Humanizing the Technosphere

March 7, 2019

Bruce Clarke

—for “The Future of Humane Technology,” Arizona State University Barrett and O’Connor Washington Center, Washington, DC, March 14-15, 2019

For this meeting we have been asked to think about how to “shift the framing of innovation and its funding beyond perspectives that leave technology, per se, at the center. . . . how to resituate technological development itself within visions for a more humane future.” I will approach this charge through my forthcoming study of Gaia discourse, Partial Earth.[1] In short, for half a century now the Gaia hypothesis has been far out in front of our current attention to long-term climate models for what we now regularly call the Earth system. Gaia’s own evolutionary phases or changes of state map climate change over geobiological time. However, unlike Gaia, we modern humans in the midst of anthropogenic global warming don’t have that kind of time. However, what we do have before us on a human time-scale is an anthropogenic technosphere that—claims to the contrary notwithstanding—we do have some small hope of steering in relation to the viability of the unsteerable Gaian system that forms its ultimate environment. Here is one place where current Gaia discourse has some critical purchase: as a means to deconstruct and redirect the idea of the Anthropocene as a geological layering or intermingling of the biosphere in relation to the technosphere. It may seem like an oxymoron, but a “humane technosphere” is certainly conceivable. It may even be achievable. And if not, we’re sunk.

How do we get there? Not precisely, I would argue, by going down the route taken by Peter Haff in “Technology as a Geological Phenomenon: Implications for Human Well-being.”[2] Haff champions the interests of the technosphere understood as an autonomous global force. Haff singles out human beings for invocation as “parts” of the technosphere. Just as free-living cells were once captured, so the story goes, within multicellular metazoan organic apparatuses called animal bodies, “humans have become entrained within the matrix of technology and are now borne along by a supervening dynamics from which they cannot simultaneously escape and survive.” Indeed, “technology is a global phenomenon that follows its own dynamics, representing something truly new in the world—the opening phase of a new paradigm of Earth history. In this sense one might say that technology is the next biology.”[3]

However, from this inadvertently quasi-Gaian position, Haff rightly observes that the excreta the technosphere dumps into the biosphere—such as carbon emissions—constitute the problem that the technosphere must solve “itself” if it is to evolve into a lasting geological paradigm. Haff continues: “In a closed environment like the Earth (essentially no mass input or output), every metabolizing system must eventually recycle its own waste products (or rely on other systems to do so), otherwise accumulation of spent material (i.e. pollutants) will impair system function. . . . That technology exhibits a massive failure to recycle may be a consequence of its status as a new geological phenomenon. Over a long enough period of time,” Haff hopefully concludes, “mass flow loops may close.”

But clearly the Anthropocene technosphere has not yet closed the loops that encompass its material productions. A related group of researchers also note how “The marked growth in the waste layer of the technosphere [reflects] relatively ineffective recycling by comparison with the almost perfect recycling shown by the non-human biosphere . . . . Overall, though, this inefficient recycling is a considerable threat to its own further development and to the parent biosphere.”[4]

In this latter treatment the biosphere is at least systemically demarcated from the technosphere with regard to the evolved efficiency of its cycling processes, and also insofar as the “parent biosphere” is not just a conceptual but also a geohistorical planetary forebear of the technosphere, upon which its delinquent technological offspring may still maintain some dependency.

In contrast, Haff’s description grants the technosphere the operational independence of an autonomous system: “The autonomous nature of technology comes more clearly into view when we move beyond technological artefacts that people interact with directly and consider larger technological systems, which contain people among their parts. . . . [T]he grid bristles with protective capabilities that help avoid or defend against challenges, human or otherwise, to its basic function.” However, this holistic organismal image of a technospherical grid that “bristles” like a porcupine against threats to its integrity actually shadows the logic of biological autonomy or Gaian homeostasis, a kind of self-production and self-repair by which Haff takes the technosphere to maintain its own structure. 

But Haff offers no account whatsoever of the technosphere as possessing operational closure, that is, the proper systemic boundedness necessary for the actual emergence of autonomy and cognition. And it is through this gaping lacuna in Haff’s logic of the technosphere that we must insist on returning human agents to responsibility for the determination of the further development of the technosphere, and equally, on returning human works in their entirety to their embeddedness within a planetary environment whose ultimate viability is out of human hands. Gaia cannot finally be humanized, but, just maybe, the technosphere can.

---

[1] Bruce Clarke, Partial Earth: Lynn Margulis, Systems Theory, and the Evolution of Gaia, forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.

[2] P. K. Haff, “Technology as a Geological Phenomenon: Implications for Human Well- being,” in C. N. Waters, J. A. Zalasiewicz, M. Williams, M. A. Ellis, & A. M. Snelling (eds), A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene. Geological Society, London, Special Publications 395, (2013).

[3] On this assurance, Haff’s itinerary on behalf of the technosphere passes through manifold phases of biotic systems. This discourse literalizes the biotic metaphor by which one speaks about the “metabolism” of technological artefacts: “The technosphere [is] the interlinked set of communication, transportation, bureaucratic and other systems that act to metabolize fossil fuels and other energy resources.” As in accounts of the origin of life out of self-organizing or autocatalytic processes, “technology appears to have bootstrapped itself into its present state.”

[4] Jan Zalasiewicz et al, “Scale and Diversity of the Physical Technosphere: A Geological Perspective,” The Anthropocene Review 4:1 (2017): 12.

Bruce Clarke

Bruce Clarke is the 2018-19 Library of Congress Chair of Astrobiology and the Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Literature and Science in the Department of English at Texas Tech University.

Related Posts