Re: The enemy within

From: Anders Sandberg (
Date: Tue Jan 11 2000 - 10:41:33 MST

"Bryan Moss" <> writes:

> Anders Sandberg wrote:
> > [...]
> >
> > The problem with technological determinism is simply that
> > it is wrong - it is an oversimplified view of history,
> > ignoring the complex interplay between technology and
> > society, economics, individuals, serependipity and other
> > influences.
> If I'm looking at a specific event in history then I agree,
> technological determinism is overly simplistic. But if I'm
> looking at history itself then it makes (some) sense to look
> at technology as an independent force. Anything on a lesser
> scale is bounded by the limits of the technology at the time
> and can have very little overall effect.

Sure, civilizations are bounded by the limits of technology, and I
certainly think one can make a very strong case that the space of
possible political systems at any time is technology dependent. No
problem there.

But is technology (T) an independent factor, or linked with everything
else (E)? Is the equations T'(t)=f(T), E'(t)=g(T,E) or T'(t)=f(T,E),
E'(t)=g(T,E)? I would definitely say the later. We have seen societies
*not* develop their technology due to cultural constraints (like China
after it closed up for a variety of complex causes) or due to natural
resources (no wheels in mesoamerica due to the lack of useful beasts
of burden), as well as a complex and fascinating interplay of factors
making technological development flicker across the West throughout
last millennium. It doesn't seem that unlikely that these factors,
that affected a sizeable chunk of all available humans at the time,
could under other circumstances have led to another technology
development curve. Maybe we should really be thankful for the
distribution of land masses enabling sufficient cultural and resource
diversity to allow a globally exponential technological development
over a long time.

Maybe the time to start worrying is now, when we are racing towards a
situation where cultural factors can influence technology globally...

> > Certainly there are feedback loops that drive certain
> > technologies (think Moore's law and how much people are
> > expecting it to be true) but technology is not an
> > independent force from everything else.
> Perhaps we can speed up or slow down progress (or even stop
> it). How would we do this? If by supression then we imply
> that technology is an independent force.

Suppose everybody thinks that it is pointless to develop new
computers. There might be some tinkerers doing it anyway, but there is
no market demand so they will not be rewarded. After a while, when
everybody is using the same old systems, even a radically better new
system would have a hard time finding good applications because
everybody is using the same old applications with no need to
change. This cannot happen in our culture right now (can it? It just
felt like someone named Bill stepped on my dewar) due to the overall
feeling of change and progress - change breeds change - but that is
really a fairly recent historical innovation. There have been
societies with stagnant technology like I suggest above in the past.

Note that I'm not saying they are perfectly stable - they will
probably change with time, and even stagnant societies can revive
quite a bit. But it is not because technology wills it, it is because
of an interplay of cultural factors (like changes in politics,
religion, writing, new ideas or inefficiency), outside factors (trade,
competition, changing neighbors) and hard to predict individual
factors like lone geniuses, great accidents, nutty emperors or random

Today what drives technology seems to be partially profit (financial
or otherwise), partially the curiosity of the "nerdocracy" :-) There
are many factors, different in different places and often competing
directly with each other. This is actually for the best, because it
makes it very hard for single factors to inhibit the development. A
recession would mean a lot of energy would go into making things
cheap, energy efficient or at least work for Mr Engineer and his
neighbours, a local ban makes development move elsewhere, a shift in
public opinion practically always produces an opposite undertow and so

Anders Sandberg                                      Towards Ascension!                  
GCS/M/S/O d++ -p+ c++++ !l u+ e++ m++ s+/+ n--- h+/* f+ g+ w++ t+ r+ !y

This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Jul 27 2000 - 14:02:13 MDT