A field guide from the present on organisms of the future

  1. On organisms
  2. On organisms of the present.
  3. On organisms of the future. 
1. On Organisms

a. Organisms are persistent complex systems with functionally differentiated components engaged in a cooperative, dynamic pattern of activity.

b. Organisms typically[1] play a role as components of other organisms. Similarly, the components of organisms are typically themselves organisms. Organisms may have components at many different scales relative to other organisms. 

c. The components of organisms can be widely distributed in space and time. Each component will typically play multiple, cascading roles for many different organisms at many different scales. 

d. There are no general rules for identifying the components of an organism. It may be easier to identify the persistent organism itself than to identify its components or the roles they play. 

e. The persistence of an organism consists in the persistent cooperation of its components. The organism just is this pattern of cooperation among components. This pattern may be observed without full knowledge of its components or the particular role they play. This resolves the apparent paradoxes in 1d. 

f. Organisms develop over time, which is to say that the components of an organism may change radically in number and role over its lifetime. This development is sensitive to initial conditions and is subject to a potentially large number of constraints. Among these constraints are the frictions introduced by the cooperative activity itself. 

g. The cooperation of the components of an organism is also constrained by components that are common to many of the organism's other components. It is against the background of these common components that cooperation takes place. Common components typically constrain the cooperation of the components of many other organisms, and provide anchors for identifying the cooperative relationships among organisms as a community. For this reason, common components may be thought of as the environment in which a community of organisms develop[2]. A component is more central in a community as more organisms within the community have that component as a common constraint on cooperation.

h. Space and time are central components that constrain the development of all organisms.

i. The lifetime of all organisms is finite, but may be irregular or even discontinuous in both space and time.

2. On organisms of the present

a. Organisms of the present typically have natural components (like water) that function as central components for many other organism.

b. The persistence of some central natural components (especially the global climate) have come under threat by the dynamics of the present. A threat to these central  components likewise threatens the persistence of the many organisms they enable.

c. Some organisms of the present have technological components (like cell phones) produced through human cooperative activity. While these organisms are typically components of human organisms, some technological organisms have humans as components. These organisms are typically called organizations

d. Every human community is an organism of this type. Every business, religion, city, social network, and political institution is an organism of this type. Every human organism is a component of an indefinite number of organisms of this type. Some of these organisms are among the largest and most powerful to have ever roamed the earth. Some of these organisms are responsible for the threats mentioned in 2b. Others are entirely benign, or even beneficial. As an ecosystem, organisms of this type demonstrate a breathtaking diversity of species with highly differentiated roles and configurations. Language, culture, tradition, location, and history are among the central components that constrain the cooperation of organisms of this type. 

e. In the present there are no generally reliable methods for cultivating organisms of this type. Most of these organisms developed haphazardly and are managed through human rituals practiced over dozens or even hundreds of generations. These rituals are typically parochial in scope and inflexible in method, which reduces the number of common components that might enable cooperation with other organisms. This, in turn, introduces frictions in the cooperation of organisms of this type. These frictions become unmanageable at large scales, and impede cooperation at those scales.

f. These cooperative frictions are a constraint on the development and persistence of organisms. In particular, it constrains components of type 2d in their attempts to address threats of type 2b. These are the primary challenges organisms of the present face when considering their persistence. Organisms of the future will develop in response to these constrains.

g. Some organisms of the present will persist into the future. Many others will not. 

3. On organisms of the future

a. Organisms of the future typically have technological components that function as central components for many others organisms.

b. The ratio of technological to natural central components can serve as a measure of the technological maturity of organisms. The change of this ratio over time measures an organism's velocity towards technical maturity. While this velocity is typically positive for organisms of the future, it is neither constant nor consistent across organisms-- the future is unevenly distributed. For some organisms this velocity can even be negative.

c. Technological maturity does not predict persistence.

d. The organisms of the future that are available in the present represent test cases for certain future configurations of technological components, which we can evaluate from the present for their potential to serve as central components for organisms of the future. Of particular interest are those technologies that enable alternative cooperative environments in which a community of organisms might develop.

e. Central technological components may alleviate the threats of type 2b by making alternative environments of cooperation available to developing organisms. Alternative technological environments may enable alternative means of cooperative persistence, thus reducing the burden on natural components, and may open possibilities for cultivating organisms and with configurations necessary to address threats of type 2b directly.

f. Potential technological components cannot be evaluated in isolation, but only in particular cooperative relations with other components. Absent details of these communities and their relations, no predictions can be made about their potential impact on threats of type 2b. Distinct configurations of even the same components may have unexpected consequences.

g. Organisms of the present have no idea what cooperative activity the future might require. We can only evaluate future technologies given the constraints of the present.

h. There is no guarantee that we will find successful technological configurations of the future given the constraints of the present.

i. The future will arrive, ready or not.


[1] "Typically" here means "characteristic of the type", in the sense that permits exceptions. These are neither necessary nor sufficient conditions.

[2] The terms "community" and "environment" are useful for describing the relationships between organisms at different scales, but these terms only have extension relative to some fixed scale that must be explicit. Strictly speaking, our ontology consists only in components and their cooperative relations (= organisms).