Technology in Deep Time

In a new essay for BBC’s Deep Civilisation series, British philosopher Tom Chatfield explores how technology has co-evolved alongside humans. While humans have only existed as a brief interval on the cosmic timescale, the process of “recursive iteration” that defines our relationship with our tools has led to us having an outsized impact on the planet. “We have introduced something exponential into the equations of planetary time,” Chatfield writes, “and that something is technology”:

[Coevolution with technology] marks humanity’s departure from the rest of life on Earth. Alone among species […] humans can consciously improve and combine their creations over time – and in turn extend the boundaries of consciousness. It is through this process of recursive iteration that tools became technologies; and technology a world-altering force.

Looking at our history with technology not as a “greatest hits” of innovation but as a long-term process of co-evolution enables us to understand how every great invention, from the printing press to the iPhone, was simply a combination of pre-existing technology that is being driven along by much the same force that is at play in biological evolution: “fitness as manifested through successful reproduction.”

As technology evolves at an exponential rate, the most pressing question becomes, according to Chatfield: “Can we deflect the path of technology’s needs towards something like our own long-term interest, not to mention that of most other life on this planet?” The answer lies in eschewing narratives about an inevitable Singularity to come, or humanity’s impotence in the face of technology’s growing power:

Like our creations, we are minute in individual terms – yet of vast consequence collectively. It took the Earth 4.7 billion years to produce a human population of one billion; another 120 years to produce two billion; then less than a century to reach the seven-and-a-half billion humans currently alive, contemplating their future with all the tools of reason, wishfulness, knowledge and delusion that evolution and innovation have bequeathed.

This is what existence looks like at the sharp end of 4.7 billion years. We have less time than ever before – and more that we can accomplish.

You can read Chatfield’s essay in full here.

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