Monday, 27 September 2010

Cancerous Growths : Technological Darwinisms

For over a century, the question of tomorrow has largely been a question of evolution. Under the influence more, perhaps, of Herbert Spencer than Charles Darwin, the future path of the human race is conceived now as one of a directed evolution through technology, and in this respect the theorems of futurologists have themselves evolved somewhat less over the course of the capitalist period than has the peppered moth.

The term Techno-Darwinism has entered a certain vogue over the past few years thanks to the work of entrepreneur and 'angel' investor, Benjamin Joffe. For Joffe the term refers to what he calls a "survival of the fittest" amongst tech start-ups in the rapidly expanding Chinese market. Nevermind, that the term "survival of the fittest" is Spencer's and not Darwin's, Joffe is hardly the first capitalist to stretch a scientistic metaphor in order to justify and naturalise his own profiteering.

Nor - though he may be credited with the hyphenation - is he the first to import purportedly Darwinist models and notions into the sphere of human technological 'progress' - in order, principally, to legitimise the use of the very word 'progress' and frame it as a kind of naturally occurring and practically inevitable process.

For Ray Kurzweil, evolution through technology represents an exponential growth in human advancement towards what he refers to as the Singularity, a point in the near future (2045) when the combination of advance in genetics, nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence will allow an expansion in machine-human intelligence and technological development beyond our wildest imaginations.

Similarly, as Marina Banjamin has pointed out, the Space Age was full of evolutionary metaphors, with everyone from Werner von Braun to Arthur C. Clarke to Buckminster Fuller referring to Apollo 11 as the natural sequel, equal in importance, to the moment primitive life first left the oceans for the land.

All of which amounts to little more than a stretched metaphor put in the service of valorising some favoured project. Consensus amongst developmental biologists and palaeontologists seems to be that human evolution has remained fairly static for a good hundred thousand years or so. That's not to say that we are not witnessing evolution - and rapid evolution at that- in the present day. Only it's an evolution to which we are but the hosts. To talk of the evolution through natural selection of metastasising cancer cells is not just a metaphor. Puts a somewhat less positive spin on Joffe's notion of capital as techno-Darwinism though....