to the detriment of radically different approaches to urban transport.

Without modern financial engineering, this trajectory may not have materialized at all. What is the solution? The problem is not the market as such, and therefore the cure is not government-driven planning and intervention. The cure is reforming finance. I cannot deal with details here, but proposals are plenty, reaching from fundamentals like radically changing our monetary system to detailed prescriptions of specific mechanisms. In our context, this means regaining agency: This is only possible via systemic design, and not by choosing certain action directly. And this is not about big-ticket items such as ‘socialism’ versus ‘capitalism’, but about ‘social engineering’. Via engineering finance, we can gain control back about technosphere evolution. Concentrating on actions such as carbon tax or green infrastructure cannot solve the deeper problem of the underlying patterns of agency.

The other important topic is winning agency back via sharing agency with others, that is, recognizing agency of others. This is a deeply Hegelian thought: genuine agency rests on mutual recognition. In thinking that we are the only masters of technology, we end up with hybris and ultimate loss of agency.

This is the political dimension, and it requires constitutional initiatives and design, as it happened in the past when democratic and human rights gradually expanded. I think that we have not yet fully recognized this point. For example, the ‘Fridays for future’ movement mostly demands for certain actions – it should increase the stakes and demand for constitutional changes, which would be truly revolutionary. In this case, that would be the constitutional recognition of future generations. There are many ways of doing this, with smaller stakes such as the lowering of age restrictions on voting, and the really challenging ones such as creating an innovative way to representing future generations, perhaps in enriching the system of division of powers, adding a power that represents future generations.

This needs to be extended towards including non-humans in our political systems, reaching from the local to the global. James introduces this perspective at the end of his post. Yes, we need the non-humans to escape from the prison that we created for ourselves. I discuss this in my previous post on co-creation, therefore do not enter into details here.

To conclude, we need a deflated view on the technosphere, against the view of many Earth system scientists in overestimating its systemicity. I agree that there are systemic drivers, such as Maximum Power. But as Georg Kobiela has argued in his comments, there are many ways how to design technological trajectories that follow this law, such as permaculture in agriculture. But we cannot impose these trajectories on the societies in which we live today, in which emergent forms of agency push towards other directions. Agency can be designed, though, on the level of creating new institutions. Of course, incumbents of power may not prefer this. That’s why we need new forms of political activism.

Co-creation and agency in the Earth system

Two weeks ago, I attended the meeting of the European Society for Ecological Economics at Turku, Finland. The core topic of the conference was ‘co-creation’. Many people attending had no clear idea what that means, including myself. However, as I had been invited as a keynote speaker, in the recent months I invested some intellectual effort into developing my own approach to it. My keynote was devoted to ‘The Art of Co-Creation’. You can find my paper here, and also a science shot on Youtube.

Co-creation directly relates to the question of agency. In the narrower sense, which, in my perception, was prevalent in the Turku discussions, co-creation is about topics such as participatory modelling and democratic inclusion. That means, whereas in the standard policy process agency is often centred on certain organizations and networks of decision-makers and their advisers, a co-creative process would engage many more stakeholders and concerned parties. A typical example is the activation of grassroots level communities in biodiversity initiatives. This does not only involve decision-making as such, but also the activation of local knowledge.

My view on co-creation is much broader. For example, as ventilated on this blogsite, the question is how far technology co-creates outcomes of human action, so that agency is not only centred on humans, but networks of humans and artefacts (‘agencements’ in Actor-Network Theory). A most interesting issue is co-creation in the biosphere, because this ties up with the narrower meaning of co-creation.

There is no doubt that in ecological systems, the performance of the system is co-created by all entities that make it up. In this sense, the notion of ‘Anthropocene’ is indeed misleading, as we humans may have disproportionally strong impact on the biosphere, but that does not nullify the role of other biological entities as actors which respond to our action, and co-create the result of our actions. Now, the exciting question is, can we acknowledge the agency of other actors and include them in our own systems of deciding our actions? Can we imagine institutional designs that would allow for including other biological actors in our human body politic?

That question is strikingly akin to co-creation as participatory modelling or democratic inclusion. If the biosphere is co-created by all biological entities, how can we give them voice and recognize them as stakeholders of our own society and economy? There are two major problems that call for (co?)creative solutions.

The first is that we must establish institutional forms of representation. That might sound outlandish, since even our beloved pets cannot talk to us and vote over our decisions (although it seems that they have many communicative means to express their will and even subject our agency to their interests, see here). But in fact, it is straightforward if we create institutions in which other biological entities would be represented by humans: that is, legal persons and chartered organizations which would be based on pertinent constitutional rules and which have the legal responsibility of biosphere representation. This idea has been already explored by Bruno Latour, and I think that the only limitation is our own lack of imagination. After all, we treat physically non-existent beings as actors in our society, such as public corporations or endowments. Why not animals?

However, the second problem is how could human representatives of other biological beings communicate with them and fully understand their interests? There is small subfield in biology and behavioural ecology that tackles this issue, sometimes labelled ‘zoosemiotics’, and which goes back to Jakob von Uexkuell’s theory of ‘Umwelten’. This is a scientific way to reconstruct the worldview of other biological entities and may enable us to translate the semiotic systems of other species into our own. I think that this eventually integrates science and art, as discussed in my keynote. We must develop linguistic and other creative means to enable us imagining how other beings think and act.

To sum up, co-creation is indeed a powerful conceptual frame to elaborate new institutional forms of agency in the Earth system. In Hegelian terms, as I have argued elsewhere, this is creating a ‘second nature’. Only in such a comprehensive institutional approach, we can also regain control of the technosphere. In fact, we can even view the suggested institutional set-up as ‘social technology’ and hence a means to establish a co-creative relationship between biosphere and technosphere.

Marxism and the Technosphere

The problem of agency in the technosphere has much in common with Marx’s treatment of agency in capitalism. In capitalism agency is endogenous to the system: Capitalists are not the bad guys who expropriate workers with sinister intentions, but the forces of ‘capital’ subject them to this type of behavioural governance. The system drives their actions, and that’s why we need to change the system, not just improve what people think and aim at: turning capitalists into philantropists would not be enough (or even possible). Marx’s theory of revolution is about workers regaining agency, via emancipating themselves from the system, understanding how it works, and then build countervailing power on collective agency as a class. Yet, Marx believed that this is only possible when a certain stage of technological development would be reached that creates certain material conditions in terms of the concentration of the economy and levels of productivity.

Marx’s ‘capital’ is a financial category, in simplest terms, ‘money’, as epitomized in his famous M-C-M’ formula depicting the circuit of generating surplus value. However, he approached money just as neoclassical economists today do, as a mere medium in which capital is transformed: In Marxist theory, money is not value. He followed the classical labour theory of value, which means that in the generation of surplus, complex calculations of labour inputs, socially necessary labour etc. were needed. This is the point where modern economics does not follow Marx: Value is rooted in subjective preferences.

Obviously, Marx is relevant for understanding the technosphere, in terms of the systemic perspective, the ideas about endogenous agency, and the emphasis on technology (‘productive forces’). I suggest two ways in which we can turn Marx from head to feet.

The first is to take money seriously. Money is a technological artefact, as is modern finance. We have very substantial research that shows how money transforms human agency, beginning with the work of the sociologist Georg Simmel at the turn to the 20th century. Money is the central artefact in organizing markets, which are the prominent medium in which technosphere evolution is proceeding. In my work, I approach money as a social technology that makes us performing the economy in a specific way, that Marx called ‘capitalism’ (see my Journal of Economic Methodology paper here, which summarizes the state of our knowledge). Money is one of the crucial causal connectors between technosphere and the human domain, down to the level of causation of individual action.

The second track is offered by thermodynamics. Despite his focus on technology, Marx analysed capitalism as a social system, epitomized in his labour theory of value. He overlooked the role of energy in the industrialization process (as far as I know). The work of the physicist Reiner Kümmel helps to correct this view (here). As it was also shown by Ayres and others, in modern economics neglecting energy in the analysis of economic growth partly results from misjudging its marginal productivity, based on national income accounts (factor shares). If alternative production functions are employed, and energy is explicitly included, the marginal productivity of energy is higher than that of labour and capital. As Kümmel argues, this means that ‘energy slaves’ are exploited by humans, they are paid less than the value that they generate. That sounds very Marxian, indeed!

Following Kümmel, I suggest that Marx could not anticipate the failure of proletarian revolution because labour and capital could find an arrangement in which labour could increase its income position (higher wages, less working time, more redistribution) without jeopardizing capitalist profits because the two could shift the burden to the third party: energy (or, more generally, ‘Mother Earth’). In that sense, the neglect of energy in modern economics is an ideological construct that hides a quasi-political structure of exploitation. Energy cannot regain agency, however, so it is an almost safe political deal. Yet, we could say that Marxian analysis of expropriation still applies, mutatis mutandis (which might point towards an energetic theory of value that many tried to create, but never succeeded: A task for technosphere science of the future?).

That implies a different justification why energy prices need to be adjusted than internalization of externalities (across the board, not just in terms of CO2 taxes): Energy must be compensated according to its true marginal productivity. Such a general adjustment of factor prices would have very substantial effects on the evolution of economic structure, with labour getting relatively cheaper. I always refer to the Chinese economy in late Imperial times as an example how an economy operates in such a regime.

In the end, however, Marx gets his right. Who owns energy resources and who grabs the profits? Well, the capitalists and the ‘state-capitalists’. The global energy system is embedded in a truly sinister network of economic and political power that shapes governance and social conditions in many countries, often creating catastrophic conditions for the population (for a sobering account, see Wenar’s book ‘Blood Oil’ here). These are not exactly the same types of actors that Marx was observing in his times. But the need for a political revolution is as urgent as he felt it.

In a Climate-neutral Solar Economy, Would the Technosphere Outcompete the Biosphere? A Provocation.

In his recent post, Axel Kleidon offered a grand view on the thermodynamics of the Earth system that includes the human domain. His fundamental point is that the human economy follows the same systemic dynamics as the Earth system, i.e. Lotka’s Maximum Power principle. That means, it manifests an inherent physical trend towards maximizing energy throughput. There is much evidence that supports this view, which I presented in my 2015 ‘Ecological Economics’ paper (here). Axel Kleidon also believes that we still have sufficient freedom to act. His solution is a technological one. As he describes in detail in his recent book (here), that means that humans have choices in implementing the specific way how we realize this law of nature. Basically, we could copy the biosphere: The only technological energy system that directly corresponds to nature’s energy system based on photosynthesis is solar energy.

However, this macro-perspective blanks out the fact that making the Earth system thermodynamically more productive by means of solar energy implies that the technosphere will grow forever: If energy is transformed in the technosphere, its material size will expand. That is why complete plans for a solar economy always include another copy from nature, complete recycling. That would create an energetically and materially autonomous technosphere, apparently. It would materially grow by means of the transformation on abiotic inputs into technological artefacts while minimizing emissions to the biosphere.

Yet, even if such a science fiction scenario is physically feasible, the technosphere would grow in terms of sheer size. That implies that the human economy would continue to put pressure on biospheric ecosystems, if only in competing for space (I remember the German science fiction blockbuster of my childhood, ‘Orion’ where humanity lives in the deep sea, hence leaving the terrestrial surface to the biosphere). Biodiversity would be increasingly threatened, for example.

Is such a scenario of technosphere/biosphere competition a reasonable assumption? One solution is that the technosphere would increasingly include the biosphere and also support growth of the biosphere. How is that possible? It means that technological artefacts would be partly built from organic material. That is already going on, if we include all domesticated plants and animals in the technosphere. Of course, eventually what we normally think of ‘nature’ would be outcompeted, in turn. The biodiversity issue would remain a problem.

These arguments are very coarse, but I think they catch an import methodological point. The thermodynamic perspective needs to be complemented by a meso-perspective that makes material flows explicit, as in research on industrial metabolism. In the established material flows framework, for purely pragmatic reasons domesticated plants and animals are treated as ‘nature’ and excluded from the ‘socio-economic system’ and its stocks. But certainly, in a material flows view on the technosphere, they would need to be included as human-crafted biological artefacts, including human controlled and designed habitats (from chicken farms to fenced pastures).

Why is this scenario a provocation? I wonder whether we are also free to act against this additional specification of the thermodynamic macro-view. If the Maximum Power principle also implies that the technosphere outcompetes the biosphere, or transforms the biosphere into a part of the technosphere, are we free to act against this evolutionary force? The solar economy means to follow the flow of thermodynamic Earth system forces, but containing the size of the technosphere might involve stemming those forces.

In the end, this raises fundamental questions about the anthropocentrism of our notions of agency. Do we only recognize human goals and needs? If yes, we might just be happy with turning the Earth into a ‘hybrid planet’, i.e. a human artefact, literally ‘spaceship Earth’. But if we include the interests of all other Earthlings, is this what they want? Could we possibly assume the agency of stewards acting in their interest? Why should we do that?

A Unified Evolutionary Approach to the Biosphere and the Technosphere?

In current debates about the technosphere, human agency is often taken as a given: Humans are conceived as creators of the technosphere. Anthropocentrism seems also implicit in the term ‘anthropocene’, as many critics point out. One reason for this human-centred approach is that the evolutionary framework for analysing the technosphere is not well developed. Some authors directly aim at tying the physics of the technosphere with human social systems, thus blanking out what I regard as a crucial intermediary level of theorizing, evolutionary theory. We can switch to this view if we just reflect upon the relationship between the biosphere and the technosphere: Do they follow the same evolutionary principles? How exactly did the technosphere evolve from the biosphere? How does the technosphere impact on the evolution of the biosphere? And so on.

We do not need to invent the wheel anew: Clearly, the rich literature on gene-culture evolution that was launched in the early days of sociobiology (Lumsden and Wilson, Boyd and Richerson, Dawkins and others) is directly relevant because ‘culture’ is approached as a material phenomenon: For example, Dawkin’s ‘memes’ are real entities with causal impact on behaviour, even though they are referred to as ‘mental’. But they are material in the sense of being cultural artefacts, such as certain symbols that are embodied in soundwaves or artwork. Today, we have a rich pool of hypotheses and theories about the relationship between biological and cultural evolution on which an evolutionary approach to the technosphere can build, and which has moved beyond these early attempts, overcoming many of their flaws. This literature has been converging on a universal theory of evolution which discards the dualistic thinking of early co-evolutionary theory. In my view, the core ideas driving this convergence are:

Conceiving ‘evolution’ as a statistical process that is embodied in many and diverse domains and is most generally described by Price’s theory of selection and the Price’s equation, which allows to derive other fundamental principles of evolutionary theory, such as Fisher’s equation. This view has been adopted in some contributions to Evolutionary Economics, which centres analytically on innovation and technological change.

Overcoming the gene-centred view of the ‘Neodarwinian synthesis’ and thinking in terms of multiple forms of heredity of biologically relevant, i.e. adaptive information, such as synthesized in contributions such as Jablonka and Lamb or Mesoudhi. This allows for establishing many links between genetic and cultural evolution, for example, improving our understanding of the biological and cultural forces that drive the evolution of human preferences.

Recognizing the role of the environment as a medium of information transmission, beyond a mere selective force, and adopting a systemic view on evolution that allows for a better understanding of its creative forces, as in evolutionary transitions. Exemplary contributions are niche construction theory or the developmental systems literature. In Ecological Economics, this focuses our view on phenomena like the relationship between human hyper-sociality and the technosphere.

If we put all these ideas together, we can move beyond the naïve idea that humans are creators of the technosphere: Humans are an important factor, but the driver and medium of the technosphere are more general evolutionary processes. As my examples already revealed, I think that the economy is a central domain where such evolutionary processes unfold. In other words, a general evolutionary theory of the technosphere would build on biological evolutionary theory, with the intermediate, though essential layer of the human economy. That would activate the rich literature in Evolutionary Economics for the study of the technosphere.

In addition, in current research on the technosphere, there is a tendency of reducing it to a narrow meaning of ‘materiality’, i.e. just conceiving it as the sum of material artefacts (such as when measuring the ‘mass’ of the technosphere). This blanks out the very advanced state of research on technology which agrees on approaching technology as a complex systemic phenomenon that involves artefacts and human behaviour as governed by rules and institutions. In this sense, technology cannot be separated from humans, but technology is a many-level system involving both, macro and micro phenomena. For example, the shape that the internet technology assumes cannot be separated from the dynamics of market processes that govern it, in turn embedded in a complex set of institutional and organizational phenomena, and the emergence of individual user patterns on a systemic level. As far as human agency is concerned, nobody controls and designs this technological evolution. What is true for the market, should also hold for the technosphere.

How can we build a universal evolutionary theory of the technosphere? In my view, there are several starting points. The first is to approach the technosphere as a phenomenon of niche construction enabled by culture as a biological phenomenon. My hunch is that the domestication of fire is the original event of this evolutionary transition. Fire is one of the simplest, yet essential technologies that drove many evolutionary adaptations of the evolving human species, including somatic changes such as the size and functioning of the digestive system via the diffusion of cooking as a cultural practice. The niche construction view is liberating in many ways, such as including the recognition that the technosphere already includes large parts of the biosphere, i.e. via the dominance of domesticated animals and plants in the biomass of the Earth system. The human niche includes symbiotic relationships in many forms, thus merging biosphere and technosphere.

Another important question is the role of the technosphere in inheriting adaptive information. One consequence of the increasing recognition of non-genetic channels of evolution in biology is that we realize that evolution evolves, that is, evolution includes the emergence of new evolutionary mechanisms. In which sense is the technosphere a ‘new stage’ in the evolution of evolution? I can only hint at some possibilities. One is that we need to realize that the technosphere grounds in the evolution of culture: Hence, perhaps what counts is not the direct emergence of technosphere from biosphere, but more specifically, the emergence of the technosphere from cultural evolution. For example, the technosphere may overcome certain limitations on cultural information transmission via embodying culture in artefacts. In that view, technology may be interpreted as an extended memory system for enacting culture.

Perhaps to open our mind for this way of thinking about the technosphere, we need to delink it from debates about the Anthropocene and the ‘Great Acceleration’, which narrows our mind on most recent forms of technology. If we were to approach fire as the common ancestor of human technology, the conceptual link between technosphere and Anthropocene would suggest that the Anthropocene would have begun at a time when homo sapiens sapiens was not yet on Earth, which would certainly be nonsense. But that would suggest an outrageous thought: Did the technosphere emerge earlier than us, and are we modern humans a product of the co-evolution of biosphere and technosphere?

Solving the Puzzle of Emergent Order: The Case for Maximum Entropy Thinking

In Andrew Jarvis’ previous post I read that on the one hand we might just observe evolutions that are “most likely”, and on the other hand that the economy is a “low-probability” structure. How can a low-probability structure be most likely? This apparent contradiction applies for all living systems. The Maximum Entropy approach to evolution solves this problem, because it distinguishes neatly between a system and its environment, and the meta-system of both: A system that assumes states of higher complexity and order (hence, ‘low probability’) exports entropy to the environment so that the entropy of the meta-system increases. The latter observation means, that the state of the meta-system is the most likely one. Thus, the economy is an ‘unlikely’ structure, but it exports disorder to the global environment, and therefore the combined state is ‘most likely’.

Of course, this argument is very coarse and over-simplified. But I believe that it deserves to be explored when thinking about agency in the technosphere. In order to start the discussion, let me focus on one specific aspect. The Maximum Entropy approach comes in two variants, as it has been employed in the Earth system sciences and the life sciences. The first variant is strictly statistical and is a way to explain and analyse complex systems (following Jaynes’ theory of probability). It is also well known to econometricians. Maximum Entropy reasoning explains and predicts systems behaviour by means of the constraints that govern its evolution. Regarding the behaviour of the systems constituents, i.e. the ‘agents’, and even systems architecture, you do not need to introduce any more detailed information, because you just assume that the system will move to the most likely state, given the constraints. The second version of the Maximum Entropy approach now asks the question, does the system that behaves in this way also physically maximize entropy production? You can follow the first version without accepting the second. But the fact is that the Maximum Entropy approach is a powerful theory to explain the emergence of order as expression of the Second Law of thermodynamics in the evolution of living systems.

In this post, I only want to reflect on the first version, against the backdrop of our topic ‘agency in the technosphere’. If you apply this version on the economy, it would just mean that you analyse the constraints under which the economy operates on the aggregate level (not the individual level) and then assume that no matter what agents think and do individually, on the aggregate they will move to a state which is the most likely one. In other words, individual agency would not matter at all for economic explanations! In fact, this idea is not unfamiliar to macroeconomists, especially in the Keynesian tradition. Keynes’s famous paradox of savings tells us a similar story: Individual agents might wish to save, but they end up with less savings than intended, because the evolution of the system is governed by fundamental accounting interdependencies in a monetary economy (savings, investment and income). Given the constraints, this is the most likely outcome.

Interestingly, for decades macroeconomists have tried to combine this insight with the so-called ‘micro-foundations’ program. A Nobel award was given to Robert Lucas for introducing the notion of rational expectations and the analytical construct of the representative agent. The aggregate movements of the macro-economy are explained by introducing a ‘rational agent’ who reflects a kind of statistical average of the population. That saves the deep conviction upheld by many economists that only individual agency matters in explanations (‘methodological individualism’). But at what a price! Today, many economists are frustrated with the state of macroeconomics. But the trouble is, as Keynes wanted to show, that any explanation that starts out from ‘real’ individual agents would probably always result in the conclusion that market failure will be endemic because of information externalities, collective action problems, miscommunication, you name it. The ghost of the ‘representative agent’ was created to rescue normative beliefs about the optimality of markets.

Maximum Entropy thinking would just neutralize all these messy methodological and normative issues in treating all individual-level phenomena as random events and exclusively focusing on the constraints. What are the implications for our understanding of the technosphere?

Let me just give an example: There is the Whiggish account of the ‘rise of Europe’ and of industrialization as reflecting unique Western values, enlightenment intellectual achievements and entrepreneurial spirit, for example, in comparisons with Imperial China. But you can also explain the ‘Great Divergence’ just as reflecting the constraints that governed the evolution of the Chinese and the European economy in between the 17th and the 20th century, especially the energy system, land resources and population. From that point of view, European industrialization was indeed the ‘most likely’ trajectory (and certainly not a ‘miracle’), once certain technological innovations were randomly generated that released ‘hang ups’ (Peter Haff’s term), i.e. constraints that governed the activation of fossil fuels for economic uses. China’s ‘failure’ was not due to deficient values, beliefs and institutions, but was a ‘most likely outcome’. No matter what individuals might have pursued and wished for, the aggregate trajectory was shaped by the constraints.

Therefore, the question is, what is the nature of the constraints that govern the evolution of the technosphere and the economy today? Perhaps this is more important to know than pondering what human agents can achieve, both individually and collectively. They throw the dices, and the most likely result will obtain.

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.

Our goals

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!