Humans, and our early ancestors, have had a long history of altering our environment to suit our needs. If we want to truly understand our interaction with and in the biosphere, we have to do so by looking at analogs and extensions of ideas from biology. This view is the foundation of technoecology.
A key component of this discussion is the formulation of an analogy for the ecosystem. An ecosystem can be defined as a system of living organisms (bioitic components) and non-living elements (abiotic components).
A system itself is a cohesive interaction of parts that function together and have a defined boundary: it is possible tell whether something is part of a system or not. A system may be closed or open, although closed systems are essentially theoretical, unless we’re talking about, perhaps the universe as a whole. (SEBoK)
The analog of the ecosystem is the anthroposystem. An anthroposystem consists of humans, along with the “things” humans create, exchange, and use, including ideas, which are intangible “things.” The larger combined system of all anthroposystems is the technosphere, which is analogous to the biosphere. The technosphere is also sometimes known as the “anthroposphere.” However, this text will use technosphere to prevent confusion between “anthroposphere” and “anthroposystem.”
To continue the analogy, just as there are biotic and abiotic components related to an ecosystem, there are anthropic and ananthropic components of an anthroposystem. A laborer would be an anthropic component. So would a business. Livestock and raw materials, on the other hand, are examples of ananthropic components.
It’s too complicated to get into a discussion of what life is. However, biologists use certain properties that pretty much all living things having in common (with possibly the exception of viruses if you count them as living). The seven properties usually attributed to life are homeostasis (maintaining a constant internal environment), metabolism, reproduction, growth, response to stimuli, organization, and heredity. Humans themselves of course perform all of these operations, but so do many institutions that humans form, such as businesses and other organizations. We can think of these entities as the lifeforms that live within a given anthroposystem.
Benefits to this Analogy
There are many reasons why it is beneficial to construct a theory of the technosphere. One of the major benefits of such a discussion is to help us understand economics and politics. An issue with economic and political theory is that they are both prone to extreme polarization. The study of biology is far more immune to such squabble. In addition, economics and politics are difficult to study because, unlike many fields of science, it’s is either nearly impossible or unethical to establish an experiment. Manipulating a group of people for the purpose of studying its impact is clearly not an acceptable way of studying these fields. Manipulating biological systems, or even creating isolated systems is far easier and arguably is far more ethical. In addition, there is already a large amount of data available from the study of biological systems. This data and the theories created with them, can be brought over to the realm of economics and political science, if an analogy were established.
And while it is true that there are a number of analogies that exist in this area of study already, technoecology, the holistic study of the technosphere, is different in three ways.
- It attempts to be broader than other research topics, such as industrial ecology.
- It seeks to establish a two way analogy between the technosphere and the biosphere, so that theories from economics and other areas of study can be applied to biological questions.
- As the definition implies, technoecology is holistic. The goal of technoecology is to understand the entire system and how each component fits together. Industrial ecology is a much more narrow field, focusing on energy flows through industrial systems. It does not take into account more general human interactions.
Originally published on Medium