This is a partial rebuttal of Matt Ridley’s The Myth of Basic Science, which makes the argument that technological progress is not driven by publicly funded scientific research (and presumably that we therefore don’t need it). I would like to focus on the claim that technology is akin to a living thing, and that because it is alive, it will inevitably progress whether basic science is funded or not.
Because that is bizarre.
For example, Ridley claims that:
technology is developing the kind of autonomy that hitherto characterized biological entities
No, it’s not.
Technology will find its inventors, rather than vice versa.
What does this even mean? What is the process by which this occurs? This really is starting to seem like personification taken way too literally.
By 2010, the Internet had roughly as many hyperlinks as the brain has synapses.
Rocks have many more atoms. Mycoplasma genitalium have many fewer genes. So what?
a significant proportion of the whispering in the cybersphere originates in programs […] rather than in people
None of that is occult, or beyond explanation, or even unexpected. Feeling mystical about programs you don’t understand doesn’t mean they’re anything like a living thing.
(Also, “cyber” — drink!)
Please, oh singularity, save us all from science writers and economists harping on about the “evolving living organism that is technium.”
Technology, even considered as a discrete entity, however you’d define it, is not alive. No, I don’t have a definition of “life.” You don’t either. But whatever it might be, it won’t include (a) rocks, (b) things made of rocks, (c) really intricate things made of rocks, or (d) abstract concepts.
Yes, I sometimes personify technology. No, that doesn’t mean I secretly think it’s alive.
The concept Ridley is groping towards is that of emergence. Emergence happens when a system with simple rules and massive numbers of participants shows complex behaviour at a higher level. The behaviour of the system may be unpredictable and yet show little pockets of order (in short periods of time, or over short distances). Sometimes these pockets are ordered enough that we can model them with a new set of laws that have little to do with the microscopic ones… but we must always remember that we are still dealing with order emerging from chaos.
Board games, spots on a leopard, mathematics itself, Conway’s game of life, and the weather are all examples of emergence. So is the entire universe, since it’s made up of simple particles obeying simple rules, and yet shows every class of complex behaviour we know about, a lot of which we can simplify when we need to.
Life itself is an example of emergence, but here’s the important point: not all examples of emergence are alive.