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Biology, Society and Machines

George Bugliarello

On January 6, 1998, a 100-year-old water main broke beneath Fifth Avenue in New York City. The rapidly escaping water eroded a crater that stopped traffic and many nearby businesses. Part of the surprise of this event lies in the multiple layers of infrastructure revealed below the street. But equally surprising is how intimately the vibrant, hurly-burly life of the city is intermingled with its devices and structures.

Figure 1. Water-main break on Fifth AvenueClick to Enlarge Image

Pulling back from this crater, one sees that these interconnections form the rich tapestry of modern life. Here is a city where more than seven million people live, representing all the world's races, cultures and classes. Their lives revolve around a plethora of machines, from cellular phones and pagers to those water and sewer systems, telephone and electrical conduits and busy subway tunnels revealed when you slice down into the ground. The environment of New York City has become so artificial that residents probably could not survive as individuals or as a society without machines. In many such modern cities, the lines between people, social structures and various forms of technology meld together seamlessly. I call this kind of interaction a biosoma, because it is an indissoluble combination of biology, society and machines.

Technology, the process that human societies devised to produce and use machines, is itself the quintessential biosoma. The outgrowths of technology include the ability to modify our biology through genetic engineering, to escape earth's gravity through aerospace engineering and even to wipe out much of life on earth through nuclear warfare. Nuclear warfare, in fact, provides a clear example of a biosoma, because it requires a combination of people to make the bombs, social constructs that bring one faction against another and machines, including the bombs themselves and devices used to build and deploy them. If we think carefully, virtually every human activity—agriculture, commerce, education, health care, industry and more—depends directly or indirectly on our interactions as individuals with society and machines.

Despite the prevalence of such bio-socio-machine complexes, we rarely consider their broad implications. Nevertheless, our future depends on understanding the different characteristics, potentials and pathologies of the three elements of a biosoma and the opportunities that a well-guided synergism can offer.

Imbalance in Agriculture

To describe the dynamics of a biosoma, I shall focus briefly on agriculture. Here, the biological portion consists of farmers, plants and animals. The social elements include a variety of factors that influence agriculture, including property laws, irrigation districts, the industries that produce agricultural implements, the markets for the products, the banks that finance farmers and so on. The machines include the implements that a farmer uses, from hoes and tractors to irrigation channels and weather satellites.

In its earliest forms, agriculture involved very simple machines and social organizations, perhaps nothing more complicated than a stick and some decisions regarding who planted and who picked. Over the years, machines and social organizations have become increasingly important in agriculture. Advances in agricultural machinery, for instance, greatly reduced the number of individual farmers. In the U.S., less than five percent of the workforce is now engaged in agriculture. Moreover, some machines allow farms to be run from a distance, say by using advanced weather-prediction techniques to decide on the timing of sowing and other operations or by using heavily automated equipment, including irrigation systems controlled by soil-moisture sensors. Meanwhile the biological components of farming remain relatively unchanged.

Problems arise in a biosoma when there are imbalances among its elements. If agricultural machines change quickly, a farmer might be unable to cope with their complexity. Some people think this happens more frequently in underdeveloped countries, but it can happen in the U.S. as well; hence the importance of agricultural extension services. Machines also tend to become much more costly or powerful. Rapid technological development can force changes in property ownership, such as the disappearance of small farms in the U.S., or encourage excessive development of monocultures, which are more efficient for machine cultivation but devastating ecologically and dangerous for their susceptibility to disease.

In many cases, the three elements of a biosoma do not stay in balance because of differences in response times. The social element of a biosoma often responds slowly to innovations in the machines element. These frequently require new organizational patterns, new laws, the development of new perceptions or the evolution of new customs. An example of the difficulties in bringing about technological innovation is that of countries of the former Soviet Union, where the remains of the rigid Soviet social structure and the associated frame of mind are major obstacles. As a second example, many educational systems have been very slow in adapting to the new possibilities offered by the Internet.

Elementary Differences

Biology, social systems and machines vary in performance because of their different natures. For one thing, a utilitarian machine—say a toaster—has a specifiable task, but the task and performance of biological organisms and social entities may not be so easily defined. In addition, the different elements of a biosoma are prone to generating different errors. The varying characteristics of the elements can have serious implications for a biosoma's performance.

The human element of a biosoma is bound to commit random errors in performance, and it is powerfully affected by psychological factors. For example, an air-traffic controller will make unpredictable errors, and they may be more frequent under stressful conditions. Society, too, is subject to random errors, which are highly volatile and idiosyncratic. As history demonstrates, society can generate grievous systematic errors, such as those stemming from political theories implemented too rapidly without the benefit of effective checks and balances.

Machines, on the other hand, unlike people and societies, are not likely to commit random errors in their performance if they are well designed. So we rely increasingly on them to strengthen the checks and balances of biological and social systems. This can be done with devices such as drugs or pacemakers that help to restore physiological balances, or with models, simulations and so on, which enhance society's ability to achieve a balanced solution to complex problems. One such problem is the control of damaging emissions to the atmosphere. Unfortunately, such checks and balances can also be achieved through the immense power of new weapons, as in the nuclear stalemate between superpowers. On the other hands, machines can increase risks in two ways. They can fail because of systematic errors in design that may be hard to detect, as in the case of very complex software. And as our dependence on machines increases, those that are designed to help restore our innate system of checks and balances of our biology may also, paradoxically weak them. For example, people with physical limitations (such as debilitating nearsightedness) might be kept alive by machines (eyeglasses). If a machine fails, these people are at great risk and the recuperative capacity of the species is weakened. The compounded effects of the characteristics of a biosoma need to be clearly understood if it is to enhance rather than endanger us.

Balanced Benefits

A fundamental challenge for our civilization is to identify and provide every individual with the minimal level of biosoma that is essential for survival, health and human dignity. Civilization has little meaning if this minimum level is not met. It is a level that must extend beyond purely biological needs to encompass a set of indispensable machines and social interactions. To see how far we are from achieving it, one needs only to look at the earth's one billion poor or at the ways we destroy, often carelessly and inadvertently, human dignity.

The essential biosoma changes with each individual, with age, with disease or injury, and from one society to another. There are, however, certain needs—such as food, shelter, water and affection—that are universal. There are also ever-newer requirements for survival in an increasingly complex society. For instance, the several hundred heat-wave fatalities that occurred in Chicago three summers ago could have been avoided if more attention had been paid to the deadly combination of machines and society that caused them: victims living in stifling, airless cubicles in "projects," at times without water and with doors and windows closed because of fear of crime.

In an increasingly information-based society, a new and potentially devastating kind of poverty is information disenfranchisement, the lack of access to computers, telephones or the Internet. Some people lack access to the information that has become indispensable for jobs, health and political participation. For example, there may be more than one billion people in the world who have never made a phone call.

Beyond the essential biosoma, we can aspire to a level where the biological, social and machine elements are well balanced, are sustainable indefinitely without destroying the environment and enhance the human condition. These desirable biosoma levels can be achieved only if we succeed in avoiding imbalances among the three elements. In a world in which hunger remains rampant, machines and organizations hold the key to producing more food and distributing it equitably. But machines can unduly influence the development of society and consume too many of our resources or destroy us through war and terrorism. Likewise, a social element may overwhelm individuals, as in societies in which an individual has no rights.

The synergy of humans, society and machines—the biosoma—is the fundamental cause of the unprecedented material prosperity of many nations. An assessment of contemporary society might lead one to conclude, however, that the state of our biosoma is already counterproductive. The organized use of machines is dominating our daily life by forcing us to spend hours in congested traffic, by steadily making our work more abstract and threatening its very ethos, and by and leading to a deterioration of person-to-person interactions, replacing them with person-to-machine ones. Is our present condition transitory? Will it eventually lead to a more balanced and desirable biosoma or will these trends will be exacerbated? To approach these questions, we must develop a much broader interdisciplinary education for everyone—specialists and non-specialists alike—so that we can understand the promise as well as the dangers that can arise from interactions between biology, society and machines.

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