The Irreducible Complexity of Technology

I’ve pointed out before that several of the foundations of electrical engineering, especially subatomic particles, are more mysterious than scientist-witches let on. However, I have not made the connection to technology explicit. Careful readers will be aware of my affinity for Luddite critic Neil Postman who, like Michael Jackson, Benazir Bhutto, and Heath Ledger,  is dead. My conclusions about technology are even more unsettling than Postman’s for, combined with his, they demonstrate that Technopoly is actually Cultic Technopoly – for technology in addition to exercising pre-rational control over our culture, is also magical.

My basic claim is that many technological devices in their current states cannot be explained within a consistent historical progression connecting to primitive inventions and discoveries – e.g. fire, the wheel, and language. In this sense technology is irreducibly complex. Put another way: there are evolutionary gaps in the development of technology.

EXAMPLE NUMBER ONE: THE CURIOUS CASE OF CELLULAR TELEPHONES
My first example comes from communication technology, especially cell phones. A long time ago it was discovered that you could talk into a tube and it would help the sound along quite a distance, and someone could hear you on the other end, maybe a few feet away. Then, there was a tangential invention of making lights (fires) light up and little bleeping sounds happen and these could be translated into language. Irrelevant. What I’m really interested in is the development of the telephone. We basically jumped to the development of the telephone. How did we learn that voices could magically – and silently (!) – be transported across great distances, even oceans (!), and come out on the other end completely intelligible? Add to that the fact that millions of voices can exist, perfectly separate and unconfused, in the same tiny thin wire! Add to that the fact that phone lines still work when the power is out and therefore need zero energy to operate! Add to that the fact that phone companies can add people to phone service without adding anything to the wires! Add to that the fact that you could be swimming in the Pacific and run into a phone line somewhere (?). Add to that the fact that there are satallites! How did we get from magically sending endless silent transfigured audio information which morphs back into voices through wires, to magically sending it through the air??!? The air, a.k.a empty space? You’ve got to be kidding me. Sometimes I talk through the air directly, and people don’t understand what I’m saying. What if I try talking to someone in China through the air, where my voice has to make several stops before getting there. Somehow, because of a box I hold into my ear, and some kind of spacecraft allegedly in outer space, and a box in their ear, and big towers with bleeping lights at the top so they don’t get hit by airplanes, they can hear me perfectly. Something fishy is going on here. Where’s the transitional development between talking through a short tube without electricity and talking into a magic box which sends invisible nothings into outer space and back through the atmosphere? What? It’s unbelievable. Wrap your mind around it, you can’t. To fully grasp the massive gaps in the history of technology, consider the diagram below of the evolution of telecommunication.

communication

EXAMPLE NUMBER TWO: COMPUTERS; OR, THE DEVIL’S TOOL
Academics are always making the completely asinine claim that such-and-such was the “first computer,” where “such-and-such” often is an abacus, and occasionally the human brain. Sorry, there is not legitimate connection between some guys playing with beads at a table and Google Earth. There are too many differences which cannot be bridged by any transitional cultural technological fossils. For one thing, computers today use electricity, which no one understands. We know how to conjure it, how to stop it from killing us in some cases, and that’s it. Try having a scientists explain electricity to you sometime. It’s complete bullshit (see glossary), like when a theologian tries to explain the doctrine of the trinity. At least the trinity doesn’t use electricity (usually).  In addition to the sudden transition from non-electric to electric, there is a transition from visible to invisible. We can all understand simple machines, like windmills or crowbars. But many parts of the computer, most everything aside from the cooling fan, are invisible. Look at a motherboard. What do you see? You see nothing useful. Consider the bizarre photographic representation below.

computer

What do you see? Nothing. Some white lines. A lot of spider-looking things. Some blue strips. A collection of things that look like a toy city, like when you’re in an airplane, and so on. Certainly nothing that looks like what shows up on your computer monitor screen. So how do we get to the point where we can make these things? Certainly none of the parts are useful by themselves. Many people will say: we have robots build them, since our hands are too big to build tiny things. But we built the robots in the first place! And besides, the only way we can tell robots what to do is with computers. And how did we know what invisible things to do on a flat board in order to make movies with Matt Damon appear on a shiny screen (which, by the way, is connected via a single wire)?

Computer technology also lends itself to many reductio ad absurdum arguments. For example, it means that the law of the conservation of things is false. For example, when I download the new Regina Spektor album, what have I added to my computer? Nothing. Magnets have just shifted around or something. Magnets, which by the way are essential to Hinduism. In any case, how can magnets produce Matt Damon’s face anyway? But back to the reductios. In addition to it being absurd that I can create something on my computer out of nothing, a.k.a Ex-Nihilism, it is additionally absurd that I could theoretically create a movie simply by moving magnets around, which hasn’t been created yet. According to computer science this is possible.

A third example of how technology is irreducibly complex which I don’t presently have the time to get into is the video camera, which cannot be explained with any coherency. For one thing, video cameras are supposedly not actually recording motion, they are recording frames of still images. This leads to the conclusion that video cameras are not video camera, a rather Orwellian turn of events if you ask me.

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32 thoughts on “The Irreducible Complexity of Technology

  1. So what? I don’t think these things are irreducibly complex… they are just complicated enough that without a considerable amount of training and understanding they will seem to be too complex to be true… I think you are detracting from the efforts of thousands of designers and engineers who, over years, have refined and exploited the most basic understandings we have of the world. Once pople had worked out that sound is made up of waves and that waves could be transmitted through different mediums such as air (which is not the void you seem to suggest it is) then it is a short jump to trying to send these waves through different media, and so on and so forth.
    Also, i don’t get what you’re trying to say about video cameras… they take images… as long as more than about 27 images are taken per second (I think, don’t quote me on that :) then when they are shown back to you your brain interprets them as one continuous moving image. Any clearer?

  2. One more thing……. Why do you use the term irreducible complexity? I assume you’re not trying to involve a god in this, are you?

  3. Excellent observations, NS. The only way to explain the ‘evolution’ of technology is through the ‘intelligent design’ of things. Left to their own devices, these things cannot, and will not, spontaneously form new and better technologies better adapted for the environment they are used in, especially on such short time scales.
    What about the first manned flight at Kitty Hawk in 1905 to the landing of a man on the moon 1969? This technological leap is full of holes that are unable to explained by time and random chance.

  4. Bravo NS! This is surely one of your finest essays, and will no doubt bring out the best in your readers, as it already has for Ian. I would add that medicine and medical technology would be another area rich with IR.

    Ian: “God” has no part in arguments for irreducible complexity; just ask any ID proponent.

    PS: The “human brain” link is broken, or maybe requires a cookie to be set prior to viewing.

  5. The fact that you can’t understand something doesn’t imply that it is incapable of being understood.

    It could just be that you’re an idiot.

    The fact that you cannot imagine how complex systems can be developed by people who are curious about the world and work to understand it doesn’t imply that such development did not in fact occur.

    It could just be that you lack imagination.

    You continually try to impose your own limitations onto the world.
    Try accepting them as inherent to yourself.

    Technology is not irreducibly complex. You are irreducibly stupid.

  6. There are many kinds of angels, NS.

    I have no respect for those who would tear down the works of others without offering anything better to replace them, especially when driven by motives as disgusting as misogyny and racial bigotry. You are a prime example of someone who is in dire need of a good slap in the face.

    For someone named Noted Scholar, your words have surprisingly little value.

  7. *tayks awf hyoomin mask*

    Ai is a foar-yeer-old femayl kitteh, hoo has bin spayd, so ai has no need ob a husbin. Mai hyoomin is a man hoo is alreddy mareed tu a wumin, so awlso has no need ob a husbin.

    *puts hyoomin mask bakk awn*

    Were you referring to me as a woman because you assumed that only a woman would be upset by misogyny, or because you feel women are inferior and that I’d be insulted? Or were you just too lazy to follow the link back to my profile, where you would plainly see that I post as either AngelPlume (a cat) or Angies Papa (her human)?

    I have already attacked your so-called logic directly, on other posts, to no avail. It still sucks. This post was particularly heavily weighted with your own disbeliefs and other mental limitations, so yes, I attacked the “man” who would make such repellant remarks instead. And if my wife tried using such language to advocate similar ideas, I would respond to her in kind. I tell it like I see it.

    If you want praise for your ideas, come up with something praiseworthy. As of now I feel nothing but contempt for you.

  8. My sweetest Angel,

    Both plumes and angels are intrinsically feminine, which is why I accurately described your identity. Strange people like you enjoy hiding their identities on the Internet. Yet another undesirable consequence of technology. See my guest post elsewhere:
    http://indradhanush-laal.blogspot.com/2008/11/technology-problems-and-prospects.html

    I would also point out that your defense of ad hominem is revealing. Since you cannot refute my actual claims, you resort to childish insults!

    NS

  9. Wrong again.

    This really gets tiring, having to correct everything you say. That’s what you’re hoping for, isn’t it? That people will eventually give up trying to educate you, so that the mistaken ideas you express will be perceived as true by default. Ah, well … here goes nothing.

    First, it seems you need a lesson in history about both angels and plumes.

    Angels are not “intrinsically feminine”. While many modern depictions of them are, probably to emphasize the more feminine traits of gentleness and loving-kindness attributed to them today, they have historically been predominantly male. Consider some examples from the Christian tradition. Angels are not often identified with a gender in their Bible, but see Genesis 16:7-8 for one that is specifically refered to as “he”. And there are named angels and archangels, like Gabriel and Michael, who are obviously male. I’m sure there are many more examples from this and/or other religions traditions.

    A plume, the way I am using it, refers to a feather. You will note from my avatar that I have an orange plume-shaped design on my forehead. And since what I do is write comments on blogs, it has the double meaning of being a writing instrument. You may have heard that in ancient times feathers (plumes or quills) were used as pens, and the term “nom de plume” translates as “pen name”. My actual name is Angelina, since Papa chose to keep me over my siblings because I was the most affectionate of the kittens – his “little angel” – so AngelPlume most directly refers to me as “Angelina the Writer”. I find it funny that you consider identifying a female cat as a woman with a husband to be an “accurate description of my identity” (tenses adjusted for context).

    Plumes were also worn as decoration. Papa is currently appearing in the play Cyrano de Bergerac, with costumes appropriate for the period (1640-1655). All the men have plumes in their hats. So where did you get the idea that it implies femininity? And what difference does it make for a discussion on a blog? I don’t care if you’re male, female, black, white, or purple. What matters here are the ideas you express, not anything as superficial as gender or race. At least that’s my belief – it seems many of the ideas you express are specifically about gender and race, as well as being disgustingly negative and/or abusive, which is what evoked my judgements of misogyny and racial bigotry toward you.

    Second, I do not try to hide my identity. My name always points back to my profile on ICHC, which has my picture clearly shown. It’s on Papa’s account, which gives a hint of his real name, but anyone with some cleverness could easily discover who he is as well. Since I don’t think you have much of that, I’ll be specific by pointing you to his WordPress account, which has a portrait photo of us both, as well as one of the many theatre reviews that shows him onstage. He is the central person in the fourth photo from the left on this review of the play Zelda’s Mama’s Cookin’.

    Third, I read your guest post, and don’t see how anonimity, or the other things you moan about in your article, are consequences of technology. Books and articles have been published either anonymously or under pen names many times in the past, long before computers ever caught on. And there has always been the issue of accuracy of information whenever someone publishes their ideas, which is why scientific papers need to go through a peer review process before being accepted for publication, or why people would go to a dictionary or encyclopedia published by a reputable source, known for their integrity and depth of verification, whenever a dispute needed to be resolved. The ubiquity and ease of use of the Internet does allow stupid and/or lazy people to assume that whatever they find there is accurate, but who really cares about them anyway? Clever yet unscrupulous folks have been taking advantage of such “marks” for a long time, and were probably the source of the saying that “it is morally reprehensible to allow a fool to keep his money.”

    What source(s) did you use for statements like “plumes and angels are intrinsically feminine”? Obviously not reputable ones, online or otherwise. I agree that the Internet community has not yet matured to the point where the veracity of any particular piece of information is obvious, but it is new yet, and I’m willing to give it a chance to evolve, rather than taking your approach of trying to knock it down with unsubstantiated diatribes which offer no positive alternatives.

    Fourth, my ad hominem approach was taken, as I said, since refuting your “actual claims” has not been very effective on past posts. Also, the claims you make on this page are so sweeping and so obviously ridiculous that to try addressing them directly would only give them more validity than they deserve, not to mention being too much work to spend on someone as misinformed as yourself.

    But for those who might feel that your claim of irrefutability substanitates your ideas of irreducible complexity, I will take one of them on. Let’s see, I’ll pick … cell phones.

    First, let’s look at the nature of sound. A simple example is a tuning fork that gives off a pure tone of sound. As the metal prongs vibrate back and forth, they push on and then pull away from the air molecules in the room, making waves of higher and then lower pressure. If you don’t believe that air exists, since you can’t see it, or that it can be pressurized, try squeezing an empty plastic milk carton with a pop-off lid. I realize you’re against doing experiments, but all I’m asking you to do here is squeeze it. You’ll notice that the lid pops off. This is because the air inside the bottle becomes compressed, which increases its pressure, until the force of it pressing on the underside of the lid exceeds the force pressing on it from above enough to overcome the friction of the plastic holding it in place. Easy enough?

    The pressure waves from the tuning fork propagate through the air of the room just like the waves on the surface of a pond propagate outward from a disturbance, such as would occur when you drop a rock into the pond. Your ear is sensitive to rhythmic changes in air pressure – cells with tiny hairs on them respond to the movements created by the pressure waves (just as a tree will bend in the wind) by generating nerve signals that travel to your brain and are interpreted as sound. I realize you don’t believe the brain exists (or at least that it doesn’t have this perceptual function), so perhaps you should imagine that the portion of your brain that is your ear automatically senses the sound as it arrives there from the tuning fork, or however else you imagine hearing to work.

    Speaking through a tube confines the pressure waves within the tube, since the waves tend to bounce off of things with higher density more than they would travel through them. So the tube focuses your voice to a narrower volume of air, by preventing it from spreading throughout the room, and thereby allows it to travel farther before diminishing to inaudibility. However, if you want to talk to someone across town, rather than across the street, it becomes cumbersome to build a tube for you to use.

    People began to think about other ways to transmit the sounds that came out of their mouths as pressure waves over greater distances, and came up with the idea of transforming the waves into a different medium that was more convenient to stretch across town, or even across oceans, so that they could be transformed back into pressure waves at the intended destination for the recipient to hear with their ears. Electricity provided an easy way to both transform, transmit, and recreate the waves.

    Electrical forces are intrinsic to matter as we know it, although in most cases the charged particles are equally represented, and therefore the electrical nature of most things is not obvious. However, we have all had some experience with electrical effects, such as if you’ve shuffled your feet across a carpet on a dry day, and then reached for a doorknob. The spark you see (and feel!) is the energy released by the abundance of electrical particles that you have scuffed off of the rug trying to balance themselves with the ones on the doorknob, which are deficient relative to your newly-enhanced electrical state. We call the particles “electrons”, and you can easily see the force they can generate by combing your hair on a dry day, and then holding the comb near a dribbling stream of water, such as from a faucet. I realize that this is another scientific experiment, which you loathe, but you always complain about not being able to “see” things. In this way, you can directly “see” that an abundance of electrical charge generates a force that can easily be demonstrated and measured, whether or not you believe that it is composed of “invisible” electrical particles.

    Experimenters quickly discovered that electrical forces could be gathered, stored, and transmitted over conductive materials, like metals, just as water can be gathered, stored, and trasmitted through hoses. And just as you can vary the pressure of the stream of water by stepping on the hose, you can vary the pressure of the electricity by changing the conductivity of the media through which it is being transmitted.

    Carbon, in the form of graphite, conducts electricity well, and in powder form it can be made to vary its conductivity in response to pressure waves in the air. When the powder gets compressed with the high pressure portion of the wave, it conducts electricity well, since the carbon grains are more closely packed together, allowing the electricity to find many avenues of transmission. When the powder is more loosely packed as it expands in the lower pressure portion of the wave, the flow of electricity is reduced, just like the water from the hose diminishes when you restrict its pathway with your foot.

    So a telephone works by transforming the high-low atmospheric pressure waves of your voice into high-low electrical pressure waves in the wire, which can conveniently be strung across town (or across an ocean!). On the receiving end, the electrical pressure waves are transformed back into atmospheric pressure waves through a simple electromagnet connected to a diaphragm. As the electrical pressure increases, the magnetic force generated by it in a coil increases, which pulls and pushes on a diaphragm which regenerates the pressure waves in the air in the same way the tuning fork creates an audible tone.

    Cellular phones go one step further by transforming the direct electrical current you can feel as a spark from your finger onto the doorknob into a pattern of electromagnetic waves. This is a little harder to explain, but you can easily see that when a piece of metal gets hot, like the filament in a light bulb, it emits electromagnetic waves that can be detected by your eye as light. Radio waves are of the same nature as light, but are of much lower energy, so do not stimulate the detectors in your eyes. They can, however, affect the metal of an antenna, and as such can be detected and transformed back into electrical waves like I discussed before. In this way, the signal can be transmitted from one antenna to another, even if there is no air or wires inbetween, just as the light from the sun reaches us here on Earth through the vacuum of space. This allows us to transmit the pattern of your voice to an orbiting satellite, so that you can talk to someone across the ocean without having to string wires underwater.

    So you see, I can refute your “actual claims” of irreducible complexity in ways that any normally intelligent person could understand. I don’t like doing so, because in my opinion you’re not worth putting forth the time and effort to do so. But since there are those who will read your blog who might not realize how innacurate your claims are, and who might believe your assertion that if they are not refuted then they must be true, I have taken the effort this time to demonstrate that calling you an idiot was not a “childish insult”, as you claim, but a reasonable assessment based on the evidence of your words compared with my own understanding of reality.

  10. Thanks, Ian *bows*

    By the way, NS followed the link to my WP site, and guess what – he posted a comment claiming that I set it up as a fake blog with a fake picture just to trick him! Even though my first post on it was last year (I only needed it to get an avatar picture on ICHC), and the portrait post was done over a month ago (they were having a “show your face day” on FailBlog, so I used it as a convenient place to upload a photo).

    “Nice try,” he said. Incredible! I think he may be hopelessly out of touch with reality as we know it.

  11. Wow, everyone knows you can manipulate time stamps. It’s called computer programming.

    Also, I would happily admit to being out of touch with reality as you know it, since in your reality, mystical fairies hold everything together, dinosaurs magically vanished one day, you can’t even see light, objects stop in mid-air upon descent, 0.999…=1, robotic piano players count as humans, need I go on?

    NS

  12. ***applause***
    I’ll second Ian, a truly great response from AngelPlume. I am very pleased to see my prediction come true:

    >>Bravo NS! This is surely one of your finest essays, and will no doubt bring out the best in your readers …

  13. Um, AngelPlume,

    You really shouldn’t be wasting your energy on this guy. You’re just giving him the attention he craves.

    “Noted Scholar”:

    Phone lines still work when the power is out because phone companies have their own generators. And sometimes there are problems even with those.

    Multiple people can talk on the same phone line because each signal is sent at a different frequency. But there is a finite limit to how many signals can be packed into each wire – it’s called “bandwidth.”

    As I said before, writing this blog is NOT going to help you meet girls.

    Oh wait! I just got it! You’re auditioning for the Onion!

  14. posting man, you continuously demonstrate your definition of chatterbox syndrome

    if you aren’t a poe, please lose your fingers and thus your ability to type

  15. amazing. you are pretty smart to see this. go pick up a history book. it’s a bunch of bullshit. it says man came from monkies, complete bullshit. it also says a fucken rock killed the dynasaurs. the true alchemy behind technology is hidden froom the populous.

  16. @Ian As bad as this dimbulb is, you haven’t seen anything until you check out what this off-the-wall. bull goose, looney is advocating: http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html

    This sumbitch, I shit you not, believes infanticide, with a view to anthropophagy, to be a perfectly acceptable solution to widespread famine!

  17. 1 mistake annd oe explaiation. 1st, air is ot empty space. 2nd the information is sent from the phone in the form of electomagnetic waves.

  18. One of my favorite thought experiments that led to the computer is the Turing machine. I suggest that you look it up.

  19. The turing machine provided a jumping board to the creation of the first electronic computers.

  20. having taken multiple classes in the field of Computer science, I can tell you that the magnets in a computer store information. the rest of it is what creates the image. btw, if you want to see how still images can capture motion look up ‘flipbook’

  21. “The turing machine provided a jumping board to the creation of the first electronic computers.”
    Sorry, but there are too many non-sequiturs here. I’m not denying the existence of Albert Turing.

    NS

  22. Student and tutor,

    “the magnets in a computer store information”
    But this is almost certainly a metaphor. It is not even clear what information is! Also, magnets produce action at a distance, which is impossible. I have doubts about magnets, although I haven’t posted on the subject.

    Till next time,
    NS

  23. Since magnets do produce force at a distance, then it’s clearly not impossible. And when I say information, what I mean is the pattern of 1′s and 0′s used to represent the programs installed on the computer, and the files created by its users. zbeba

  24. Mr. Turing’s machine simulates the 4 prime functions of a computer. 1 Input- the initial arrangement of symbols on the tape. 2 Processing- the movement of the read write head, and its manipulation of the symbols. 3 Storage- the tape’s ability to retain symbols when they are not being read 4 Output- the final arrangement of symbols on the tape.

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