Many have stated that artificial intelligence (AI) will change the world. When you ask them how it will, they’ll have hundreds of different answers. Here, however, I’m only going to talk about one way it’ll change the world, the most important way: that is, AI will transform the technium.
The Difference Between the Technium and the Technosphere
As far as I can tell, author Kevin Kelly coined the word technium in his 2010 book What Technology Wants, though perhaps he’d used it before then. He has defined the technium as the “greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.” It not only includes hardware and software but also culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types.
This makes the technium more inclusive than any list of technologies, such as the one cited in the previous post in this series.
I’m not sure why Kelly created technium when the word “technosphere” was readily available. That term was coined by either control engineer John Milsum or by geologist and engineer Peter Haff. Sometimes it’s also called the anthrosphere, a term originally attributed to 19th century geologist Eduard Suess.
Technium and technophere are similar and, I suppose, both are flexible enough to be used in a variety of contexts. Geologist Jan Zalasiewicz writes:
The technosphere…comprises not just our machines, but us humans too, and the professional and social systems by which we interact with technology – factories, schools, universities, trade unions, banks, political parties, the internet. It also includes the domestic animals that we grow in enormous numbers to feed us, the crops that are cultivated to sustain both them and us, and the agricultural soils that are extensively modified from their natural state to carry out this task.
Making the Two Words More Complementary
Given the overlap of the concepts, I’ve been thinking about whether technium is redundant. One interesting way to think about the difference between technosphere and technium came to me via Google’s Bard, which argued that “the technosphere refers to the entire system of human-made objects and structures, while the technium refers to the specific processes and activities involved in creating and using these objects and structures.”
I like that distinction and I suspect Kelly himself might agree with it. After all, he writes that “the technium is a tendency, not an entity. The technium and its constituent technologies are more like a grand process than a grand artifact.”
Bard asserts that “the technosphere is the physical manifestation of the technium.” That is, the technosphere is the built environment and the technium is the human activity that creates and sustains it via engineering, manufacturing, maintenance, etc.
I don’t know if this is exactly what Kelly had in mind since he doesn’t go into detail about how the technium differs from the technosphere in his book, but I find it a useful distinction.
AI’s Role in the Technium
The reason I focus on the differences is because I think AI potentially plays an important role here. AI is obviously a growing part of the technosphere, but it’s also starting to play a role in the technium that, up till now, only humanity has played. That is, until this moment in history, human activities have made up “the grand process” that is the technium, but that’s now changing. This marks it as a major shift in the history of technology.
In a rather minor example, I increasingly use generative AI software to create the graphic elements for my posts. For example, they are used to create all the images in the “Illustrated Version of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven'” post.
I’m not an illustrator but I was able to use AI to generate a series of images that I thought went fairly well with the poem. It was more of an experiment than anything else but it demonstrated, at least to me, the ability of AI to create a significant portion of the technosphere.
“But a piece of digital artwork is not part of the technosphere,” you might argue. Well, that becomes a matter of semantics, so let’s go with something a little more along the classic lines of built infrastucture: that is, software development.
We know that the new generative AIs are quite good, if not perfect, at generating computer code in a wide array of computer languages. So, let’s say a human being uses this capability to create 90% of the code behind a new app that finds its way onto the Apple store.
Could you argue that that’s not part of the technosphere? I doubt it. But let’s keep going anyway.
As I’ve argued before, there’s no reason that generative AI can’t be used to generate things made of atoms rather than just digital objects made of bits and bytes. It’s already a trivial matter, for example, to hook up a generative AI to a 3D printer and create a sculpture or a machine part. This is only going to get easier, with more and more complex machinery being designed by AI and built by forges, 3D printers and other components of the technosphere.
This Key Issue Is Agency Rather Than Capability
So, generative AI is not just part of the technosphere but, increasingly, the technium. That is, it begins to play a role that, up till now, only humanity itself has played. Unless the technology becomes highly regulated very quickly, this role will grow at extraordinary rates.
There will be those who assert that these AIs are only one tool along a continuum that creates the technophere. For example, there are plenty of machines that create other machines, and there is plenty of software that is used to create other digital artifacts. As with other software, these AIs don’t create anything at all until they are prompted to do so.
Maybe so, but I’m arguing that there’s a qualitative difference here. In the creation of my previous post called “A Brief History of Human Technology,” I simply typed the title of the post into Microsoft Bing Image Creator. Otherwise, I gave it no direction at all. It generated two images, both of which I thought were quite good and yet quite different from one another. I used the first of the images in that post and used the second one as the featured image in this post (see above).
Yes, I know that the AI art generators are using existing art on the Internet that got pulled into their training models and that there are ethical issues involved, which I’ve examined elsewhere. Even so, these are still original, if derivative, pieces of art that the algorithm created with minimal guidance from me. This is a different thing than when I use an Adobe application to create triangle or blur a detail. Like it or not, this is creation.
AI and what it produces isn’t just part of the technosphere, it now plays a role similar to that of humanity in the “grand process” and “tendency” that is the technium. (There’s a whole teleological debate here that I’m mostly going to forego for now.)
Similar but Not the Same
Yes, there are still large differences between humanity and these new AIs that have been built via the neural network idea cribbed from our own brains. But I think the primary difference in this context boils down to agency.
In this case, the AI is certainly more capable than I am as an illustrator. What it lacks, at least in this context, is the initial spark of agency to take the action to create the image. But, and I think this is important, this doesn’t mean it lacks any agency. Indeed, all I did was create an initial abstract and inchoate concept, and then it “decided” how to approach the creation of the graphic.
If I’d done the same with a human artist, we certainly wouldn’t say that person lacked agency. Quite the contrary. We’d be amazed at their ability to take such an abstract concept and turn it into a work of art! Sure, I ultimately chose and curated the final product, but that’s something that a customer or patron of the arts always does.
So, no, this isn’t the same as any other technology we’ve ever created. It’s qualitatively different. We now have a partner in the technium dance.
This changes our ontological position in the world. And, more practically, it changes the meaning of human work, which is the topic I’ll cover in my next post in this series.
PS – Note that I asked Kevin Kelly if he’d like to comment on the analysis and he clarified as follows: “I was not aware of the term technosphere when I first blogged. If I had been I might have used it. I define the technium in the same inclusive broad meaning of tangible and intangible.”