A few years ago, Ursula Leguin wrote a blog post called technology within science fiction, addressing a particular review of one of her books, that stated that there was no technology being discussed in the book. In the post, Leguin makes a point that the problem is not that she doesn't mention technology in her books, but rather that the conception of technology that her reviewer has, is fundamentally at odds with what technology is.
She states his conception of technology assumes a limited definition of technology, which only accepts as technology — the ever more complex commodities, produced by industrial manufacturing processes, deployed through a global supply chain, supported by massive exploitation of human workers, the environment at large and specific ecosystems within the globally distributed "special economic zones", where these commodities originate from. For her, technology is everything through which humans interface with the material world, language, genders, rudimentary tools, simple materials that we take for granted such as clay or steel, architecture, forms of governance, so on and so forth.
This text is part of a wider project that has mainly two goals — one is to establish the centrality of technology as the constitutive dimension of human cognition. Providing a sound, scientifically plausible argument for the irreducibility of human intelligence to brain function. The second goal, is arguing for the necessity of a reassessment of how to do philosophy of technology based on this fundamental insight about how human level cognition is constituted. The point that this text emphasizes, is that these two aspects are intrinsically connected and that one profoundly alters the other. The philosophical motivations for taking up these positions are slightly outside the scope of this text; but are of a naturalistic and scientific realist origins with specific caveats.
The established boundaries between nature and culture, are connected both to the history of science and to the history of modernism. Modernity was an attempt at reorganizing the world through a rational perspective isolating whatever the object of study might be, so as to isolate it of irrelevant factors. However, this perspective lacks an acknowledgement of environmental factors and the way these are actively interactive.
In seeking a evolutionary perspective on intelligence and technology, fully synchronized with our best contemporary science, one realizes that we cannot have an account of any particular feature of animal cognition, which is not a byproduct of natural selection and adaptive responses to environmental stimuli. Without taking into consideration the appropriate embeddeness of reasoning in ecologically complex environments, one cannot account for the very limits it places on ecologically situated agents and the creative solutions these agents find, in order to surpass them. The history of this evolutionary process, produces many documents in the forms of tools, activities and the spatial distribution of human populations all over the planet. The environment itself has in turn supported this process, by pure chance, introducing profound changes that would require our ancestors to adapt through the development of new forms of organization and sometimes new physical morphologies altogether. From temperate climates to the harsher environments, technology has enabled our ancestors to thrive, spread and change the shape of their environment to increasingly support them.
Technology operates reshaping socio-technical structures precisely through what constitutes them in the first place. By suspending all limits on intervention, technology changes the logic through which all else operates. Traditionally seen as means to an end, technology allows us to detect and exploit environmental cues in order to change the horizon of possibilities in any given space, a process that enacts changes in the world and consequently in the agent that sees its horizon of possibilities pried open beyond what they thought was possible.
Human level cognition does not operate through raw processing power, as a naive conception of intelligence would have it. Intelligence, is artificial both as a process shaped by external factors and in the sense that it operates through artifice, this text seeks to establish the interchangeability of these aspects.
Embodied and ecologically situated agents have clear limitations in internal computational resources, and despite this they expertly navigate and take advantage of their surroundings. Any attempt at investigating the reasoning process of human agents have to recognize the extended history of these processes, and its impressive achievements. These attempts have often overlooked how human agents navigate situations where they possess limited information and means of identifying its relevance to their goals.
Some of the early attempts at articulating the ways environmental factors act on biological systems, can be found in Humboldt 'Geography of Plants'. His work, was the first to place plant species into their environmental context to account for the specific physical patterns they develop. These ideas were continuous with the notion of umwelt, introduced by Jakob Von Uexkull, where each organism is fully continuous and consubstantial with its environmental conditions.
Uexküll’s umwelt describes how the physiology of an organism’s sensory apparatus shapes its active experience of the environment. Umwelt is often understood just as the physical properties which are accessible to the perception and action of an organism based on its physiology.
Uexküll himself offers a slightly more nuanced perspective: “The task of biology consists in expanding in two directions the results of Kant’s investigations: — (1) by considering the part played by our body, and especially by our sense-organs and central nervous system, and (2) by studying the relations of other subjects (animals) to objects” (von Uexküll, 1926, p. 15).
Mildenberger and Herrmann (2014a, p. 10) see Uexküll's definition as an early conception of niche construction, which for them is a “more poignant version of the umwelt concept.”
A significant foray into this problem has been offered by the introduction of chance discovery as a framework that describes how humans relate to their environment. In this context, a "chance" is defined as a piece of information about an event or a situation which significantly impacts on the decision-making of human agents. An essential aspect of a chance, is that it can be a new seed of significant future changes and actions. The discovery of a rare opportunity may lead to a benefit not experienced before, because agents haven't noticed the benefit and were accustomed to frequent past opportunities. The discovery of a new hazard is indispensable for minimizing risk, because existing solutions that worked for frequent past hazards may not work in the future.
C.S. Peirce calls this chance seeking 'abductive reasoning' — often understood as 'inference to the best explanation'. This understanding however, fails to encapsulate the breadth and depth of its explanatory potential. In Peirce's terms 'inferences to generate hypotheses' is a term better suited to this task, because abductive inferences are at play in the detection of knowledge that would otherwise be unavailable, if one were to follow inductive or deductive processes. Abductive inferences, are often thought about in the the context of invention, discovery and other manipulative strategies of extracting latent knowledge.
Although different in operational terms, these perspectives describe human solutions that arrive at a feasible strategy without having gone through the propositions that would logically be entailed by them, traditionally associated with vaguely defined concepts such as creativity or talent. Abduction is thought to describe all those human and animal hypothetical inferences that are operated through actions, which consist in smart manipulations to both detect new affordances and to create manufactured external objects that offer new affordances. The discovery of a chance by a human agent is realized by a process including her involvement in a dynamic environment. That is, one's concern with chance events increases by being involved in the dynamic changes in the surroundings.
Niche construction theory suggests that the environment offers unlimited opportunities to living beings. Of course not all opportunities offered by the environment can be exploited by human animals or non-human animals. But both try to modify their environment to be capable of exploiting their possibilities in a more effective manner, to mitigate their environmental disadvantages. Chance seeking activity is based on niche construction and that allows us to think about cognitive niches. These cognitive niches offer an expanded information storage and computational possibilities, that support and increase the agent's capacity to adapt to change in environmental conditions.
Cognitive niche construction is a crucial feature of human level cognition. Organisms are equipped with various ontogenetic mechanisms that allows them to acquire information so as to better adapt to environmental changes: immune system in vertebrates and brain-based learning in animals and humans. These mechanisms allow for genetically specified initial set of behaviors to change and become more complex through being environmentally situated. Ontogenetic mechanisms make possible the modulation of behavior that is required in order to respond to an ever-changing environment.