THE REVOLUTION THAT WILL HAPPEN: CHINA AND THE FUTURE OF TECHNO-SCIENCE

It is being said that this year 2020 could mark the beginning of the Asian Century, or if you prefer, the Chinese Century; though we will not find Chinese analysts among those who claim such things. The authors who insist on this reading of the facts point, for example, to China’s clear leadership in such an strategic sector as 5G, or the imminent arrival of the digital yuan, which could cause the collapse of the dollar hegemony sooner or later. No doubt, China plays for real.

Yet this need for China to do things independently and in its own way is too often interpreted as an aggressive or expansionist policy in the West, without wanting to see that it is the West itself that has created the current rules where the winner takes it all. In the coming years we will not fail to see this rivalry for technological supremacy increasing, with the usual war of accusations and disqualifications led almost exclusively by one side.

But here I want to touch on a much broader subject than that of technological competition that is not receiving the slightest attention. I am referring to the relationship between science and technology to form a whole, what we now call Technoscience. Technoscience is the reciprocal action or continuity existing between the utilitarian applications and the development of the scientific method, between practice and theory, between power and knowledge. Power and knowledge limit each other, but incredibly, modern studies on technoscience, still know nothing about how and on what depends that knowledge and power are self-limiting —in a totally involuntary, spontaneous way.

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Tao of Technoscience

The paths in the science-technology continuum may be innumerable but they all presuppose a potential reciprocity between knowledge and application —thus between knowledge and power. And yet we still have no idea of what kind of circle knowledge and power draws on us.

Newton’s celestial mechanics seemed initially far removed from worldly affairs but the unwarranted generalization of his principles to things far removed from human artifacts had the effect of turning the world into a wheelless rolling machine.

Society has taken shape as it becomes isolated from Nature but cannot subsist without a permanent commerce with her which in turn depends more and more on our knowledge of it. Any dominance relationship over Nature is reproduced within society, between some parts that exercise control and others parts subject to this control.

The solar system bound by gravity, or the function of the heart in our blood circulation, have been seen as simply governed by the concept of force in our present world view. Since the middle of the 20th century, stability theory and cybernetics developed a theory of control over these so-called “blind forces”, generalizing a version of entropy that was already far removed from the original thermodynamical context. Now it remains to be seen what twist would result for control theory assuming spontaneous regulation in action principles, in the Second Law and in the collective resonance between elements; as well as in the relationship between these three aspects.

Overcoming reductionism cannot in any way involve last-minute corrections that seek to compensate increasing degrees of abstraction with also increasing degrees of subjectivity for the sake of the inclusion of the observer, be it in statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics or relativity; it involves in any case correcting the gaps in the foundational position, which so far remains unaffected.

But the reciprocity between man and nature goes far beyond anything we suspect, and cannot be encompassed by a mere theoretical turn, however wide or deep it may seem. It is not a matter of looking for an idealized external nature either, since all that is trapped in the human being is also nature.

We do not know and maybe we do not want to live without machines. Can we radically change our relationship with them? Machines, too, are trapped, molded and compressed nature; and while we are forced to depend on them we are routinely trained for obedience. I will now pick up a few paragraphs from a topic I discussed at greater length in Techno-Science and the Laboratory of Self:

“Vico’s principle, which states that knowing is making, is more general than Descartes’. But surely one can also doubt Vico’s principle. I can move my hand, but do I know how I move my hand? Second hand, so to speak, not first hand. Of course making is not doing, except in thinking, and we make machines not to do things directly, and not to directly think. We can then try to introduce into the realm of knowledge-power the duly reformed Vico principle: I only know that in what I take part, and to the extent that I take part.

It is not by calculus, but by the practical arts, that we know the world best. The same concept of efficiency, as economy of effort or elegance, was a natural notion in the art of all cultures before techniques were invaded by stacked layers of scientific mediations; now it would have to be taken out of the bottom of the stack. There is a natural sense of efficiency in any physical activity, in the right intonation, in any gesture or brushstroke.

To move from one area to another, from the functional domain governed by calculus to the intuitive functioning, we can take as example the biological feedback and biofeedback. A signal that corresponds to a vital function can be used to vary it at will, within certain limits of course. However, and this is the important thing, here any notion of manipulation is out of place, as in this context loses all meaning. Even control, with all its vast current theory, is subsumed in the idea of self-control, which far from being a particular case, seems to be the most indefinite and general.

In our ordinary physical control of external objects, the relationship between action and calculus is also reversed. Think of the complicated balance involved riding a bicycle; dynamics can hardly solve the problem by means of centrifugal forces in the case of slow motion, but it gets out of hands in cases with higher speeds. And yet for the cyclist it is just the opposite: speed is the solution, and excessive slowness the problem. Motion is shown by pedalling.

However, within the category of self-control there is more than just cycles of perception and action; there is also self-observation. In the case of biofeedback there are two basic cases, direct monitoring of a function, such as when we observe our breathing and modify it without even intending to do so, and indirect monitoring, either by means of a mirror that returns our image to try to move involuntary muscles or by a device with sensors that translates signals generated by ourselves without being aware of it.

The biofeedback motif may seem very limited as it has hardly transcended the level of a curiosity since its appearance and diffusion fifty years ago. However, it marks a turning point in the relationship between man and the machine. If the most helpful idea in explaining the emergence of tools is that they are extensions or prostheses that project our capacity as organisms, and if we have later recognized that from certain point onwards all harmonious relations between the tool and the organ are lost, here for the first time we use the machine to help us regain consciousness of organic functions that have already sunk below the threshold of attention.

So, if technology came out of the biology of the conscious organism, it is precisely here that it returns to it in the most mediated way possible, and with a somewhat undecided intention. Clearly, the entire cybernetic theory of control would have to return to self-control as its archetype, since this one already incorporates the cycles of perception and action, allowing the right space for the self-consciousness around which they revolve; the automatic is subsumed in self-control, self-control in self-interaction and this in spontaneity.

In spite that gauge fields contain a basic feedback mechanism, the use of the Lagrangian in control theory seems totally secondary, which is a curious situation. Things could change working with Weber-type forces, and also with dissipative, thermomechanical forces, in the sense proposed by Pinheiro. The measure theory would also have to be adjusted to the different requirements of this type of systems.

Today it is said that the double access to perception and action defines an artificial intelligence problem. But a greater field in self-perception and natural intelligence awaits us.