New York city at night, lit-up skyscrapers against a black sky

Technosphere — The realm of technology

The technosphere is the realm of technology — machines, factories, computers, cars, buildings, the railway, all mobility infrastructure etc. Today we use technology to produce food, to extract material resources, to convert and distribute energy so it can be used in society, to enable other than mere face-to-face communication, and for many other purposes. The totality of technological infrastructures is what we call the “technosphere”. The term was introduced to General Systems Theory by the Canadian control engineer John H. Milsum (1925-2008) in the late 1960s. Milsum argued that the technosphere is distinct from other spheres of the Earth System, including the social sphere formed by all human beings. While the technosphere has been created by humans and serves human purposes, there is some controversy about its independence: Is the technosphere still controlled by humans? Or is it exceedingly escaping control? Does it, perhaps, even operate “according to a quasi-autonomous dynamics”, as Peter Haff (2014) has argued? Already back in the 1970s, the philosopher Günther Anders assessed that technological development has conquered the role of dominant “subject of history”, reducing the Anthropos to a mere bystander.

In any case, there is little doubt that the technosphere has expanded in human history, and particularly rapidly so since the dawn of industrialization. It leaped forward once again during the Great Acceleration after World War II, which saw an unprecedented generation and globalization of novel technologies. Since industrialization the technosphere has also emerged as the “control center” of material flows. Most of the materials extracted from the environment stay within the technosphere to further expand and maintain it. This explains why the expansion of the technosphere is key to understanding anthropogenic change in the Earth System (the “environment”) today. The current total mass of the technosphere has been estimated to weigh approximately 30 trillion tons, roughly five orders of magnitude larger than the biomass of all human beings living on earth. These dimensions explain why the technosphere has been called the “defining system of the Anthropocene” (Haff 2017). Geologists already detect its traces in recent sediments, for example in urban stratigraphy. Its enormous diversity is well-reflected in the variety of technofossils found in these most recent sediments, which provides the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) with evidence to define the lower boundary of this new geological epoch. 

Franz Mauelshagen


Researchers: Anna Echterhölter, Ulrike Felt, Thilo Hofmann, Franz Mauelshagen, Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik, Michael Wagreich

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