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What Does Technology Want?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 - 11:44 AM

Lightbulbs Lightbulbs (faith goble/flickr/CC-BY-2.0)

Are new ideas and new inventions inevitable? Are they driven by us or by a larger force of nature?

In this conversation recorded as part of the New York Public Library series LIVE from the NYPL, Steven Johnson (author of Where Good Ideas Come From) and Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants) try to convince Robert that the things we make—from spoons to microwaves to computers—are an extension of the same evolutionary processes that made us. And we may need to adapt to the idea that our technology could someday truly have a mind of its own.

 

Guests:

Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly

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Comments [54]

Jimbo

I'm reminded of how evolution/natural selection isn't a sufficient mechanism for the origin of species without invoking vast amounts of time. 'Geologic Time' was a relatively new concept at the time, and it's no coincidence that Darwin knew Charles Lyell. Like the lightbulb, the idea of evolution wasn't possible until prerequisite concepts were understood.
Suffice to say that I'm of the opinion that the reasoning laid out here applies to ideas in general, not just technology.
Great episode! Thanks Radiolab!

Mar. 14 2013 03:13 PM
Sam G

This talk is so stunningly dull that I quit after several minutes. Only time I haven't listened with rapt attention all the way through. If you're the type to be interested in mental masturbation, this is totally for you.

Jun. 13 2012 02:54 PM
Cat T.

This one really hit on a question I had after listening to the one about getting your ideas from a muse. Muses are usually only talked about for music, art, literature, but what about scientific muses? Are there scientific questions floating around waiting to be asked and subsequently answered, waiting for the right mind.

Also, I would like to know if the internet and our ability to be connected and find out what others around the world are researching has made the occurrence of ideas happening in more than one place at once less prevalent.

Mar. 04 2012 07:51 PM
Patrick Herlihy from Clemons, NY

I really enjoyed this episode. I didn't think of technology as a another kingdom. I look at it as the next step in evolution, where through our knowledge of the universe we evolve into a different form via technology. AI, I believe is way far in the future. The next step is being a cyborg. So when AI does exist, of course we will give personhood to machines. We are just biological machines.

Since the absence of anything is the smallest amount you could have, I believe we have evolved from it.

My question: What does evolution want?

Jan. 15 2012 04:30 PM
Tess

WOW THIS TALK RULES! Touched on a lot of ideas I've been mulling over recently.
In regards to "how you describe the convergent evolution of eyes" question, THERE IS AN ENGLISH WORD THAT DESCRIBES IT!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epiphenomenon

In Godel, Escher, Bach, Hofstader uses a very simple example for us to understand this word: imagine a website that will crash after a certain maximum number of visitors log on it. Lets say for a particular website, the number is 67: now where did the magic number 67 come along? it's certainly not programmed into the code of the website explicitly. It's just a inevitable visible consequence of a underlying mechanism.

How can we postulate what will develop a sense of self or not? We don't know how a sense of self develops.

Dec. 28 2011 11:43 PM
Peter from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

This podcast (and "DIY Universe") not only blew my mind but also provided a buffet for thought. Maybe it's because I love the philosophy of hypothetical ideas, but I found myself wishing these two shorts were dedicated to full episodes. I would highly recommend an episode on “entropy” because I keep hearing this word brought up by smart-sounding people, but fail to see how it applies to anything other than my car and my toothbrush.

Reading over comments, I was sad to hear some people think of Robert as an old-fashion, stubborn, narrow-minded, skeptical layman (am I missing any?). Robert is half the reason I keep listening to RadioLab. I've never rolled my eyes at anything Robert has said. I always see where he's coming from. His opinions, perspectives and questions are all valid. Keep doing what you're doing, Robert, because it works!

Thanks RadioLab! You’ve just made me go out and get another book to read!

Oh, and am I the only one who recalled the film Akira? The idea is somewhere in there too.

Oct. 28 2011 12:28 PM
Peter from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

@ Kate:
At first I dismissed your comment; that you completely missed the point of the podcast. Then I read it over, (and over)…
You're saying the tool/device cannot become greater than the user/creator because without the user/creator the tool/device can be nothing more?
Personally I think it's a property of the universe that something greater can result from something basic. Unfortunately, the first few major times it occurred (millions of years ago) we were left without proof as to HOW it happened, so we can only speculate, and whether or not it happens again--this time in our presence--remains to be seen.
Did the force behind what put us here have a mind of its own? Did anything personify the microbes, or how about the rocks and clouds, or perhaps atoms? You're saying they were just tools, they didn't want either. Yet somehow we emerged and we're doing things our ancestors couldn't even dream of. We're not only witness to but also a key part of a process that seems to be headed toward producing something greater than ourselves. Or maybe you're right, it ends with us and our technology (no matter how advanced) will forever remain a human tool.

@ John:
You shouldn't loath and despise scientists for questioning our world, they're not taking away God by coming up with theories. Suppose for a second that God used evolution as His tool, like gravity, and light, etc. I'm sure God intended us to understand His devices.

@ Noah Walcutt from Boulder, CO:
As interesting as it sounds, the internet will NEVER develop its own consciousness or become self-aware (or even intelligent for that matter) because there is no driving force behind it, there is no organized, central aim. That would be like expecting a junkyard to turn into a spaceship if only you could pile enough parts into it.

Oct. 28 2011 12:20 PM
Virgil Polit from San Francisco

Hello ;)

If the word "Qualia" hasn't been brought up already... I think its a good description of this tendency to assign agency to the inanimate. It can be an interesting inversion of a typical perspective, sort of like slipping on "reinvention goggles" for extra context.

really appreciate your work!
-Virgil

Sep. 19 2011 06:19 AM

The cornflake floating in the cereal bowl idea...evolving and beckoning us to ask, “…are my thoughts my own, or am I picking up thought waves in the atmosphere? Am I just listening to them for they are not truly my own? Could they be subconscious memory, or am I truly creating my own thoughts at this moment…” the Shakespearean concept of to be or not to be.

Aug. 21 2011 12:48 AM
Kate

There is a very important point, something that is actually integral to understanding the mechanism which allows technological development to mimic biological development, without which the argument doesn't make sense: it is that the organic of the world create the technological. Technology has no mind, it has no evolution; it does not grow, nor does it develop. It is a thing. A tool. Nothing more. People, on the other hand, see problems and solve them, using the tools at hand - thus, we use and modify existing technology to suit our needs. This is process of trial and error, and because it is based around the preexisting pieces of technology present in the world, many people will work towards the same thing, because the need is there, and the right tools are there. It's like, if you live in a house with a lot of other people, and there's a nail sticking up in the floor, everyone's going to try to find a hammer, and failing that, they will build one. The technology itself has no drive to change, it has no will, no nothing. It is a stagnant thing, hanging in its perpetual moment of self. People, conversely, do have drive to change their environment, and we each have a changing self, a changing mind. So when he talks about cornets as having an evolutionary tree looking like that of eyes, he forgets to mention that neither eyes nor cornets really want to be any different than they are. It's those who use them who find flaws and select - or, in the case of cornets, directly design - away from the problems. However, we do talk about technology as changing, speaking of the ability of a spoon to want. That does not mean it does. Basically, the personification of a thing does not make it an agent of change. It is vitally important to remember this.

Aug. 20 2011 03:22 PM
Erik from Pittsburgh

Noah from NYC is 100% right. The reason Robert was having such a hard time with this is because the speakers were missing the central idea that connects the evolution of technology with the evolution of Life. Memes. (Susan Blackstone has a great TED on Techno-Memes)

Evolution is not only for wet cells and DNA, its for any system that has 1. Variation, 2. Heredity 3. Relative Fitness. According to Darwin, if a system has these three elements, evolution is the only possible outcome.

Life evolved on a chemical and physical battlefield, because the earth is a chemical battlefield. But our minds are mental battlefields where the fittest ideas survive and reproduce. When you understand the technological ideas are undergoing evolution (variation, copying, and relative fitness) then it is easy to see how, like the eye evolving independently across different species, inventions and technologies naturally evolve towards their own evolutionary fitness.

Jun. 13 2011 02:30 PM
Hank from Chicago

Feel compelled to place a comment here pointing out that Robert's role is OBVIOUSLY that of a foil... a character who contrasts with another character (usually the protagonist) in order to highlight various features of that other character's (arguments), throwing these characteristics into sharper focus. If that isn't obvious, then I wonder if the subtleties of the show are even visible? Maybe they are. Anyway, loved the podcast. The reason I am at this site just now is because I am getting the link so as to forward it to my entire office. Keep making 'em.

I dig botany and linguistics by the way. (And the linguistics of botany.) Chew on that if you like and surprise me.

Jun. 02 2011 05:09 PM
Scott from MPLS

Really interesting piece but I am getting very tired of Robert as a host. He seems much too close-minded anytime a view arises that challenges his (seemingly) judeo-christian worldview. It's supposed to be a science minded program and he most often takes the stance of a stodgy old man, fearful and confused by change/new ideas.

Mar. 17 2011 04:46 PM
Andy from United States

The observation that life and technology move us away from entropy is an illusion. It's like a battery powered tool. It enables us create more order until the battery runs dead.

Work is only possible when there is a difference of energy. A steam engine wouldn't work if the environment around it was made of saturated steam. Our ability to create order is only because this planet has a wealth of differences of energy. Eventually, all those differences will equal out and, ultimately, the universe will achieve a uniform temperature and all work (including life) will cease. That that will be that.

That sounds depressing, but then again, the earth will be rendered a complete cinder billions of years before that, so I wouldn't worry about it.

Kind of makes the global warming debate a bit silly, doesn't it?

Mar. 02 2011 09:35 PM
Stephan

It is not correct to say that entropy Must increase in a closed system. It is only statically certain that entropy must increase in a closed system! This is not splitting hairs but is a truth of statistical mechanics. Even if this were not so, one could not prove ( with the current state of knowledge), that quantum mechanical effects could not play a role in overcoming entropy. To understand this please review any college level text book that covers these subjects. Also I would hope that the same reader would recognize that the famed “Demon”, as in “Maxwell’s Demon”, that is , the dynamic object of the closed boxed thought experiment, that moves the molecules or atoms from one side to another, reeks of intellectual dishonesty ,in that, by choosing a “demon” the human mind is primed ( priming is a real psychological phenomena) to reject (via creating an evil force) that, once in a forever, possibility that entropy could be overcome! Replace the word demon with angel or ‘to die for’ long legged blond, etc.. and teach this to students for over a hundred years, then see what scientific concepts get funding! May I steal a phrase and say, “ … there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Jan. 18 2011 01:56 AM
JBoggs from kentucky

I love how mystics and science deniers love to invoke the second law of thermodynamics as a "proof" of divine intervention.

It isn't. Entropy must increase in a closed system.

The earth is not a closed system.

The second law shows that energy will decay into useless heat. it doesn't demand that none of that energy ever accomplish anything through its transition.

Also, I really dislike how bent out of shape Robert gets when 'his Universe' gets challenged. He's quick to respond to challenges to his preconceptions with scorn or mockery before even considering the proposition.

In this show, what I think he didn't understand (maybe I don't either) was that humans and technology don't evolve from nature to compete.

Nature is the medium in which life evolved.

Society is the medium in which technology evolves.

As the waters and minerals of earth are our substrate, so Robert and I are the substrate through which technologies grow. Maybe he's one of its amino acids, and I'm one of its cell membranes xD

I, for one, welcome our new Spoon overlords.

Jan. 04 2011 09:01 PM
steve from dallas, tx

There is a rational explanation for the development of invention which was studied and reported by Altshuller. There is a natural, step by step path that inventions take in the development of technical systems. By understanding these steps we can see where the systems are and predict the next development.

Great show!

Jan. 04 2011 02:35 PM
Mick from Ireland

Really enjoyed this episode. Had a re-listen after being introduced to Radiolab in work. Keep up the great work guys.

Jan. 03 2011 05:01 PM
Buzz Coastin from Beijing China

The ideas expressed by Johnson & Kelly are basic McLuhan from the late 60's. Bucky Fuller wasn't very far from these ideas either. It's hard to believe that in the 21st century technology as an evolutionary extension is still considered fringe and novel.

"We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us." McLuhan

Dec. 20 2010 09:44 AM
Nick

I've noticed that Robert really doesn't like abstract ideas that would make him question his pre-conceived notions about the world. I'm not sure if this is because he's fulfilling the role of the skeptical devils advocate or he's just very stubborn.

Dec. 12 2010 11:36 PM
Emily

I love the show generally but this episode irritated me. Too much of the show was about Robert - especially when he kept talking over the interviewees. I want to hear what they have to say!

Dec. 12 2010 06:23 PM

@Eddie:

I like the hypothesis, but good luck convincing a thermodynamics expert. The common claim is we are proceeding towards disorder.

I'm not so sure my self.

Dec. 06 2010 09:42 PM
Eddie

Never mind what technology wants. I'll think all the inevitability of more and more order is a fundamental property of the universe. I ask, what does the universe want? My belief is, the universe has an inevitable want to understand itself. After all life and technology alike are part of the universe.

Dec. 06 2010 10:32 AM

@ Al from Sacramento from Sacramento:

Love the comment, and although I agree there is some semantic play here, what you have just described is no different than the "social network of technology." The mechanics of a single body to operate or reproduce, whether directly or indirectly (via communication, tools, chemically, etc) is really no different than the way technology replicates.

Since "will" is an illusion, does it really matter the "why" or really even "how" something evolves or replicates, or only that it does?

Dec. 03 2010 01:54 PM
Al from Sacramento from Sacramento

Technology "wanting" a direction versus evolution wanting a direction is really just a cheap semantic trick.
From a mechanistic point of view, there is no will in the universe. Human will is an illusion. As we learn more of the universe, including our own human brains, the source of our sentience, we find that we are more and more capable of describing, predicting and manipulating even our very thoughts and emotions based on inanimate substances - chemicals and molecules. Cause and effect. Perhaps fatalism even. But that in no way diminishes the wonder of the universe or our own sentience. On the contrary, this understanding makes the whole thing just that much more fantastic. A human being is a very complex chemical reaction. Imagine that. But, oh what a reaction! We have only just scratched the surface of the complexity. The deeper we dig the more fabulous it becomes! To deny this reality is to miss the wonder. It's sad for those who are missing out on the marvelous dynamics of the natural world, ourselves included, by dismissing them as, "Oh that's just the way God made it."

Dec. 03 2010 12:09 PM
Stephan

If you were to ask most people “ What can God do?” They would probably answer, “anything“. This kind of response is in direct conflict with the second law of thermodynamics, that is, the entropy law. And yet defying the entropy law is at the very hart of, miracle; resurrection of the dead, healing of the dying etc.. Aristotle spoke of the telos, a force that works toward some end. I am of the belief that evolution, technology and the human purpose are all of the same telos, that is, a quest to defy entropy using some perfect intelligence that will make us worthy to be one “with” God. The thing we call evolution is natures way of picking from a soup of possibilities those outcomes that may yield that perfect state. A non perfect state is eventually pruned from the set of non desirable states. If you view the universe as Seth Lloyd, the astronomer does, as a kind of computer, then we could say that each choice we make (or is made for us) is a possible “state”, (as in, or from a “finite state machine“ ) of existence. All experience including, religious experience is a kind of laboratory experiment whereby “truths” are revealed and collected for possible future use. If I am correct then there is at least one program that we can prove (by faith) contradicts the famous (Alan Turing, et. al. ) “halting problem”, and that would be the first and last one, EXISTENCE itself.

Nov. 26 2010 10:42 PM
Kyle from Ohio

Ted Kaczynski had some really great ideas on the evolution of scientific and technological ides in his manifesto he had printed before being captured. Not to say that I necessarily agree, but it's certainly something to consider. I would love to see some insight on some of his claims.

http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Industrial_Society_and_Its_Future

Nov. 26 2010 11:33 AM

It's funny to think for me personally. I relate with what was said with regards to it is impossible practically to have invented something that which was not enabled by other collective ideas ect.. Since we "to me" are only as intelligent as what we have all collectively been exposed to via all means including the labels we use to express what it is we have been exposed to... just think if the most profoundly knowledgeable expressed themselves in a manner that transcended our collective understanding and interpretation of the "word expression" to describe whatever it is that we have discovered and or experienced would there only be a minimal number of individuals that could actually interpret what was being said with regards to that which has need to be expressed having to do with that which we all collectively do not know yet in order to come about realizations concerning our abilities to implement what is discovered and compile it as usable data with which to create that which is yet unknown? That which is yet unknown like some locations say in space are named/labeled so we that discover its existence afterwards can say that is what that is. I feel that inventive creativity is like the loose atoms of matter not yet discovered so as to collect to bond to form anything we can place a label onto it... hmmmm... Some rooms at MIT must sound like gibberish at times if a lay person were to sit in. This thread really has possibilities I think if they could break away from the fact that the spoon... does not want anything.

Nov. 23 2010 09:48 PM
Grace from 1716 Allied St. Charlottesville, Virginia

Love this episode! Really touched on some big questions that have been marinating in my brain juice for a long time-

We love you guys so much we featured you on our "What Inspires Us" section of our blog,

http://blog.amysteryincommon.com/

Thanks for providing great stuff to listen to while we design, print and pull our hair :)

Cheers,
Grace
A Mystery In Common

Nov. 23 2010 11:25 AM
Jacob from Denmark

The Danish electronic musician Goodiepal has some thoughts about how to entertain an artificial or alternative intelligence (that could be technology).
He has done lectures at many universities and art schools and here you have one of them from a rooftop in Chicago:
http://vimeo.com/groups/sweetandsoundsubmissions/videos/7302277
- maybe the lecture it self would be entertaining for an artificial or alternative intelligence :-)

Nov. 23 2010 10:15 AM
John from MD

There is a less edited version of this interview available.

I found another podcast (FORA.tv Technology Today) on itunes which has this exact interview, but a much longer version (1:22). There are many statements that are a little confusing in the radiolab version which become clear in the less edited version.

Nov. 22 2010 11:54 AM
Andrew from NYC

An interesting conversation. I think that Robert could have moved beyond the "isn't that creepy?" idea sooner, though.

(The off-the-cuff joke about the bacterium saying to itself "I would love to have a spoon" was genius.)

Nov. 22 2010 10:02 AM
Zsolt from Hungary

I also think there is plenty of extremely interesting ground to cover here to make an awesome one hour episode.

As noted by others already, a more generic concept for the “super organism” of technology is called the meme. A good book that explains memes and explores how we may be able to influence the evolution of memes is The Evolving Self by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from the Department of Psychology at the University of Chicago.

Interesting how the concept of god was brought into the evolving discussion. To add my thoughts on the subject, the way I conceptualise god and religion is that people during history have observed that there are super organisms much greater than the individual. These are the memes. Memes have a life of their own and their life span is “eternal” compared to the individual human lifespan. In this context I think of a religion also as a meme which has the life of its own. Thus in a way there are gods after all we’ve just found a scientific term to describe them by calling them memes or super organisms. Who created who is then a chicken and the egg question.

Nov. 21 2010 04:27 PM
Bill from New Orleans

Laziness is the father of Invention. It is laziness that pushes us to say "There has got to be a better way.' We get creative to get out of doing things the same old hard way. We have not evolved into biggest strongest most intelligent primate no, we have evolved into pound per pound the weakest, laziest yet most creative species.

Nov. 21 2010 04:21 PM
Michael Gaston from Dayton, Ohio

This video should be archived for posterity. It has the same feel as a home movie of toddlers taking their first steps. The parents are even cooing in the background.

Nov. 20 2010 02:57 AM
arman from ankara

@John please grace us with your superior stories and mathematics so that we may better understand life on earth.

Nov. 19 2010 06:28 PM
John

You can not tell me that "evolution" is not your god. You have only shifted it away from Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the like. These "scientists" are just the priests of their new religion. I absolutely despise all of their terms. Evolution did not want, desire, plan, cause, influence or create. It is not a force. It is of no intelligence. Evolution does not sustain life, because macro evolution does not happen. The reason technology persists is because we are intelligent. It makes my blood boil. These people actually believe they are on another intellectual level, and this is the best that they present to the world? Hey, I have an idea, "Lets create a new god, and then call everyone else ignorant." If you humanists think you have proof for evolution, you do not. You have stories, poor mathematics, and organisms you do not understand.

Nov. 19 2010 05:11 PM
Pat from Pottstown, PA

The irony of this particular podcast is that the idea the guests are talking about is quite old. Aristotle viewed the universe as teleological, i.e. things tend naturally to move towards a given end/purpose (in Greek telos). An acorn, e.g. "wants" to become an oak tree and will do so provided that the environmental conditios are right. In the same way, a lightbulb "wants" to be invented once the circumstances are right for its invention.

Nov. 19 2010 04:00 PM
Walenski from Sacramento, CA

The taboo here isn't really the implication that technology has this emergent logic to it, but that life does, and really everything does. Because we cling to our contemporary view of evolution, we can't even begin to accept that that bacterium does actually want. We are too afraid to consider this emergence, so we say it is purely random, or attribute it to a personified deity, or in the case of technology, try to give all credit to our huge brains. These paradigms are easier to swallow than the idea that there is an inherent logic to the physical universe. Just as math exists without us knowing about it, that which exists, also 'wants', so to speak.

Nov. 19 2010 03:58 PM
bcsarmaa from Boston, MA

Radiolab consistently puts out great content, but I think this segment was one of the most fascinating thus far. I've pondered many of the same ideas.

It's interesting to hear from people who have put in a great amount of research and thought into what essentially are my daydreams.

Nov. 19 2010 01:15 PM
Akshay

Radiolab consistently puts out great content, but I think this segment was one of the most fascinating thus far. I've pondered many of the same ideas.

It's interesting to hear from people who have put in a great amount of research and thought into what essentially are my daydreams.

Nov. 19 2010 01:14 PM
Akshay

Radiolab consistently puts out great content, but I think this segment was one of the most fascinating thus far. I've pondered many of the same ideas.

It's interesting to hear from people who have put in a great amount of research and thought into what essentially are my daydreams.

Nov. 19 2010 01:07 PM
Kiran from Midwest USA

New ideas are driven by both humans and a larger force of nature. Currently, a larger force of nature which generates technology is the imperative of capital to seek out new markets for consumption and seek new ways of generating profit in production. Of course, humans figure into this as well. There's no one answer for all time and space.

Nov. 19 2010 12:07 AM
Noah Walcutt from Boulder, CO

Great show and intriguing perspectives. Makes me think that if the rise of the internet is like the Birth of a Global Brain, where each computer user is like an individual cell, then in its greatest current function technology acts like axons and dendrites giving us the means to communicate with other cells (people) in a rapid, organized way. What is the next step in the evolution of axons and dendrites? I think we humans would assume self- awareness, but perhaps machines (or the technium) is attracted towards evolving something entirely different -- like flying robotic octopi. Deja vu? Yeah, that's just a glitch in the matrix.

Nov. 18 2010 11:29 PM
Vinton T. Heuck from Chatsworth

Love the show, but I find the argument that the same larger force of nature that makes man made inventions of ever increasing complexity inevitable to be similar to the same force that drives evolution to be deeply flawed within the construct of their not being an intelligent designer, or God if you will.
In the case of man made invention there are self-aware, thinking minds at work. From the stand point of your guests there is no mind pushing and shaping nature's evolution, but with invention there obviously is. If these two systems are really that similar, than are they not actually supporting an argument for the existence of God?
I'm just saying....

Nov. 18 2010 05:27 PM
Kirk Woerner

Also, the idea of any one piece of tech being both the result of a multitude of previous tech and the cause of a multitude of future tech is exactly analogous to the Buddhist idea of dependent origination. It's saying that all Dharmas (objects, living beings, people, ideas, thoughts, feelings etc) are causally dependent on other Dharmas and are also their cause, like a huge network of causation and dependency. Seen in that way, WE, as individuals or as a species are causally dependent on everything else. With that perspective, pointing out that technology is also is not problematic.

Nov. 18 2010 10:39 AM
Kirk Woerner

I think what Robert, and to some extent the authors, is really struggling with is bigger. The idea that a bacterium "wants" nutrition is problematic for him because he sees himself (and other people probably) as fundamentally different than a spoon, or life, or anything else. He's under the illusion that his thoughts are "real" and separate. Buddhism says his existence is an illusion. And it leads him to judge the term "want" as a uniquely human trait. In fact, "want" is the specific human manifestation of systemic attraction. It FEELS like more to us, but we don't know what it feels like to be a spoon.

Nov. 18 2010 10:25 AM
jc

sorry for the spelling error - "superorganism"

Nov. 18 2010 07:45 AM
jc from Michigan

I'm not so sure about this episode - that whole notion that plants "want" sun and so move toward light is a key misconception that we try to move students away from in evolutionary biology courses - and these "supeorgansism" ideas (e.g. gaia hypothesis arguments, group selection, what the speaker talks about here) have no definable mechanisms that drive their direction. Apply as many fancy terms as you like, the scientific basis of his argument remains unclear.

Nov. 18 2010 07:35 AM
Dave Howes from England

What appeared over peoples heads when they had ideas before the invention of the lightbulb

Nov. 17 2010 07:04 PM
Dougald Lamont from Winnipeg, Canada

The chicken and the egg argument about what technology wants was mocked by Samuel Butler and talked about extensively by Deleuze and Guattari. "A human being is a machine's way of making other machines."

It is a classic example of a) not being to tell where agency resides, or b) understanding that informational complexity, and complex systems can build as long as you keep putting energy into them. Overall entropy is increasing, but that is because the universe is closed. The universe is also filled with open systems into which energy flows.

Nov. 17 2010 03:06 PM
NoahSD from NYC

I think these guys are missing the forest for the trees. There's a much more general idea here: It's true that technology evolves in much the same way that life evolves, but this is simply a consequence of the fact that ideas evolve in much the same way life evolves.

This is Richard Dawkins's idea of the meme. The basic idea is that we have all the precursors for evolution in ideas. Ideas can reproduce (by being shared with other people or copied into books or on the internet), they can die (by being forgotten), and they can mutate (by people varying them--either intentionally or by mistake). Since we are the mechanism by which ideas reproduce, we ideas evolve to better be shared by us. A slightly naive but beautiful way to think of this is that ideas (and in particular, the technology that takes shape from those ideas) are evolving to better suit our needs.

Even the concept of the meme is a bit too narrow, in my mind. Evolution is an extremely simple process that arises just about everywhere. Tons of things in the universe satisfy the simple criteria for evolution, and I think that we'll continue to find evolution in more and more places (and probably continue to be amazed by that fact, though maybe we shouldn't be).

Nov. 17 2010 02:54 PM

A couple thoughts while listening to this:

If you pick something like ‘telephone’ or ‘spoon’ as your endpoint, you ignore the fact that each of those is also the step to another piece of technology. It’s actually both.
Think about this idea coming into existence. It’s a piece of technology. So if this idea gains traction a large part of the reason for that is because the time for that idea is right — and it could only come about because the idea was able to be formed at this time.
Humans as a vehicle for evolutionary experimentation (via technology) makes sense fractally. Or from the standpoint of programming and APIs. Or from a standpoint of cellular automata.
Lastly, if sense of self and the mind is a technological breakthrough for evolution, an idea whose time was right, where are the co-evolved other minds? Did they die out? Does that represent a potential flaw in the process?

Nov. 17 2010 12:43 PM
Jody Verser from Fayetteville, AR

These past few years my brain parts have been aligning with this view of technology evolution as an analogue to our meat sack evolution. This conversation effectively highlights the insightful and incitive aspects of this view, but I find myself wanting more investigation and information. I think this subject would make a pretty kick ass hour episode.
Another direction to look at this could be from computation and design, specifically theories of Kostas Terzidis. His book Algorithmic Architecture opens up with a similar view of technology as an outsider despite our "control" over it. There is even more substance to the evolution of design tools and technologies as a whole. What do they want to create?

Nov. 17 2010 12:23 PM

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