Monday, January 21, 2013

Technological evolution and language as metaphor

Both biological evolution and technological evolution involve the modification of preexisting structure. Technological evolution differs, however, in that what emerges can be a qualitatively different “species,” suitable for entirely different “niches” of application.

Biological evolution takes several generations to produce a new species even when environmental pressures promoting change are at their highest. And what emerges is almost always very similar to what existed before. According to a principle known as Romer’s rule, evolutionary changes are initially conservative adaptations that allow the organism to continue its previous way of life. Unlike biological evolution, technological innovation can lead in a single “generation” to the sudden appearance of an array of things the likes of which never before existed. For example, all modern computer technology traces back to the invention of the lowly transistor. To get a comparable event in biological evolution, an amoeba would have to become an entire set of large African mammals within the course of just a few cell divisions.

And since each new technology becomes immediately available for modification itself or to serve as a constituent in additional innovation, technological evolution follows an exponentially expansive trajectory. The rate of technological change itself increases across time.

Biological evolution is not the only metaphor that has been applied to technology. Technology has also been called a language. A theoretically infinite number of novel technologies can emerge from the combination of modular, constituent technologies—in the same way that an infinite number of sentences can be constructed from a large but finite number of self-contained words.

In addition, language and technology both serve as a point of interface between the individual and the larger community to which the individual belongs. Although language is produced by individual persons, supported by human cognitive capacities and uniquely human brain structures, language is a fundamentally social phenomenon. Technology, likewise, is fundamentally a social phenomenon supported by human cognitive capacities.

But when we track technology back to the individual, the analogy disintegrates and the true dehumanizing nature of technology emerges. Individuals are themselves constituents in technological “expressions.”  Division of labor and the isolation of knowledge (essential features of the technological process) transform individual persons into technological constituents something like the phonemes of spoken language.

Language is a means for the individual to interact with the community in pursuit of his or her own social needs—language serves human purposes. Technology on the other hand transforms humans into component mechanical parts of artificial devices for the pursuit of its own purposes.

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