We are living in exponential times. The rate of expansion in computing power and the rate of evolution in software development has seen steady acceleration since the tech boom of the nineties; but unbeknownst to many, that process of acceleration is itself accelerating. This is a phenomenon that futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil refers to as the Law of Accelerating Returns. As we are in the thrall of this rising wave, many opportunities, and threats, lay on the horizon for us as a civilization and as individuals. In order for us to navigate and to manage this exciting transition, we must properly understand the process that we are undertaking.
First of all, we must ask, “what is technology,” or perhaps more astutely, “why is technology?”
Within this sphere of contemplation you will find such answers as “we are creators and builders.” And when we build something, it is always derived from an intention – the will of the toolmaker – and that intention is always anchored in some purpose.
At the most basic level, the “purpose” of technology is survival. The purpose of fire was to cook our meat, to dissuade predators and to provide light (extending day in a way). As such, we can think of technology as a sort of symbiotic living thing with which we can aid our chances of survival – like we have domesticated chickens and cows, we have also domesticated information.
Because technology lives outside of us (and yet we are the hosts of this information), we can manipulate it and change it in the abstract. This allows us to change it over time, and on a time-scale which is radically different than that of biological evolution, whose engine of change is genes and self-replication. As such, we have enabled ourselves to extend our evolution beyond our bodies into the realm of a common abstraction – a body of ideas which we are all influenced by, and in which we are all participants in shaping.
We can define technology broadly, having contemplated its “why,” i.e. some intention of the toolmaker as minimally contingent on survival. But what is technology exactly?
Technology is ideas. Whether it’s the idea of a hammer meeting the idea of nails and wood to create the idea of a house – or whether it’s a code of laws by which human beings can organize themselves and cooperate – the common thread of all functional systems is the information that organizes them.
When we think of cybernetics, oftentimes what’s conjured in the mind is the bionic man, implants and augmented reality visors – the Borg from Star Trek. But a cybernetic system is a lot simpler. A better universal definition is “any system devised by imagination which can be used or interacted with to facilitate a goal.”
In this context, we can consider a daily routine to be a form of cybernetics. You have organized your life into a procedural algorithm based in time, in order to facilitate daily living. In some sense, you are symbiotic with that routine – it is by that routine you can feed and shelter yourself. The same goes for ideology – your beliefs are cybernetic systems that help you to navigate life, the axioms of being, without having to deeply contemplate every moral decision.
As our cybernetic symbiotes are growing increasingly sophisticated and powerful, we must ask ourselves some key questions. Firstly, “what is the goal I am trying to accomplish?” From there, we can ask, “what informational systems can I incorporate to reach that goal?” For instance, becoming a doctor is an overarching goal which contains within it many multitudes of finite steps to reach that point. In some sense, the idea of becoming a doctor is itself a cybernetic system which you will have to merge with in order to obtain the goal – after all, a doctor is simply an idea someone imagined to specialize medical knowledge. But within that framework there are hundreds of thousands of knowledge points that must be downloaded into the brain – and within the right contexts. There are definitively better and worse methods of achieving that transfer of knowledge – study habits – and we can consider that a cybernetic system as well. For instance, reading all your textbooks upside down is definitively worse than rote memorization, while the method of Loci is definitively better than repetition. So in every cybernetic system, there’s also an optimization curve – a movement of variables within the system toward an ideal.
All cybernetic systems exist, like all life, within an arrow of time. Time is always the independent variable, as we’re running out of it, trading it, wasting it, or preserving it for a later time. We bargain with time. We offer sacrifices in the immediate for immaterial future gains – and this is perhaps the oldest and most powerful form of cybernetics – the sacrifice in the abstract to the arrow of time. The farmer sows seeds and waters them, painstakingly caring for them through summer for the promise of a Fall harvest. The aspiring artist hones their craft from the infancy of meandering inspiration to a dedicated art form through habit, discipline, and structure. How we use time is central to any cybernetic system – and thus we find the nature of efficiency (optimized in time).
A good cybernetic system isn’t just optimized on the variable of time though. An engineer could conceivably construct a bridge very quickly, but which doesn’t satisfy other qualitative measures such as resilience, safety, or redundancy. So the cybernetic system has a demand of quality and speed primarily. When considering the effectiveness of, for example, your routine; you must ask: “Is this the most efficient, and is this the most effective?” Typically, it’s a trade-off between the two, but there’s always some perfect middle ground – and finding it is the nature of becoming a master cyberneticist.
Incorporating nutrition, exercise, meditation, and positive affirmation for example – are found within a cybernetic framework of “wellness.” You can break down that system into its components and reintegrate it, improve it through iteration. Let’s say you ate a bunch of croissants for breakfast yesterday and it made you feel sick and tired. The next day, you could experiment with oatmeal and blueberries – did you feel better? Were you more productive? How much time did you sacrifice for that qualitative outcome? Was it worth the time sacrifice?
In considering your cybernetic systems, it’s important to pause, take stock of your goals, and break them down into constituents that are digestible. It’s also important to integrate tools that can support that goal. In my work on neuroenhancement, this has become a central philosophy in which we ask “what are the cognitive processes that underpin my goals?” Once this is understood, we can target and train on those cognitive subsets – as such, neuroenhancement is by definition a cybernetic upgrade.
As humanity moves forward, we must consider the implications of our cybernetic implants, whether purely abstract or hard-wired (such as insulin pumps, heart rate monitors, microsaccade motion detectors, smartphones, GPS and so on). Many times, these upgrades come with trade-offs or risks, which should also be systematically considered and evaluated against their benefits. Is social media really bringing us closer together? In what ways are we closer, and in what ways are we farther apart? Are there ways of reducing that contemplation into elemental parts? For instance, although we can communicate from great distances, can this supplant the oxytocin burst of a hug that can be central to social learning?
Taking a cybernetic viewpoint allows one to critically evaluate the systems that govern one’s behavior, and to ask such questions as “is this helping me achieve my goals? Is it hindering them?” As we are merging with technology at an increasingly fast pace, we find ourselves on the eve of ubiquity and the internet of things. We must always keep in mind that a tool is always just a tool – and it is shaped and defined by the will of the wielder.
We are always bargaining with time – make sure to get a good deal.