Drivers wanted

Just because humans form part of this thing we generally call the ‘economy’, and may at times appear free to choose how to spend what income it affords them, we mustn’t simply assume they sit in the driving seat. Economies are complex objects, and the defining feature of complex things is that the whole is not simply the sum of its parts. So, yes, people are critical constituents of economies, and yes, the behaviour of the economy depends in part on the behaviour of its constituents, but that does not necessarily translate into people sitting in the driving seat. The real driver could still be hidden from view, lurking in the interactions.

But the global economy does behave as if something is driving it. For example, it has fought to maintain its own growth rate much like a bacterial colony, negotiating its way through technological, social, political and economic upheaval and disturbance. Or look at the arterial networks stretched over the Earth’s surface in the cover picture for this blog. Although no one took an overview in that design, designed it is, which is why it is so alluring. Some would argue these are simply the bi-products of interactions between a good number of the people desiring to grow their estate through profiting on investments. Others may point to the deliberate efforts of certain elites attempting to drive the global economy along particular pathways. If so, then people are in some sense at the wheel, and perhaps they can be persuaded to turn it to avoid some of the obstacles ahead, or at least to look in the foot well for pedals other than the accelerator. But the super-organism characteristics of the global economy, transcending any known human institution, suggest other possibilities.

What if no people are at the global wheel, en mass or otherwise? What if we have unwittingly helped construct an autonomous vehicle? Although that certainly wasn’t our intention, can such things emerge spontaneously? Didn’t we and our biological cohabitants? But if we believe the orthodoxy, the economy is different, imbued with subjective human magic and agency. But surely, like everything in this universe, isn’t the economy simply a blend of matter, energy and information? I say simply, the blends have become so rich in information their behaviours often confound and confuse us, appearing autonomous, even anticipatory.

What if in all its apparent unlikeliness, our planetary journey was simply the most likely one? What if, just like the biosphere, the economy is a structure: a low-probability, high-information configuration of matter. And the more sophisticated, information-rich the structure, the more degrees of freedom it can exert over the size, direction and usefulness of the flows coursing through its veins. These freedoms would feel like choice. And how are these configurations created? Through work done, and hence the dissipation of energy gradients. So where do people fit into this? They too are complex, ordered dissipative structures, self-similar in so many ways to the wider economic body they create and operate within. Like ants? Like ants. What, no agency? Perhaps we get to choose what refreshments are served and where to sit, and such choice feels like agency to many, but a thermodynamic hidden hand gets to drive the bus.

And now we have evolved such that we are afforded a glimpse over the planetary horizon. If we exploit this to chart a new course that protects the global super-organism, have we now become the drivers?D

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!

Welcome to the Technosphere

Congratulations on deciding to visit our site. Or did you? Did you decide to pay us a visit? Or where you merely acting out some purely deterministic plan?

These are not the sorts of questions we are interested in here. Rather than consider whether individual’s possess free will, we instead explore the notion that humanity is part of a system which means that collectively we may have a surprisingly small degree of agency when it comes to certain important issues.

Perhaps the paradigmatic example is global climate change. Humans have known for decades that they need to radically reduce their emissions of green house gasses – most importantly carbon dioxide – if they are to avoid dangerous, potentially calamitous, climate change. Yet year after year global emissions do not decrease or even stabilise but instead inexorably march higher. The explanations to this phenomena are as varied a political and economic schools of thought.

An initially much simpler solution to this puzzle is that humans cannot in fact reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Or at least they find it extremely difficult to do so. Because they have much less control over their own actions than is typically assumed. We may collectively want to do something, but our ability to do it, our collective agency may be very limited if it is not what the Technosphere ‘wants’. And what the Technosphere seems to want, what the evidence points to, is more. More energy, more materials, more appropriation of biomass, more land. All fed into the ever larger maw of the sytem that is comprised on the geosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and humans – with all their artefacts, infrastructure, and interactions.

The Technosphere is some sense is the totality of the Earth system. The complete description of our home planet. A necessary addition to the ontologies that are used to study the third rock from the Sun. Because that vaneer of human civilisation has become a planetary force. Sufficient to engender a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.

It is within this framing that we can approach the civilisation-scale challenge of climate change as not only a matter for humans, but the Technosphere within which they reside. The current motive force of the Technosphere is fossil fuel powered growth. That this growth may produce disaster at some point in the future does not change current energy gradients. The fact that the Technosphere is self-aware, that humans can be fully cognisant of the incomming perils if we do not rapidly change tack is, potentially, immaterial to what the Technosphere is going to do. Which currently appears to be to drive civilisation itself onto the rocks.

This blog attempt to engage with two questions related to this disturbing conclusion.

First, what are the dynamics of the Technosphere? Can important features of something as complex as a planetary civilisation be described using the language and concepts of bacterial reproduction? What evidence is there that the Technosphere is behaving in a deterministic manner, or perhaps more accurately, on a particular developmental trajectory?

Second, what are we to do about the Technosphere? Assuming we wish to avoid collapse, what are we humans – agents with potentially limited agency within The Technosphere – meant to do with this knowledge? Where is the off ramp? Do we have to build it? If so, how?