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The reality of basic science: technology is not alive

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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.

The game of (not actual) life

Conway’s game of life is a great introduction to emergence. It consists of a grid of cells that can be on or off, and proceeds in steps. At each step, each cell may change between on/off depending on how many neighbours it has:

  • if a cell is on, and has zero or one ‘on’ neighbours: the cell switches off
  • if a cell is on, and has two or three ‘on’ neighbours: the cell stays on
  • if a cell is on, and has four or more ‘on’ neighbours: the cell switches off
  • if a cell is off, and has exactly three ‘on’ neighbours: the cell switches on

Sounds pretty simple, but when you actually code it up and run it you can see some pretty amazing things. A grid of squares suddenly becomes a seething mass of cells giving the illusion of expansion, contraction and reaction. At a microscopic level there are only simple binary states and numerical rules. At a macroscopic level you see stable patterns, oscillating patterns, and even patterns that self propagate, or create other patterns that create more self-propagating patterns

Glider gun

From Wikipedia by LucasVB.

From a distance, it looks like life. But it isn’t.

There is some irony in the fact that the ideas and theories around emergence arose from lofty academic investigation into chaos and complexity. If Ridley had read some of this ivory tower pontification, he might have the vocabulary needed to describe what is happening with technology.

Emergence and economics

The ideology of free market capitalism also has its roots in emergence. One interesting property of emergent systems is that trying to guide their behaviour at a macroscopic level (aka.“top-down control”) often results in failure, or a complete mess. (Complex Adaptive Systems by Miller & Page has some good explanations of this.)

Trying to guide how the game of life evolves by painting large swathes of cells everywhere, or randomly killing them off, only ever results in more chaos. Trying to make a certain class of goods exempt from market forces can quickly give rise to workarounds that thwart the effect you were aiming for. Imposing house rules on Monopoly makes it a terrible game (stop putting the fines in the middle and giving them out on the free parking square you goddamned idiots).

Once more: trying to impose top-down control on emergent systems usually results in a slightly different kind of chaos, or in extreme cases, annulment.

It is a principle that free market proponents understand all too well — it’s appealling to try and control the chaos of millions of people making choices and exchanging currency, but unless things are really desperate or you know it’s going to work, it very often doesn’t go how you expect.

This means that when we do try to change things, it’s often best to adjust the rules governing interactions between the agents (eg. the cells, the consumers, the players, the researchers), rather than the rules the greater effects seem to follow. This is known as a “bottom-up” approach.

A light touch on tech

Avoiding top-down control does not always equate to “the free market will solve it” however. Remember that Ridley’s whole article was about the government funding “basic science,” ivory tower type research that is far removed from practical applications. But this is not really what happens. The reality is (in Australia at least) that government funding comes with some major strings attached — strings that change from government to government — and is incredibly unreliable.

What really matters in the emergent system of research is that our agents, the researchers, are able to pursue ideas with some degree of independence and longevity. If their interactions are based on refining and communicating ideas instead of administration and politics… well, we might see some refinement and communication of ideas.

So the best way forward might actually be that funding should increase and be more reliable (so that we don’t have projects randomly derailed) and have less political influence (so we don’t have to try to periodically re-cast projects to suit the minister of the day). This is our bottom-up approach: to give researchers the resources and independence to spend their time actually pursuing research.

There is a lot of merit to the idea that private enterprise should be funding a greater share of R&D… but this doesn’t have to mean that the government funds less. Personally, I love the idea of scientists and researchers being able to find work in both government research and corporate labs, moving almost freely between the different sectors, thereby exchanging a much greater array of skills and ideas than an insular environment would foster.

Recently I’ve seen the idea kicked around that fractions of grants should be set aside for things such as presenting the science to the general public. I have come to see this as a bad idea. I do think scicomms is vital and needs to be done by researchers. But it would be better to genuinely convince researchers of its importance and give them enough overall funding to cover it. Simply forcing them to do it is not going to make the unenthusiastic suddenly become interested. What’s far more likely is that a handful of businesses will spring up to absorb the new allocation, delivering the minimum possible for box-checking without actually achieving much of anything at all.

Such is the nature of emergent systems.

Ceding control of the direction of invention to a few wealthy capitalists is no less a kind of top-down control on technological advancement than highly conditional, unreliable government funding is. But at least with government funding we can try to foster free and open discovery by improving conditions through public policy.

Removing government funding for basic science won’t stop the advance of technology, it’s true. Not because technology is alive, but simply because it’s the way billions of human beings interact with each other. Removing the telephone network won’t stop people talking to each other or communicating over long distances; it would just make it more of a pain.

What it will do, though, is change the set of problems that will be solved by technology. It will change the direction of advancement. We will continue to express ourselves through invention as we always have, but the expression will be drastically different, and limited to only the toys that venture capitalists think warrants their money and attention.