We have just arrived. Our earth has been around for much longer. It originated around 4.5 billion years ago. For a long time, it was only a lonely rock in space. It took no less than 3 billion years before a biosphere evolved on the geosphere that was already there. And a billion years later a man appeared. So, we have just arrived.
But our presence has certainly not gone unnoticed. Because with our inventiveness, creativity and technology we are creating a whole new atmosphere on earth: the Technosphere. And just as the biosphere has evolved on the geosphere that has been underneath it for much longer, and has all kinds of interactions with it, a biosphere is now emerging on the biosphere that also has all kinds of interactions with it.
Very simple story, the evolution continues and we all feel this. Every person on earth has to deal with technological change. And at the same time, we don’t know what technology is at all.
I take you into the pyramid of technology, where we explore how technology comes into our lives. It is inspired by the famous Maslow pyramid, in which human needs are classified at different levels. We are now doing this for technology.
The first question we can then ask: What is the simplest level at which technology can exist? I think as an idea, in our imagination. Every technology always starts with an idea somewhere in a brain. Consider, for example, the quantum computer. Scientists are now working on making a quantum computer, and if they succeed, it will radically transform our digital world. But they don’t have really good sharp prototypes yet, so maybe it sticks to the level of the imagination, such as the time machine. We all know him, but unfortunately, I have never been able to try a prototype.
Sometimes it works, such as with the communication satellite. Coined by a science fiction writer, and ten years later we shot the first into the air. Which brought it to the second level: the operational level. Then we have a prototype: it works. Google Glass is also at the operational level. It is presented, demonstrated. But nobody uses it. It is not applied.
Solar panels have been used for decades. But they are again in competition with other technologies, such as burning coal, oil, gas and nuclear energy.
We don’t even call technology the most successful technology anymore. We all use it on such a large scale that it is second nature to us.
You see that different technologies are in the race to get to the top. Which will this win? Which of these technologies are we going to embrace and accept? Sometimes it goes fast, such as with the smartphone. Smartphones are indispensable in everyday life. Just like electric cars and flat televisions. I can’t live without GPS anymore. I use it every day. I have to admit: I can no longer read a map. I’m always looking for the blue ball. So, for me, GPS is already indispensable.
This puts it at a higher level. If you take it away you have a crisis. Another example here is sewerage. You don’t think about it every day, but imagine that with a magic wand we would remove all sewage from all over the Netherlands. It would yield an interesting experiment.
Or more recently, the internet. It has been in existence for less than a lifetime. And yet: if we were to switch off the internet for a week now … Do you still have a job? How are you going to communicate with your family and loved ones? You may even ask yourself: Would you rather live without the internet or without sewerage? Without sewerage, you can at least lookup on the internet how to make your own compost toilet. (Success.) These technologies are such a part of our lives that they actually become invisible.
The next level. Another example here is the alphabet. That is an age-old information technology that makes our thoughts and speech permanent in the physical world. It is applied everywhere. Books, newspapers, billboards, signage, graffiti. As a child, you have to invest in learning, but after that, you no longer have to think about it consciously. Super powerful. Few people still do not use alpha technology.
The clock is also at this level, which enables us to make agreements with more precision than the natural units of the day, month and year. But when you are lifted out of bed by your alarm clock early in the morning, you are actually domesticated by that technology. So we always think technology serves us, but sometimes we also serve technology. And if that technology is still invisible, we must pay close attention to which technology we want to allow at this level.
Then the top: the ultimate success that technology can achieve. This is the level at which technology becomes natural or becomes part of our human nature. I have three examples. The first is clothing. You don’t think about it every day, but in the distant past, there was a brilliant ancestor who thought you could turn a coat into a coat and thus enter cold areas and live there. There was no Nobel Prize at that time yet, but he definitely deserved it. You do not have to ask if there are people who do not use clothing technology. No, this is something we humans do.
It has become part of our human nature. It was once an invention. Just like agriculture. Ten years ago, it was the biotechnology of that time, which radically changed our relationship with the natural environment. No more hunting, gather on the savannah. No, live in villages, plant crops, wait for them to grow and then harvest them. A whole new lifestyle. Division of labour. Earth with 7 billion people without agriculture has become unimaginable. Once agriculture was an invention, now it has become part of our human nature.
The oldest technology I have been able to find is the fact that we cook. About 200,000 years ago this was an invention. Animals do not cook. The idea is radical: that you can place your stomach in the outside world, you can pre-consume food before you take it and with that you can get more calories in less time, grow larger brains that need a lot of energy and can actually be a modern person turn into. Here we see that new technology always starts as artificial, artificial, awkward. When we apply it and it works, it becomes more trusted. At some point, it is such a part of our lives that we no longer want to be without it.
The ultimate success is that technology becomes part of our human nature. In this way, you see that nature and technology are not opposed, but are in line with each other. With our technology, we also transform our relationship with nature, and we have been technological from the very first day that we are human. We are not always aware of this. If you ask people to name what technologies, then they mainly mention technologies that are at the lower levels.
Actually, we have a very limited definition of technology unspoken. Something like: technology that’s all that was invented after I was born. Or even worse: technology is everything that does not yet work properly. But it is precisely when it does work properly that we no longer see it that way. And as a result of this limited picture, we are also satisfied with half-baked solutions.
People have wonderful dreams about what technology could do. Consider, for example, the dream of being telepathic. An age-old dream that you can communicate remotely with a loved one or family member. What we have now is a mobile phone with an empty battery. It is actually not good enough.
Or that wonderful dream of being able to fly like a bird. For centuries this was a dream for us, but it was impossible. About 50 per cent of the world’s population has dreamed of being able to fly. We now have overcrowded airports, and yet that is not good enough.
If we were to take our dreams much more seriously and try to push all the way to the top of the pyramid, it could be so much better. It would make the world a better place. That’s not easy. Very difficult indeed. It does not happen automatically, it will take a long time, but at least we know where we want to go. Not back, but yes, I think ahead of nature. Because even though we have only just arrived, we have now created the Technosphere.
It is also our task to better balance that Technosphere with the biosphere. Because the geosphere, biosphere and Technosphere do not take place on three separate spheres, but all on one globe – and that happens to be our globe.