The article is behind a paywall, so I cannot reproduce it here, but if you are a subscriber, here you go.
I find it generally hard to read SciAm these days, as well as many other scientific sources, because of the pervasive species-ism (humans unique, more important than all others) found sadly among scientists.
But this article was, I thought, a real disappointment, coming from SciAm. I sent this letter to the author:
I read your SciAm article with the above title, and I found it scientifically sloppy and offensively tone deaf, given the state of our planet today (specifically the threat of climate change and human-cause extinctions and species degradation).
You might not read past that initial paragraph but if you do:
I am all for interesting “thought experiments”, but it should have a reasonable amount of logical consistency. I think your experiment fails in this regard.
Specifically, you talk about the growth of order on earth from production of cultural information.
This implies a clear net positive change in order due to our intensely “ordered” products.
Yet previously, you recognized that there is order (lots of it) in living things.
And that's where I see a very deep (specie-ist-driven) fallacy: to create our products humans destroy a vast amount of living things and therefore wipe out corresponding enormous amounts of order.
Vast parts of the rainforest, extinction of entire species, degradation of the ocean, etc., etc., etc. - do you really think that if you even attempted to conceptualize the volume of order sacrificed to build iPhones, you could come out with a net positive growth in order?
I suppose it might be remotely possible - but you don’t even address this trade-off, making your argument incomplete and sloppy. I am very surprised that SciAm did not insist on a more rigorous treatment.
Sdaly, you seem to blithely accept that destruction of life on our planet in order to manifest our culture-as-thought as products.
Which that brings me to…
Offensively Tone Deaf
Your insistence to see the entire world through a human filter and impose human paradigms onto the rest of the natural world is shocking, giving the growing awareness (especially among the most rational of us, like many scientists).
“A tree, for example, is a computer”
“Objects of this kind [manufactured products] are particularly special.”
“Biological cells are finite computers”
“People are also limited, and we transcend our finite compuational capacities by forming social and professional networks.”
You use words that impute relentlessly positive values to human activity.
Yet if you do not place humans “above” all others, you could at least say (my changes in bold):
“People are also limited, and we augment our finite compuational capacities by forming social and professional networks. A necessary consequence of this agumentation is the destruction of the computational capacities of billions of other living creatures.”
At the very end of your muddled thought experiment, you finally hint at a bigger picture:
“The resulting hyperconnected society will present our species with some of the most challenging ethical problems in human history.”
Ah, ethics! Finally! Professor Hidalgo will now point out the grave price paid by our planet and co-inhabitants for human's desire for comfort and convenience, but....
No, no. For you, like way too many other humans, all that matters is the human species.
“We could lose aspects of our humanity that some of us consider essential: for example, we might cheat death.”
Now that would be a real ethical disaster (cheating death) - precisely because it mean accelerated devastation of our planet and non-humans.
But that doesn’t seem to even register in your thinking.