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Etienne Benson 2014

Technosphere and Technoecology

In his coining of the term technosphere, geoscientist Peter Haff attempts to describe the physical properties of a human-technological system that takes on a role equivalent to the biosphere or hydrosphere. In this conversation with media philosopher Erich Hörl, Haff discusses the finer points of this concept while they both attempt to locate ethical and philosophical questions that emerge from it.
Erich Hörl: What do you think is the problem that the concept of the technosphere is reacting to or answering to?
  • Peter Haff: The technosphere is my way of constructing a concept to try to understand and analyze the sum of humans and their technology, essentially all of its ramifications and all of its parts, on a scientific basis. It would include individuals, it would include these bottles of water on the table, it would include the internet, and it would include art museums and the art within the art museums. Basically, we are talking about civilization when you sum up all of these endeavors and impacts. The approach is, if you have a system that you can define well enough then there is a procedure for dealing with that, which we often take in science, and that is to try to derive some physically-based rules or principles that would apply to it.
Erich Hörl: When would you date this, the emergence of something like a technosphere? What is the difference to other spheres such as the atmosphere or the biosphere?
  • Peter Haff: It is a convenient choice: historically geology has deconstructed, shall we say, the world, into spheres, at least for the surface part of the world. You have for example the atmosphere, and the “sphere” part just means that it surrounds. If we go to the other side of Berlin, for example, we will find that the atmosphere is still there. Then the hydrosphere is another sphere, water is fairly widely distributed. And these are also dynamic spheres; like the technosphere, they consume energy, they’re highly organized; they have parts that interact with one another, just as the parts of the technosphere do.
I’m interacting with you and interacting with the audience; and the molecules and the water are interacting with their neighbors, and so on. So, I think it was my geological background that led me to calling it a sphere.
  • The other point your question raises is that since this is the Anthropocene project, why not call it the Anthroposphere? The reason for not calling it the anthroposphere is because of a term in your writing which I found to powerfully underline my own impression of what is going on in the Anthropocene, the point I am trying to make through analysis of the technosphere, namely, the Anthropocene illusion (“anthropozäne Illusion” in the German original). My interpretation of the Anthropocene illusion was the tendency for humans to put themselves at the center of things, so that when we think of the climate problems and other environmental problems, we usually think of these as due to human impact. Of course, at some level they are due to human impact, but there are many other things going on in the world that embed humans in a way such that they are not really acting completely independently and as free agents in doing these things, but there are much greater forces let loose in the world. These are the forces of the technosphere.
Erich Hörl: I’m glad you didn’t call it the anthroposphere. That doesn’t mean we have to cross out the position of the human; on the contrary, it means that we need to reformulate it. And in your concept, this is exactly what is happening, because you say humans are part of technology; and the constitutive part of this Anthropocene illusion was first of all the kind of concentration of all agency on the human. Exactly this concentration led to an explosion of agency, of non-human agency to be precise. What is happening today is that we are witnessing the disenchantment of the Anthropocene illusion because of the distributed agencies we start to witness more and more exactly because of and as a consequence of technologization. This makes necessary a reformulation of the place of the human, and this is exactly the reconsideration that happens when thinking the technosphere.
  • Peter Haff: So the question was whether one could see some other relations or possible end-points where one could learn something about the construction of the modern world that was independent of human agency per se.
Erich Hörl: You would think, then, that the technosphere would be a notion for a profound rearrangement of humans and non-humans. Technical entities of course are non-humans. What does it mean, then, to inhabit, or how shall I put it: what does it mean to inhabit or to dwell in the technosphere?
  • Peter Haff: Let me put it this way: the technosphere depends implicitly and completely on human functionality, but we are in its grip, and we are being pulled along by it, we cannot escape. You know, the people in the audience cannot walk out the door now, they can’t, they probably have tickets, maybe it cost something, or maybe they are mesmerized by that talk over there, I don’t know, but you can’t leave . . .
Erich Hörl: Let’s come to your accentuation of the autonomy of technology as condensation as well as expression of an ongoing decentering of the human. Already the Nazi project, for example, has essentially to do with this question; at that time technology seems to get a certain autonomy, and the big issue was that of governmentality and mastering technology. To a certain degree this Nazistic fascination with control, which in the end penetrated all modes of existence at all levels, grew out of a discussion of the 1920s about the autonomy of technology involving Jünger, Heidegger, and others. In the 1950s in Germany, this issue came up again, and this time it was the big displacement or decentralization of the human that was the scandal and the problem, which technology was all about. Fifty years later, the interesting point for me is that the same formulation came up in your work: the autonomy of technology. Now it’s nothing scary, it’s something that forces us to shift our perspective, to change our ways of thought, our strategies ‒ our conceptual and theoretical strategies ‒ and for me that is one of the most important points. The becoming autonomous of technology is not anymore (as it was from the 1920s to the 1950s) a problem of mastery, will, and nihilism, but it compels us to a revolution in thought, even a revolution in our theoretical attitude [theoretische Einstellung], to follow Husserl. And the whole problem of thinking the technosphere has to do with, is maybe one of the starting points of this deep reformulation of our attitude, which will be ‒ as I argue elsewhere ‒ a technoecological attitude. Could you develop a bit your own notion of autonomy?
  • Peter Haff: Autonomy is the key, as it reflects the necessities of a system too large for human understanding that must yet survive. Many people think that we control technology; locally we do, but no, we are actually like a molecule in a wave, we are moved along by the wave. Locally humans may have authority, of course; but autonomy, it means that at the large scale the system runs itself, without primary regard for human concerns. It’s trying to survive; it’s doing whatever is in its own best interests.
This text is a partial transcript of an Exchange during A Matter Theater at HKW, Berlin, October 18, 2014.