Saturday, May 9, 2009

selective pressures in the ecology of technology

If technology and the economy of which it is a part are ecosystems subject to Darwinian evolution, then what are the selective pressures driving them? Also, does random variation occur, or are there some other mechanisms for achieving variation?

I can think of several engines of variation, and several selective pressures. Although looked at from a historical perspective the sprouting of new technologies may appear random (though building on previous technologies and thus becoming more complex), there are human motivation at work which do not seem random to me.

The first familiar engine of variation (since Adam Smith pointed it out) is selfish greed. This is not the same as profitability. Selfish greed is an engine of variation--it motivates trying a new technology. Profitability is a selection mechanism--someone may be greedy but his new mousetrap may not be profitable. That mousetrap will be selected against. Similarly, the mousetrap designer (and/or manufacturer) may be motivated by some of the other engines of variation below, not by greed, and the mousetrap may still be profitable and be selected for.

The second engine of variation is curiosity. We scientists and engineers need to know what would happen if...Curiosity is a harsh mistress, but she motivates many inventions.

The third is love. Love of the planet, love of humanity, love of friends and family, love of one's country, love of freedom, love of science and technology and maybe other kinds of love.

It is important to realize that in the present economy, most inventors of new technology are not primarily motivated by greed, but by love or curiosity. In contrast, the manufacturers of their invention (who in the present system also make most of the resulting money, or lose investment money) usually are motivated by greed. I know this personally--I have a patent for a process to make better transistors (these are the building blocks of computers) from when I was working at Motorola. Neither I nor the rest of the engineers who developed the idea were motivated by greed (we each got ~$500 for it). But the CEO of Motorola and the members of the board probably are motivated by greed (I don't know if Moto actually made money from that paten, but they certainly intended to). Yes, all the engineers were partially motivated by wanting a paycheck so they and their families can survive comfortably, so a little self-interest is present, but I wouldn't call it greed. But self-interest isn't a primary motivator for the typical inventor.

Selective Pressures

The first selective pressure is profitability. I don't have anything new to say about this one. It is the primary selective mechanism in the present economy.

The second is usefulness, which in capitalism correlates with profitability, but in another economy (ecosystem) we will see that a technology could be useful without being profitable.

The third is how human happiness, which also may correlate with profitability, and as with usefulness, in another kind of economy a technology could make people happy without being profitable.

The fourth is ecological sustainability. Societies which do not pay attention to this, well...are not sustainable en masse, not just their technologies. All it takes is one technology which is not sustainable (and for that technology to be selected for by one of the other 3 selective mechanisms) for the whole society to be selected against. In the present global technology this selection for ecologically destructive technologies is quite common, but in an economy where basic technology is local and where profitability is not the primary selection mechanism, that would be less likely (NIMBY).

What kind of ecosystem/economy do I have in mind where profitability is not the primary selective mechanism? One where individuals and small communities (~200 people) make all their basic needs. In that kind of ecosystem, a gadget will be manufactured if it is useful and makes people happy. There is no need for it to be profitable because people are making their OWN gadget and the compensation is for them, unlike in the current system where people make stuff for other people and so they need some other compensation, like profit. The variation/creation is still partially driven by a selfish desire to make life better for oneself and one's community, but the compensation is direct, measured mostly in happiness. It is still possible for someone in my village to not want for their home to make the improved stove that my friend invented and I made and to offer me something in return for making them a stove. In this example, one can think of the return I make for building the stove (whether money or some goods and services) as a profit, and wanting that profit (greed) will certainly be part of my motivation for wanting to build stoves for other members of my village, or other villages. But it is not the primary motivation for invention/creation of new technology (as we've seen it isn't even in the present economy) and it no longer is the primary motivation even for manufacturing of already invented technology. More significantly, unlike in the present economy, whether the stove gets built much will not be primarily determined by whether I make a profit on it. Anyone in my village and neighboring villages (which have access to similar materials) can now build this stove, they are not dependent on me. The usefulness of the stove and how happy it makes people are far more important selective mechanisms to determine how many stoves get built.

So far we have imposed the constraint of locality in production and consumption and argued that it makes profitability non-primary as a selective pressure. We have not tackled the problem of what natural mechanisms would induce a system based on globality, where profitability is the primary selective mechanism in technology, to evolve towards one where locality is a constraint.

The most talked-about selective pressure for locality is the dwindling supply of petroleum which raises the price of petroleum and makes transportation of goods less profitable. My concern with that is that if we don't prepare for locality and are forced into it by peak oil, then things could get pretty harsh and barbaric.

A local technology might evolve from the present global one because the interdependence that now exists among people does not encourage freedom for most on this planet (except for a few individuals, and even then for a price that they usually pay in their youth to acquire that freedom), whereas the more people can produce locally (under non-drudgery conditions), the freer they are. The author Neil Stephenson came up with the contrasting evocative words "seed" vs "feed" technologies. A seed technology is one that enables self-reliance of individuals and small communities, dependence on their neighbors and the local ecosystem, and decentralization of political and economic power. We have very few of these left, and even seeds are becoming feed-like (GMO seeds). A feed technology is one that encourages centralization of political and economic power, and disempowers local communities and individuals, at least as far as being able to be self-reliant. There will be a spectrum between seed and feed technologies, and one must consider the technological system as a whole to assess how seed-like or how feed-like it is. For example, solar panels are seed-like once they are manufactured, but their manufactuing is currently feed-like. Solar panels depend on batteries which are feed-like in their manufacturing, and since they don't last as long as solar panels, their feed-likeness is more serious. Also, some of them depend on being able to obtain distilled water, which could be feedlike or seedlike dependent on how it's done. A nuclear reactor is extremely feedlike in its manufacture, and even in its daily use -it requires centralization, and this probably won't change if it is a fusion reactor. Technology is not economically or politically neutral--there are feedbacks between these ecosystems.

In many people's minds there is a confusion of globalization with specialization, but specialization can be done on a local scale too (but not as much as on a global scale). If the social environment encourages transparency, and the technological environment is based on locality, anyone could learn all the specialties that make life possible and enjoyable, and benefit from not having to do everything because of specialization.

The freedom that comes from seed technologies is also a political one, making people harder to control by governments, corporations or advertizers. It might mean that people who now have no decent choice but to work in sweatshops, choose not to because they don't have to anymore. Many things that are currently cheap because of cheap labor may become more expensive.

Locality and self-reliance in basic needs does not mean that in a local technology/economy people do not form interdependent relationships, on the contrary they form those relationships based on love and affinity, not based on impersonal need and greed. So a selective mechanism for locality is human happiness, whether in the form of greater freedom, or improved personal relationships. However, as discussed in a previous entry in this blog, there is a barrier to overcome to get to a place in the ecological landscape from where we are now, to where locality is advantageous. Small changes will be inconvenient, possibly require more labor, and elicit ignorant punitive actions from govt agencies and local rednecks than just using the current global technologies. We might help locate the mountain pass in the evolutionary fitness landscape by investing our energy in creating, manufacturing and using local technology.

I don't think that most luxury technology (such as computers) can be manufactured locally any time soon, if ever. I have no problem with having a global technology/economy for luxuries. It seems to me that if people are no longer primarily motivated by greed in manufacturing of basic goods, that greed may dwindle in other aspects of life too. Love may become a stronger engine of variability/creation once basic needs are met and thus facilitate the evolution of a gift economy for luxuries.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the valuable information