Speculation from #alamw_vinge: technology as selfish gene

So I finally got the chance to see some of Vernor Vinge’s talk from ALA. Of course, I was there, but I was head-down in the internet for two solid hours monitoring all our incoming question streams, and after that Cindi (who’d been liveblogging) and I turned to each other looking roughly like this:


So it was nice to get the context for some of those smart things I heard him saying as isolated fragments. Because Vinge, yo. Smart guy. Who thinks about things.

Somewhere in there I was reminded of Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. If you haven’t read it, highly recommended. Basically, it’s about how some plants — e.g. tulips, apples, pot — have hacked humans. By appealing to our urges — for beauty, tasty things, intoxication — they turn us into the mechanism whereby they replicate and spread and are protected.

It struck me that, really? This is the iPhone. This is technology in general.

I’ve been holding out on getting a smartphone, in part because they’re expensive and I don’t have a full-time job, but in part because I fear their ability to shred what’s left of my attention span. I know I get those sweet, sweet neurochemical hits from novel information, even if it’s trivial and not connected to any bigger project of mine — just that satisfaction of knowing — and if I had that in my pocket? Which of us would be using which as a tool, here?

So: to what extent is technology hacking us? We are, after all, the tools by which it replicates and spreads. We are willing to devote vast resources (not just of money) to speeding its evolution. Insofar as technologies happen upon strategies which hack us, are we not more willing to be complicit?

This perspective intrigues me because it puts technology at a different level, in a different metaphor, than what I normally see. When we think about technology we anthropomorphize it. We think about it on an organismal level, in terms of intelligence (you can see how Vinge’s Singularity thoughts were driving me here). But through this Pollan lens, the technology of desire, technology lives on the level of a gene. Questions of AI are orthogonal to this kind of evolution. Technology is less about devices than species, types. Overtones of Richard Dawkins.

Does this perspective go anywhere? Heck if I know. You tell me.