Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[BRIEF NOTE] On what could have been Arthur C. Clarke's fourth law

"Clarke's fourth law" is the name of Gerry Canavan's post linking to the blog Next Nature's post "Any Sufficiently Advanced Civilization is Indistinguishable from Nature". In the titles of their posts, the two blogs are referring to Clarke's three laws.

1.When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Next Nature suggests--briefly--that as human technology advances it will stop being a force distinguishable from and opposed to nature, but will instead make use of nature's techniques and environments in more harmonious ways.

Western cultures, nature is a cosmological, primal ordering force and a terrestrial condition that exists in the absence of human beings. Both meanings are freely implied in everyday conversation. We distinguish ourselves from the natural world by manipulating our environment through technology. In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly proposes that technology behaves as a form of meta-nature, which has greater potential for cultural change than the evolutionary powers of the organic world alone.

With the advent of ‘living technologies’, which possess some of the properties of living systems but are not ‘truly’ alive, a new understanding of our relationship to the natural and designed world is imminent. This change in perspective is encapsulated in Koert Van Mensvoort’s term ‘next nature’, which implies thinking ‘ecologically’, rather than ‘mechanically’. The implications of next nature are profound, and will shape our appreciation of humanity and influence the world around us.

The Universe of Things, by the British science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones (2010) takes the idea of an ecological existence to its logical extreme. She examines an alien civilization whose technology is intrinsically alive. Tools are extrusions of the alien’s own biology and extend into their surroundings through a wet, chemical network.

The idea of existing in a vibrant, organic habitat is an increasingly realistic prospect as living technologies are now being designed to counter the ravages of global industrialization. These can even be implemented at a citywide scale. For example, Arup’s Songdo International Business District, in South Korea, is being built on 1,500 acres of land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea. Incorporating rainwater irrigation and a seawater canal, this design suggests that the building industry is aspiring to use living technologies to revitalize urban environments via geoengineering. The Korean artist Do Ho Suh had proposed to build a bridge that connects his homes in Seoul and New York by harnessing natural forces and using synthetic biologies to literally ‘grow’ a trans-Pacific bridge.

The apparent science fictional nature of ecological-scale projects has prompted science fiction author Karl Schroeder to observe that the large-scale harnessing of ecologies might explain our current lack of success in encountering advanced alien civilizations. Schroeder explains the Fermi Paradox – the apparent contradiction between the likelihood that extraterrestrial civilizations exist and the lack of evidence for them – by speculating that we have not yet encountered our cosmic neighbors because they are indistinguishable from their native ecology.

This imagining of a technology that surpasses our crude mechanisms to make use of the dynamics of life itself is common, for which see the organic technologytof Babylon 5's Vorlons and Shadows, or of 2300AD's Pentapods.

My quibbling with the paradigm of superior organic technology is, firstly, that ecologies are dynamic systems which can be shaped profoundly by the actions of component species and the nature of their changing environments, and secondly, that the organic/technological distinction is increasingly arbitrary. Do living cells already make use of nanotechnology, for instance, with their chemical solvents and autonomous mechanisms? Isn't nanotechnology being shaped by models from the living world? Also, are we at all justified in making any claims about the nature of galactic ecologies, inasmuch as we're only beginning to detect planets and their environments and developing informed speculations about non-Earth environments and ecologies? Why wouldn't disequilibria of some scale be present in any ecology, inasmuch as even virgin ecosystems see shifting imbalances of predator and prey? Et cetera.

What say you?
Tags: earth, environment, extraterrestrial intelligence, extraterrestrial life, futurology, science, science fiction, technology
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