[FoRK] [Open Manufacturing] Fwd: What Technology Wants

Lucas Gonze lucas.gonze at gmail.com
Thu Oct 14 18:32:38 PDT 2010

What does technology want?  To replicate.


The Third Replicator

All around us information seems to be multiplying at an ever
increasing pace. New books are published, new designs for toasters and
i-gadgets appear, new music is composed or synthesized and, perhaps
above all, new content is uploaded into cyberspace. This is rather
strange. We know that matter and energy cannot increase but apparently
information can.

It is perhaps rather obvious to attribute this to the evolutionary
algorithm or Darwinian process, as I will do, but I wish to emphasize
one part of this process — copying. The reason information can
increase like this is that, if the necessary raw materials are
available, copying creates more information. Of course it is not new
information, but if the copies vary (which they will if only by virtue
of copying errors), and if not all variants survive to be copied again
(which is inevitable given limited resources), then we have the
complete three-step process of natural selection  (Dennett, 1995).
>From here novel designs and truly new information emerge. None of this
can happen without copying.

I want to make three arguments here.

Imitation is not just some new minor ability. It changes everything.
It enables a new kind of evolution.
The first is that humans are unique because they are so good at
imitation. When our ancestors began to imitate they let loose a new
evolutionary process based not on genes but on a second replicator,
memes. Genes and memes then coevolved, transforming us into better and
better meme machines.

The second is that one kind of copying can piggy-back on another: that
is, one replicator (the information that is copied) can build on the
products (vehicles or interactors) of another. This multilayered
evolution has produced the amazing complexity of design we see all
around us.

The third is that now, in the early 21st century, we are seeing the
emergence of a third replicator. I call these temes (short for
technological memes, though I have considered other names). They are
digital information stored, copied, varied and selected by machines.
We humans like to think we are the designers, creators and controllers
of this newly emerging world but really we are stepping stones from
one replicator to the next.

As I try to explain this I shall make some assertions and assumptions
that some readers may find outrageous, but I am deliberately putting
my case in its strongest form so that we can debate the issues people
find most interesting or most troublesome.

Some may entirely reject the notion of replicators, and will therefore
dismiss the whole enterprise. Others will accept that genes are
replicators but reject the idea of memes. For example, Eva Jablonka
and Marion J. Lamb ( 2005) refer to “the dreaded memes” while Peter J.
Richerson and Robert Boyd (2005), who have contributed so much to the
study of cultural evolution, assert that “cultural variants are not
replicators.” They use the phrase “selfish memes” but still firmly
reject memetics (Blackmore 2006). Similarly, in a previous “On The
Human” post, William Benzon explains why he does not like the term
“meme,” yet he needs some term to refer to the things that evolve and
so he still uses it. As John S. Wilkins points out in response, there
are several more classic objections: memes are not discrete (I would
say some are not discrete), they do not form lineages (some do),
memetic evolution appears to be Lamarckian (but only appears so),
memes are not replicated but re-created or reproduced, or are not
copied with sufficient fidelity (see discussions in Aunger 2000,
Sterelny 2006, Wimsatt 2010). I have tackled all these, and more,
elsewhere and concluded that the notion is still valid (Blackmore
1999, 2010a).

So I will press on, using the concept of memes as originally defined
by Dawkins who invented the term; that is, memes are “that which is
imitated” or whatever it is that is copied when people imitate each
other. Memes include songs, stories, habits, skills, technologies,
scientific theories, bogus medical treatments, financial systems,
organizations — everything that makes up human culture. I can now,
briefly, tell the story of how I think we arrived where we are today.

Both memes and genes are vast competing sets of information, all
selfishly getting copied whenever and however they can.
First there were genes. Perhaps we should not call genes the first
replicator because there may have been precursors worthy of that name
and possibly RNA-like replicators before the evolution of DNA (Maynard
Smith and Szathmary 1995). However, Dawkins (1976), who coined the
term “replicator,” refers to genes this way and I shall do the same.

We should note here an important distinction for living things based
on DNA, that the genes are the replicators while the animals and
plants themselves are vehicles, interactors, or phenotypes: ephemeral
creatures constructed with the aid of genetic information coded in
tiny strands of DNA packaged safely inside them. Whether single-celled
bacteria, great oak trees, or dogs and cats, in the gene-centered view
of evolution they are all gene machines or Dawkins’s “lumbering
robots.” The important point here is that the genetic information is
faithfully copied down the generations, while the vehicles or
interactors live and die without actually being copied. Put another
way, this system copies the instructions for making a product rather
than the product itself, a process that has many advantages (Blackmore
1999, 2001). This interesting distinction becomes important when we
move on to higher replicators.

So what happened next? Earth might have remained a one-replicator
planet but it did not. One of these gene machines, a social and
bipedal ape, began to imitate. We do not know why, although shifting
climate may have favored stealing skills from others rather than
learning them anew (Richerson and Boyd 2005). Whatever the reason, our
ancestors began to copy sounds, skills and habits from one to another.
They passed on lighting fires, making stone tools, wearing clothes,
decorating their bodies and all sorts of skills to do with living
together as hunters and gatherers. The critical point here is, of
course, that they copied these sounds, skills and habits, and this, I
suggest, is what makes humans unique. No other species (as far as we
know) can do this. Song birds can copy some sounds, some of the other
great apes can imitate some actions, and most notably whales and
dolphins can imitate, but none is capable of the widespread,
generalized imitation that comes so easily to us. Imitation is not
just some new minor ability. It changes everything. It enables a new
kind of evolution.

This is why I have called humans “Earth’s Pandoran species.” They let
loose this second replicator and began the process of memetic
evolution in which memes competed to be selected by humans to be
copied again. The successful memes then influenced human genes by
gene-meme co-evolution (Blackmore 1999, 2001). Note that I see this
process as somewhat different from gene-culture co-evolution, partly
because most theorists treat culture as an adaptation (e.g. Richerson
and Boyd 2005), and agree with Wilson that genes “keep culture on a
leash.” (Lumsden and Wilson 1981 p 13).

Benzon, in responding to Peter Railton’s post here at The Stone,
points out the limits of this  metaphor and proposes the “chess board
and game” instead. I prefer a simple host-parasite analogy. Once our
ancestors could imitate they created lots of memes that competed to
use their brains for their own propagation. This drove these hominids
to become better meme machines and to carry the (potentially huge and
even dangerous) burden of larger brain size and energy use, eventually
becoming symbiotic. Neither memes nor genes are a dog or a dog-owner.
Neither is on a leash. They are both vast competing sets of
information, all selfishly getting copied whenever and however they

To help understand the next step we can think of this process as
follows: one replicator (genes) built vehicles (plants and animals)
for its own propagation. One of these then discovered a new way of
copying and diverted much of its resources to doing this instead,
creating a new replicator (memes) which then led to new replicating
machinery (big-brained humans). Now we can ask whether the same thing
could happen again and — aha — we can see that it can, and is.

As “temes” proliferate, using ever more energy and resources, our own
role becomes ever less significant.
A sticking point concerns the equivalent of the meme-phenotype or
vehicle. This has plagued memetics ever since its beginning: some
arguing that memes must be inside human heads while words,
technologies and all the rest are their phenotypes, or “phemotypes”;
others arguing the opposite. I disagree with both (Blackmore 1999,
2001). By definition, whatever is copied is the meme and I suggest
that, until very recently, there was no meme-phemotype distinction
because memes were so new and so poorly replicated that they had not
yet constructed stable vehicles. Now they have.

Think about songs, recipes, ways of building houses or clothes
fashions. These can be copied and stored by voice, by gesture, in
brains, or on paper with no clear replicator/vehicle distinction. But
now consider a car factory or a printing press. Thousands of
near-identical copies of cars, books, or newspapers are churned out.
Those actual cars or books are not copied again but they compete for
our attention and if they prove popular then more copies are made from
the same template. This is much more like a replicator-vehicle system.
It is “copy the instructions” not “copy the product.”

Of course cars and books are passive lumps of metal, paper and ink.
They cannot copy, let alone vary and select information themselves. So
could any of our modern meme products take the step our hominid
ancestors did long ago and begin a new kind of copying? Yes. They
could and they are. Our computers, all linked up through the Internet,
are beginning to carry out all three of the critical processes
required for a new evolutionary process to take off.

Computers handle vast quantities of information with extraordinarily
high-fidelity copying and storage. Most variation and selection is
still done by human beings, with their biologically evolved desires
for stimulation, amusement, communication, sex and food. But this is
changing. Already there are examples of computer programs recombining
old texts to create new essays or poems, translating texts to create
new versions, and selecting between vast quantities of text, images
and data. Above all there are search engines. Each request to Google,
Alta Vista or Yahoo! elicits a new set of pages — a new combination of
items selected by that search engine according to its own clever
algorithms and depending on myriad previous searches and link

This is a radically new kind of copying, varying and selecting, and
means that a new evolutionary process is starting up. This copying is
quite different from the way cells copy strands of DNA or humans copy
memes. The information itself is also different, consisting of highly
stable digital information stored and processed by machines rather
than living cells. This, I submit, signals the emergence of temes and
teme machines, the third replicator.

More From The Stone
Read previous contributions to this series.

Go to All Posts »
What should we expect of this dramatic step? It might make as much
difference as the advent of human imitation did. Just as human meme
machines spread over the planet, using up its resources and altering
its ecosystems to suit their own needs, so the new teme machines will
do the same, only faster. Indeed we might see our current ecological
troubles not as primarily our fault, but as the inevitable consequence
of earth’s transition to being a three-replicator planet. We willingly
provide ever more energy to power the Internet, and there is enormous
scope for teme machines to grow, evolve and create ever more
extraordinary digital worlds, some aided by humans and others
independent of them. We are still needed, not least to run the power
stations, but as the temes proliferate, using ever more energy and
resources, our own role becomes ever less significant, even though we
set the whole new evolutionary process in motion in the first place.

Whether you consider this a tragedy for the planet or a marvelous,
beautiful story of creation, is up to you.

On Thu, Oct 14, 2010 at 1:56 PM, Eugen Leitl <eugen at leitl.org> wrote:
> ----- Forwarded message from Bryan Bishop <kanzure at gmail.com> -----
> From: Bryan Bishop <kanzure at gmail.com>
> Date: Thu, 14 Oct 2010 15:30:08 -0500
> To: ExI chat list <extropy-chat at lists.extropy.org>,
>        World Transhumanist Association Discussion List <wta-talk at transhumanism.org>,
>        Open Manufacturing <openmanufacturing at googlegroups.com>,
>        Bryan Bishop <kanzure at gmail.com>
> Subject: [Open Manufacturing] Fwd: What Technology Wants
> Reply-To: openmanufacturing at googlegroups.com
> ---------- Forwarded message ----------
> From: Kevin Kelly <kk at kk.org>
> Date: Thu, Oct 14, 2010 at 3:18 PM
> Subject: What Technology Wants
> Hello Friend,
> My last book appeared 12 years ago. That's a lifetime in internet years.
> Since that time I've been laboring on a monumental new book called "What
> Technology Wants."  I am relieved that this long-overdue work is finally
> done, and delighted that Penguin/Viking did a fabulous job in publishing it.
> The cover is cool, too.
> It premiers today. As of a few hours ago "What Technology Wants" is
> available on Amazon in hardcover, Kindle, and audio versions, and at your
> favorite online or brick bookstore. I feel like shouting from the rooftops.
> In this book I explore the deeper "meaning" of technology. I view our human
> world through the eyes of technology, as if it were a living organism,
> independent of us. I learned a lot from this investigation, and I think I
> found some answers that helped me evaluate technology in my own life, in a
> way that might help you do the same. I also changed my mind in the course of
> writing it and reluctantly concluded that most new technology is inevitable,
> and so we should make the most of that inevitability. I suppose this book
> will be controversial.
> More about "What Technology Wants" can be found on my website, including a
> lot of flattering endorsements from people I respect, and a few early
> reviews and mentions, such as ones in the New York Times, Scientific
> American and the Economist.
> You have my email. I welcome feedback on the book, comments, tweets, reviews
> on your blog or Amazon, mentions, and inquiries. I can say without
> exaggeration that I wrote this book for you, in the hope that as you read it
> you will be refreshed and encouraged by its grand message of optimism and
> possibility.
> Rejoice!
> Book website
> http://www.kk.org/books/what-technology-wants.php
> Amazon page
> http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0670022152/ref=nosim/kkorg-20
> -- KK
> _______________________________________________
> Kevin Kelly  *   kk at kk.org
> Senior Maverick for Wired
> Author of What Technology Wants, available Oct 14, 2010
> http://www.kk.org/books/what-technology-wants.php
> +1 650 284 3303 vox  * 149 Amapola Ave, Pacifica, CA  94044  USA
> My Lifestreams Blog =  http://www.kk.org/kk/
> --
> - Bryan
> http://heybryan.org/
> 1 512 203 0507
> --
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> Eugen* Leitl <a href="http://leitl.org">leitl</a> http://leitl.org
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