Finding adaptive technologies at the heart of the human soul

by DRM

“At the moment when human beings cut themselves off from the consciousness of themselves as nature, all purposes for which they keep themselves alive — social progress, the heightening of material and intellectual forces, indeed consciousness itself — becomes void, and the enthronement of the means as an end, which in late capitalism is taking on the character of overt madness, is already detectable in the earliest history of subjectivity.”

The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horcheimer & Adorno

The consciousness of ourselves as nature: Not in nature, nor of nature, but as nature: part of the natural order of things, participating in the constant struggle for resources and self-protection, anticipating the ultimate constraint of the resources around us and looking for more things that we can get, or make, or steal. This is an animal nature. The animal nature doesn’t lend itself to efficiency and optimization. At the unreasoning and irrational core — irrational because there is no rationing of the impulses that catalyze the bestial actions, they are just powerful forces of momentum that our systems integrate into actions that are paced in congruence with the other systems around us — our desires are sated without regard to the broader implications on resources and group organizations.

The image is of rotting carcasses on the Serengeti. Gazelles ravaged by lions, the large segments of nutritional value consumed and the remaining elements of the corpses left behind to waste. The lion is not responsible for efficiency; the cycle of nature provides other resources to clean the bones of waste. These are buzzards, insects, larvae that scrub the bones clean.

The natural order sustains a cycle of birth, growth and destruction of every element of matter. The natural order can be disrupted in each ecosystem: disease can appear, diminishing the population of one particle in the atomic system, and creating an imbalance. Too many lions, too few Gazelles, weakened immune systems, death through over-population, increased agression, the broadening of territory, the introduction of new sickness, the transmission across multiple species. When the natural order is disrupted, the organisms dependent on the ecosystem suffer, they die off, the nature of the ecosystem shifts.

We observe these changes as humans. We sense something different in our relationship to the natural order.

Humans are technologists. We use technology to create adaptions that help us tilt the natural balance. With technology we have increased our efficiency at living and procreating. That increases the sheer number of humans. With the increase in our numbers, we increase two critical elements for evolutionary activity: the problems created by our number, and the number of us who are challenged to find technological solutions to those problems.

I heard the authors Stephen Leavitt and Steve Dubner speak the other night. They shared a world view, they said: that problems would rarely be solved by changing human behavior. Instead, there were always structural solutions that would change the nature of a problem.

Technological adaptation isn’t the bane of the human soul. It is the impulse of the soul to find approaches that will sustain humanness.

The behavioral impulse is individual and societal. These two impulses are in constant balance. Changes at a societal level happen over time and in subliminal ways. Explicit behavioral change conflicts with the individual urge. But, societal patterns often have unintended consequences. When there is a perceived threat, in such a way that it is understood that the continued practice of an activity will be to the detriment of the survival of the species, large trends shift and change in seemingly mysterious and epochal ways.

Let’s take the attitudes and technologies about the sharing of knowledge.

As the population on the earth increased, and disparate populations came into more frequent contact, the technologies for sharing information improved. There were three basic challenges to information sharing: a common code of signs; an practical way to store the signs; and an efficient way of sharing the signs.

The history of modern man is highly influenced by the solutions to these three problems. The development of the alphabet, with the domination of two or three basic sign patterns across the human race; the invention of paper, which allows for the semi-permanent impression of the sign system; and the invention of printing technologies, which allowed for the sign system to be shared broadly.

As the population increases, the human organism benefits from more broadly dispersed knowledge. The basic knowledge required is about sanitary rules, in order to limit the ravaging impact of disease, and nutritional rules, in order to increase the likelihood of each member of the species acquiring the food that is needed. Rules related to social order, so that the acquisition and disposition of nutrition does not conflict with the probability of others successfully accomplishing the same goals, develop in each social system.

Look at the epochal picture, and the sharing of information, which benefits humankind if it is as broadly dispersed as possible, needs technological innovation. First, the distribution of information can’t be constrained by natural resources. The use of paper at the scale required for shared knowledge across the globe becomes too damaging to the natural ecosystem. We have to stop. Our species understand that. Second, the ability to digitize any information propels liberates knowledge from the constraints of a physical channel. It makes knowledge access theoretically possible for any human being, within the continual flow.

This logic makes the development of networks and digital distribution of content the consequence of an ongoing adaptive intelligence in the human race.  It’s the essence of our soul.