SemioSphere and Cognition

Lenartowicz, M. . Creatures of the Semiosphere – A problematic third party in the ‘humans plus technology’ cognitive architecture of the future global superintelligence . Technological Forecasting and Social Change . January 2017


Human beings can exert selective pressure on emerging new life-forms. The theory of the Global Brain argues that the foreseen collective and distributed super-intelligence will include humans as its key beneficiaries. The collective architecture will include both humans and such new technologies. DPB: the selective pressure is on signals, the basic unity of communication: namely on the ‘utterances’ &c., information and understanding. According to Luhmann a social system is autonomous and this includes AGI development and GB. Humans can attempt to nudge and irritate these systems to change course, but the outcome of the evolutionary process cannot be known in advance and is therefore uncertain. This article serves to offers a new combination of existing theories: theory of adjacent possible (Kauffmann), semiosphere (Lotman), social systems (Luhmann), Theory of Intelligence (Heylighen). The history of the human species can be re-interpreted such that it is not the individual human being but the social systems that are the more advanced human intelligence currently operating on Earth.

Locating the Crown of Creation

To assume that the human being is the final feat of evolution, is, given its other accomplishments, indefensible. Only our feeling of self-importance makes us believe that we should (and will) remain around forever. Exposing that and theorizing about what comes next is therefore justified. ‘It seems now that we are starting to abandon yet another undue anthropocentric belief that the Artificial (DPB: including AGI), which is passing through our hands, is in simple opposition to the Natural and, as such, is excluded from the workings of evolution’ [p 2]. Because why is the passing through human hands be fundamentally different from the passing through a chemical or a physical process? There is no design condition with regards to size: ‘While the idea does appear fantastic when applied to human beings, for nature such shifts between scales – called meta-system transitions – Turchin 1977, Heylighen 1995) are nothing new’ [p 3]. This is extensively formulated in the theory of the global brain. The crux is an ever thickening and complicating network of communication that humans contribute to and process. According to the global brain the next stage in the evolution of intelligence ‘belongs to a complex, adaptive, cognizing network of interconnected agents: humans and technological systems (Heylighen 2015). A thinking, computing, analysing and strategizing, problem-spotting and problem-solving organ of the planet Earth herself’ [p 3]. DPB: it appears that there is no environment for an evolutionary stage where the entire (surface of) the Earth is occupied with the same; who performs the three selecting processes? An additional question is whether the passed-on crown will still be in our hands. Anthropomorphism is a constrain when thinking about these long term questions. Hence an alternative hypothesis: the social systems are the most intelligent systems on Earth at this point.

An Empty Niche in Hunter-Gatherer’s Eden

Genetically we belong to Eden’ [p 4]. Heylighen assumes that the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (a kind of a reference for the direction and level of adaptedness of human beings, the environment for which we are fit) is based on the hunter-gatherers era. Their fitness was supported by the development of language and other symbolic means of communication. These came about as a variation of the means for ‘exchanging useful information with others’ (Heylighen): ‘Thus, language has become a functional adaptation of the species and, by proving remarkably useful, it got selected to stay’ [p 5]. DPB: In this way language is a feat of biological evolution, adding to the fitness of people, namely through its usefulness. Luhmann’s view on language is that it serves a specific role in between the mind and the communication; that surely being one of his more foggy moments, language, from the moment the first ‘mbwa’ was repeated, came to be autonomous, and hence it was initially selected to stay because it added to the hunter-gatherer’s fitness, or, at least it was of some use and did not harm her enough to be selected away. But that provides sufficient space for language to develop itself in its particular evolutionary process (and not as per Luhmann’s special trajectory). The evolution of the swim bladder has had advantages for the fish and in addition it has created an ‘adjacent possible’, namely a new niche for particular bacteria. In the same vein, the development of symbolic means of communication have provided humans with a new feature, and has created an adjacent possible, ‘within which new designs of evolution could appear. And, what is most spectacular: this niche was created outside the biosphere, giving rise to what Yuri Lotman (2001, 2005) called the semiosphere’ (emphasis by the author) [p 6]. First, this proved to be a pragmatic form of signaling and coordinating of actions. Second it provided an increase of the representational capacity. Third, language enabled the building of relations between occurrences of communication, the semiosphere;’They could refer to, describe, interpret, and evaluate other occurrences of symbolic communication, which have happened before’ [p 6]. In that environment these components of communication, new evolutionary forms could assemble (DeLanda), individuate (Simondon 1992, Weinbaum&Veitas 2016), self-organize (Heylighen 1989, 2002) and evolve. And their evolution again created additional adjacent possibles to be occupied by yet other symbolic forms.

Individuation of the Semiospecies

Therefore, if we consider the development of language as giving rise to the (as yet) empty niche of the semiosphere, it would be the Luhmannian social systems what should be considered the newcomers – the novel forms of life, enabled to emerge and evolve by the adjacent possible’ [p 8]. DPB: I annoted here ‘sunfall’: sounds great but I forgot why. Otherwise it is a good quote to sum up what is explained in the previous paragraph. When it was empty, the semiosphere contained only individual instances of communication for single use, unentangled with other. ‘.. the ‘already not-empty’ semiosphere included also complex, lifelike entanglements of such instances, capable of the prolonged perpetuation of their own patterns and of exerting influence onto their own respective environments (Lenartowicz, Weinbaum & Braathen 2016)’ [p 8]. These entanglements take place as per the three selections of information, utterance and understanding (Luhmann 2002). When these selections are made then three distinctions are added to the semiosphere: the information making boundary between marked (the information that was selected to be included in the signal) and unmarked space (what could have been chosen but wasn’t; and remain available as an ‘adjacent possible’ for a next state), the semiotic boundary between the signified and the signifier (carrier of the information, the form or utterance) and the sense-making boundary between the created sign (and the context (the situation against which the understanding was selected, and harnessed because it was selected at the expense of other ways to understand it). DPB: whatever the signal is made of, once it is a sign (information uttered and understood) the next state of the communication is different from its previous state, but not so different that the communication stops. And hence it is individuating to ever more crystallize the communication monadically! The point Marta makes (and told me she introduced in the NASA article where I can’t find it back in) is that the concept of memes connects with this model: they are what it is that hooks the sequences of signals together to become a communication. I am trying to find a suitable example to illustrate this. ‘.. each of such couplings between two occurrences of communication may be seen as one occurrence ‘passing judgment’ – or projecting its own constitution – upon another. The combinatorial possibilities of how any single occurrence may be related to by a following one are multiple’ [p 10]. DPB: this reminds me of the idea that intention consists in fact of processes of attraction and repulsion. At every state the configuration of properties of the elements / parts is such that its relations seem to favor some and shy away from other possible future states, namely by causing an attraction to some and a repulsion from others. ‘In time, the interacting occurrences of communication form ever-complicating streams, in which each occurrence adheres to many others in multiple ways. Gaining in length, ‘mass’, and coherence, these strings form ‘metastable entities in the course of individuation whose defining characteristics change over time but without losing their long term intrinsic coherence and distinctiveness from their milieu’ (Lenartowicz, Weinbau & Braathen 2016)’ (emphasis by the authors) [p 11]. DPB: the remark about coherence reminds me firstly of the idea of connotations: loose, associative relations between signs. The semiosphere is the universe of all the occurrences of all the symbolic communication. It emerged at the first intentionally issued and understood symbol. DPB: can it be that this occurred at the first instance of 2nd order observation: the issuer of the signal observed and understood that her production of (what was turning out to be) a signal, brought about something in another person in the shape of a kind of behavior (or the lack of it: use your knife and fork!), remembered how to produce the signal, and hence deemed useful to do it again whenever that effect, namely the reaction in the other was desired by the issuer. Conversely now the perceiver understands that the issuer has a particular kind of behavioral reaction in mind whenever she issues that signal and so she remembers it also and when it it is perceived and understood in the future that kind of behavior can be produced (eat with knife and fork, but now very noisy). ‘But a semiosphere understood as a simple aggregate of all communicative occurrences happening in the world was bound to be ‘empty’, as a niche, as long as these communicative occurrences did not relate to one another. If they did not relate, they could not be conserved, and thus had to dissolve momentarily’ [p 11]. DPB: I interpret this as to mean that the the semiosphere could be filled only after it was possible to repeat the use of the signals, and I assume it also means that then it is required to start using them in each other’s context, such that they can be constructed by framing/deframing/reframing them (Luhmann 2002). The repetition allowed for individuation of language and communication to take place; stigmergy provided a memory for the objects and places of interest for the hunter-gatherers’ communities. ‘As a result, the boundaries of social systems were practically equal to the topological boundaries delineating the groups of people who were trained in their processing: if anyone was going to reinforce a certain communication by referring to it within the close circle of its eye and ear witnesses’ [p 13]. DPB: this is how we do things around here and if you act like this you surely can be only one of them. When the use of symbols occurred is uncertain, but at least prior to the earliest cave paintings 40ky ago.

A superintelligence which goes unnoticed

The above can be summarized in the statement that assemblages of symbols can self-organize and individuate into creatures of the semiosphere. Now the next step is the statement that these creatures behave intelligently, given that: ‘The thought experiment proposed here is different (to considering the preponderance of the intelligence of a group of people over that of a number of individuals, DPB). It is to consider the intelligence of the self-organizing streams communication delineated in such a way, which treats the human species as their environment’ [p 14]. DPB: I have referred to this condition of people in regards to their relation to communication or memeplexes as a substrate. Should I replace the more unfriendly substrate for environment? The definition of intelligence of Heylighen is used: ‘.. not abstract reasoning (agree DPB), thinking (this is Weaver’s approach, DPB), or computing (this is my approach, but meant in the sense of information processing). It is rather directing and coordinating the actions of an organism within its environment’ [p 14]. DPB: I am not sure of the relevance of the concept of intelligence for my research subject. As it is defined here it is similar to the capacity to anticipate, namely reduce the uncertainties from the environment. In the same vein it can be stated that intelligence is the processing of information from outside so as to steer the operations of a system so as to maintain its autopoiesis intact. The article refers to Heylighen 2014, who points at fitness, but I am not so sure about that concept: it is a constant: a level of performance of the internal operations which is required to have the smallest possible advantage in the real over the entities in the environment. I don’t know. The concept of environmental fitness might be explained by this model of three layers: 1. the environment which is referred to by the communication, 2. other occurrences of symbolic communication, and 3. substrate needed for the operating of the system, namely through uttering, memory, selection making, &c. ‘Once a communication is immortalized through writing, print, digitalization, or another for of recording, it may as well wait decades or centuries for its follower’ [p 16]. DPB: my annotations says stigmergy, but I don’t think that is intended with that concept. It reminds me of the way people can interact in my Logistical Model: there is no reason this should be ‘live’, or at the same location or even at the same time. In other words: to read a book is logically a way to interact with the author of the book. This admittedly feels asymmetrical, because it a one-way thing because you cannot talk back at the author to let her know your response. It is a signal that damages the reader but the not the other way around. And there is also no 2nd order observation in place. But: it is a signal, a meme changes state and so at least it is a bubble. ‘Symbols, narratives, context, and operational consequences can be always restored. This suggests that while, in the most general sense, the environmental fitness of any ‘semiocreature’ hinges on the ability to attract and tie successive occurrences of communication, this process does not have to be continuous nor instant’ [p 16]. DPB: I am curious about the ‘tying’: that is represented by my connotations. ‘What is less frequently realised is that the (re-)presentations are potentially stoppable at any time through a simple withdrawal of all reinforcing communication-making activity on the human side. But this seems to be about the only possible way of dismantling them, as occurrences of communication do reinforce the (re-)presentations of social systems even if they aim to criticize, challenge, or modify them. ‘Semiocreatures’ which are being spoken of are never dead’ [p 17]. DPB: this reminds of the saying that any publicity is good publicity. Also this is why some politicians remain popular for an unimaginable long time. Lastly this refers to the idea of familiarization: when referred to more often, an idea stays on top of mind, but if referred to less often it becomes less and less ‘readily available’ (paraat). Perhaps the idea is not realised so often (as per above) because according to Spinoza people can’t help themselves and they must talk. (With a reference to the ability to deal out stuff to people that are to the advantage of the dealer and not the person) ‘If intelligence is measured by the ability to safeguard and increase one’s own environmental fitness, when confronted with a ‘semiocreature’, we are quite fast to give it up’ [p 18].

Social Systems and Autopoiesis

Lenartowicz, M. . Linking Social Communication to Individual Cognition: Communication Science between Social Constructionism and Radical Constructivism . Constructivist Foundations vol. 12 No 1 . 2016

I wish to differentiate between between a social species in the organic, animalistic sense and the interconnectivity of social personas in social science’s sense. While the former expresses its sense structures, co-opting language and other available symbolic tools towards its own autopoietic self-perpetuation and survival, the latter (personas) self-organize out of the usages of these tools – and aggregate up into larger self-organizing social constructs’ [p 50]. DPB: I find this important because it adds a category of behavior to the existing ones: biological (love of kin &c.), the social (altruism) of the category that improves the probability that the organisms survives, and added is now externally directed behavior that produces self-organization in their aggregate. ‘If we agree to approach social systems as cognitive agents per se, we must assume that there will be instances, or aspects, of human expression that are rather pulled by the “creatures of the semiosphere”, as I call the autopoietic constructs of the social (Lenartowicz 2016), for the sake of their own self-perpetuation, than pushed by the sense-structures of the human self’ [p 50]. DPB: I like this idea of the human mind being attracted by some aspects of social systems (and / or repelled by others); a term that is much used in ECCO is whether ‘something resonates with someone’. The argument above is that a push and a pull exist and that in the case of the social, the semiotic creatures have the upper hand, over the proffered biological motivations. ‘The RC (radical constructivist) approach to human consciousness must, then, be balanced by the RC view of the social as an individuated, survival-seeking locus of cognition. The difference between the two kinds of organic and symbolic expressions of sociality, which are here suggested as perpetuating the two distinct autopoietic systems, .. has finally settled the long-standing controversy about whether social systems are autopoietic (..), demonstrating that both sides were right. They were simply addressing two angles of the social. Maturana’s objections originated from his understanding of social relatedness as a biological phenomenon (the organic social), whereas the position summarized by Cadenas and Arnold-Cathalifaud was addressing the social as it is conceived by the social sciences (the symbolic social). The difference here is not in the different disciplinary lenses being applied to the same phenomenon. Rather, it is between two kinds of phenomena, stemming from the cognitive operation of two kinds of autopoietic embodiments. For one, the social is an extension, or an expression, of the organic, physical embodiment of a social species. It does not form an operational closure itself. For the other, the social has happened to self-organize and evolve in a manner that has led it to spawn autonomous, autopoietic and individuating cognitive agents – the “social systems” about which Luhmann wrote’ [p 50]. DPB: this is a long quote with some important elements. First the dichotomy is explained between the social aspects of humans. Second the reason why Maturana was, of all people, opposed to the applicability of autopoiesis to social systems. Now it seems clear why. Third, embodiment is introduced: for the organic social, the social is an extension of the physical embodiment of the individual, but without the autonomy; for the other the social ís the embodiment, namely it self-organizes and evolves into autonomous systems. I like that: the organization at the scale of the human and the organization at the level of the aggregate of the humans.