First, take about half an hour and listen to the following RadioLab podcast. Go ahead, I’ll wait; the comments won’t make sense without it, and I don’t want to have to set up the whole thing, piece by piece, before commenting.
It’s an interesting question, then. Does technology have to have advanced more or less in the way that it did? Or could certain things have been invented sooner, or later? Did we have to get the railroad about the same time as the telegraph? Did we have to wait for the automobile until well after the telephone? The authors would seem to say yes.
Why do things get invented? Because all the necessary technologies have been invented, they answer. It’s like a chess game, where you can only make certain moves once the board’s in a certain position, i.e., once the moves needed to get there have been made.
I’m not so sure. There’s a point, somewhere in the mid-to-late 1800s, stretching until the 1920s or so, when things seem to get invented at such a rapid pace that it’s hard to believe that the order was pre-ordained, that there weren’t just so many potential useful inventions out there waiting to be invented, that they didn’t overwhelm the number of inventors at least a little bit. If that’s so, then technology advances at least as much because people are looking in a certain place, as much as that the tools for inventing it were around.
Take the space program. There’s no reason to believe that the tools for a civilian space program weren’t lying around in 1960. What was lacking was the belief that anyone other than the government could make it happen. Or so-called “green energy.” As much as we’re subsidizing its development, there’s no reason to think there won’t be some breakthroughs there, but we’ll never know the opportunity cost of those breakthroughs. Suppose we just built a bunch of nuclear power plants, and all those inventors had to go to work on household appliances or nanotechnology instead?
Another fascinating notion, tantalizingly cut short in the radio piece, is the notion that technological evolution seems to be an extension of the evolutionary processes that produced us. As a believer who also believes in human evolution, that was a bit jarring at first. No doubt, some materialists would choose to believe that it obviates the need for a creator. But this, like all Ideas, is self-proving. To a believer, it’s perfectly reasonable that if we’re created in God’s image, then our intelligence is a reflection of His. The authors can’t quite being themselves to say that.
The notion that our networks will self-actualize at some point isn’t a new idea; science fiction authors have been playing with it for years, and they generally aren’t as sanguine as the two authors are. I remember reading an Asimov story where the telephone network gains consciousness, and SkyNet is another example.
Towards the end, I think they read Krulwich’s unease incorrectly. There’s something at least unsettling about the idea that we’re just midwives for other intelligences, that we’re not the logical end of evolution, but just another link in the chain. Because if we are, then the intelligence that we’re creating may eventually decide we’re more trouble than we’re worth. Krulwich isn’t, as one author states, worried about next Tuesday. He really is worried about the next 10,000 years.
The risk, I believe, comes in taking them too literally. I don’t really believe that the Internet will gain consciousness someday. I do believe that the idea of man-and-his technology as an organism is useful as a metaphor for understanding what’s going on. In an earlier edition, RadioLab accepts the metaphor that a city breathes energy in and out. (But if they know that’s a metaphor, why do they so easily accept the Technology metaphor as real?)