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Bookshelf: Shrinking the Technosphere by Dmitry Orlov

My hypothesis—let’s call it the Technospheratu hypothesis—is that the technosphere, having risen up on top of and in opposition to Gaia and the biosphere, possesses a certain primitive emergent intelligence that allows it to grow in complexity and power and to dominate the biosphere to an ever-greater extent. Unlike Gaia, it is a parasite upon the biosphere.

Dmitry Orlov

Note: My next book, Shrinking the Technosphere: Getting a grip on the technologies that limit our autonomy, self-sufficiency and freedom, is due out from New Society Publishers this fall. I am about halfway through writing the first draft of the manuscript. Here is an excerpt.

The Technospheratu Hypothesis

It can sometimes seem that the technosphere thwarts its own purpose. What sense is there in wasting resources on weapons, when there is already enough war materiel to kill all of us several times over? What sense is there in contaminating the environment with long-lived chemical toxins and radioactive radionuclides, producing high rates of cancer in the technosphere’s human servants? What purpose is there in fostering extreme levels of corruption in government and in banking, or in creating conditions for extreme social inequality? How does it help the technosphere grow stronger and more controlling to provoke international conflicts and split up the world into warring sides? Are these all failings, or are they just little problems that are too small to matter? Or—here’s a shocking thought—maybe they are all perfectly on strategy as far as the technosphere is concerned.

If we look closely, we will discover that all of these manifestations of the technosphere, although on a superficial level they appear to be problems, are, in fact, helpful to the technosphere in many interrelated ways. They help the technosphere to grow, to become more complex, and to more fully dominate the biosphere. There are far too many of them to trace out all of them, so let’s just examine a few of the more important ones—the ones I alluded to above.

With regard to cancer, it would seem that minimizing rates of cancer by keeping carcinogenic chemicals and radioactive contamination out of the environment and eliminating microwave and ionizing radiation would be a very good idea. However, this turns out to be suboptimal from the technosphere’s point of view. First, this would violate one of its prime directives by prioritizing the interests of the biosphere above its own technical concerns. Second, this would limit the need for technical intervention. Cancer treatment is a tour de force for the technosphere, allowing it to use its favorite techniques— chemistry (in the form of chemotheraphy) and physics (in the form of radiation therapy)—to kill living things (cancer cells, that is). Third, it would forgo the opportunity to exercise control over people, and to force them to serve and to obey, lest they find themselves deprived of very expensive, supposedly life-saving cancer therapies. What is optimal for the technosphere, then, is a situation where everybody gets treatable forms of cancer and where nobody can hope to survive without chemo and radiation therapy. The technosphere likes us to be patient with it, and medical patients are patient by definition.

When it comes to fostering extreme levels of corruption in government and banking, this again seems at first counterproductive: wouldn’t a lawful, efficient financial sector and a transparent, moral government be expected to produce better results? Yes, but results for whom? Moral governance and proper banking regulation would serve the purposes of… humans! That’s right, it would be bits of the biosphere reaping the benefits again! And so it is far more efficient, from the technosphere’s perspective, for the major banks to corrupt government officials by funneling money to them through a variety of schemes, and to have these officials then refuse to regulate them or to prosecute them for their crimes. Once all of this corruption is in place, the allegiance of public officials is no longer to the tricky, willful living entities known as “voters” but to abstract tokens of wealth, which are much easier for the technosphere to manipulate to its fullest advantage.

Finally, wouldn’t world peace, and a benevolent and unified world government, be of much more use to the technosphere than having humanity continually split up into warring sides? Perhaps, but what would that do for enhancing the technosphere’s ability to murder people? When the great nations have to constantly prepare for war, they are forced to arm themselves, and to arm themselves they have to industrialize—to develop and maintain an independent industrial base. Were it not for the need to keep up with the arms race, some nations might prefer to forgo industrialization and remain agrarian, but because of the threat of war the choice is between industrialization and defeat.

War has other benefits as well. War requires swords which, once war is over, are beaten into ploughshares, which lead to increases in agricultural efficiency, which make peasant labor redundant and drive peasants off the land and into the cities, where they are forced to work in factories driving more industrialization. War offers an easy way for industrialized armies to exterminate or enslave nonindustrial tribes, who would otherwise be setting a bad example of people who are able to live happily outside the technosphere. Lastly, without a powerful war machine, people would be able to self-organize and provide for their own security, making them harder to control, while the existence of powerful military weapons makes it necessary to put security in the hands of tightly controlled, strictly disciplined, technocratic, hierarchical organizations—just the sort the technosphere prefers.

Thus it appears that the technosphere, viewed as an organism, possesses a sort of primitive emergent intelligence. If this claim seems like an outlandish conjecture, then compare it to James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. According to Lovelock, all of the living organisms that inhabit the Earth’s biosphere can be viewed as a single super-organism. It is a complex, self-regulating system that interacts with the inorganic elements of the planet in such a way as to make it habitable. Its basic functions include regulation of temperature, atmospheric concentrations of various gases and ocean salinity. This ability of the biosphere to maintain homeostatic equilibrium, and to restore it in case of disruptions in the form of, say, volcanic eruptions and major asteroid impacts, can be viewed as an emergent intelligence that strives for the greatest possible complexity and diversity of the web of life. Although somewhat controversial, and not directly testable, the Gaia hypothesis is taken quite seriously in a number of academic disciplines.

Taken in this context, my hypothesis—let’s call it the Technospheratu hypothesis—seems rather less outlandish. It is that the technosphere, having risen up on top of and in opposition to Gaia and the biosphere, possesses a certain primitive emergent intelligence that allows it to grow in complexity and power and to dominate the biosphere to an ever-greater extent.

Unlike Gaia, which is an organism onto itself, the technosphere is a parasite upon the biosphere, using living organisms as if they were machines, and striving to replace them with machines as much as possible. This is perfectly obvious in industrial agriculture, which replaces complex ecosystems with machine-like simplicity of chemically fertilized monoculture. The factory farm, in which animals are confined in a sort of mechanized hell, is a perfect example of how the technosphere prefers to treat higher life forms. When it comes to us humans, the best example of technosphere’s influence is the modern corporation, in which people are incentivized (and in fact required by law) to act as perfect psychopaths, blindly pursuing shareholder profits to the neglect of all human concerns. In politics, the technosphere gives rise to political machines, which treat voters as if they are laboratory animals, conditioning them to press certain voting machine levers in response to certain mass media stimuli.

Also unlike Gaia, which strives to maintain homeostatic equilibrium, this intelligence strives for disequilibrium—for continuous growth, which, on a finite planet with limited stores of nonrenewable natural resources, is an obvious dead end—“dead” as in “extinct.” To compensate, the technosphere dreams (with the help of certain humans who are in thrall to it) of universal conquest: it dreams of breeding a race of self-reproducing, space-faring robots. It dreams of leaving this exhausted, devastated planet behind and of colonizing other worlds—ones with lots more nonrenewable natural resources for it to mindlessly squander and, crucially, whole new biospheres for it to dominate and destroy. This last bit is very important, because the technosphere’s existence loses all meaning without living things it can force to act like machines. Without a biosphere to destroy, the technosphere becomes just a blind, deaf robot whistling to itself in the dark. Without the miraculous, wondrous goodness that is life, the technosphere cannot even aspire to being evil—only banal. “Widgets in space! Yawn…”

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