What Technology Wants

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* Book: What Technology Wants. By Kevin Kelly.

URL = http://www.kk.org/books/what-technology-wants.php


1. Cory Doctorow:

"Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants is an inspiring, provocative and sweeping account of how our world works and where it's going. Kelly is one of the great technology thinkers, an old Whole Earth editor and co-founder of Wired, an extraordinary photographer, a technology refusenik, and a truly great writer.

Kelly's central thesis is this: technology has its own internal logics and rhythms that are distinct from (and sometimes adverse to) the desires of the humans that create it. Technology creates itself, using humans to do its bidding, and our normal view of inventors creating technology is a kind of romantic fairy tale that ignores the fact that nearly every great invention is invented nearly simultaneously by many people at the same time, all over the world.

Kelly isn't mystical on this subject, however. His self-directing technology isn't powered by haints or spirits. Rather, it unfolds according to a certain inevitability that is dictated by the circumstances of the technology that came before. Just as every river ends up looking river-like (though every river's course is also unique and impossible to predict in advance) because of the inescapable constraints of physics and geology, technologies follow courses that humans can influence and see the gross forms of, but humans cannot direct or prevent technology's course, at least not in the long run. Like water contained behind a dam, relentlessly seeking escape, technology will eventually find its way into our hands.

Neither is Kelly entirely happy about this. There are plenty of technologies that he doesn't use (including laptops!), and he is very bullish on individuals and communities making thoughtful and concerted efforts to choose the tools that work best for them. His chapter on Amish hackers -- the early-adopter Amish technologists who experiment with new gadgets and report back to their communities on how they effect the rhythms of their lives -- is an inspiring call to arms. Kelly wants you to make choices about technology, but he also wants you to understand that technology is also making choices about you.

What Technology Wants ranges very wide, connecting technology's "exotropian" character (this being a variant on the more familiar "extropy" -- the property of making things more orderly, as when a human embryo temporarily reassembles simple molecules into extremely complex ones) to the long sweep of time starting with the Big Bang and the subsequent creation of a series of ever-more-complex elements, conditions and circumstances. I've seen Ray Kurzweil make this argument before, but not so well as Kelly does -- Kelly tells this story in a more grounded way, connected to the stories of modern conscientious objectors to technology from the Amish to the Unabomber.

I had many quibbles with Kelly's argument. I think he understates the power of monopolies and regulatory capture to twist technological progress; I think he glosses over the privacy implications without examining them; I think he fails to do justice to the special equivalence of computing machines that distinguishes them from the gadgets that came before them. But I think it would be impossible not to quibble with a book as grand and grandiose as What Technology Wants. Anyone who attempts to assemble a coherent narrative that starts with the Big Bang and ends in the infinite future is bound to say some things I disagree with.

And I agree with much more than I disagree with. I read my first issue of the Whole Earth Review in 1989 -- the special "Is the Body Obsolete?" issue. It was the first reading material I'd found that made a connection between the philosophical elements in the science fiction I enjoyed with the world I inhabited. Four years later, I found issue 1.1 of Wired on a news-stand near the Toronto Greyhound station as I was heading to the University of Waterloo. Within days, I had a Unix account at the University of Toronto, had found Bruce Sterling's 1992 Game Developers Conference keynote, and had dropped out of school to become a computer programmer.

Something in that whirl of ideas and tools and communities poleaxed me, filled me with excitement until I split open like a hot chestnut. It was the idea that whirlwind technology had taken a turn that was about to truly transform the world, and that anyone could jump into the eye of the storm and ride it up and up.

That's the feeling I got from What Technology Wants: a rekindling of that adolescent delight and excitement and sense of potential that made me drop everything to chase this dream. It is an extraordinary book and I commend it highly to you." (http://www.boingboing.net/2010/10/13/kevin-kellys-what-te.html)

2. David Banks:

"elly’s thesis is not too far off from the work of Mumford or Ellul. Whereas Ellul might say technique has always been a force in human history but has only recently overcome countervailing institutions; and Mumford would agree that the industrial revolution needed both steam power and the socioeconomic desire for factory efficiency; Kelly contends that the technium is a natural force that springs from our collective imagination and goes to work assembling itself and acting as a counter-balance to natural entropy. Natural forces want chaos; the technium wants to bring order and complexity to systems. In other words, technology wants nothing more than to add choice, complexity, and diversity to the universe. This cosmic force, according to Kelly, provides a net benefit to society and must be left alone in order to flourish.

I will admit loudly and declaratively, that this book does more to popularize critical thinking on technology than a dozen careers in STS. That being said, I completely disagree with Kelly’s conclusions. This book, as Morozov notes, sits (unapologetically and rather comfortably) next to orthodox industry talk about ever-increasing prosperity delivered by scientific innovation. Kelly makes dozens of strong declarations that could only come from a white man that can mitigate the risks of modern society. “When it comes to risk aversion,” Kelly asserts, “we are not rational.” He uses this line of reasoning to promote a laissez faire attitude toward precautionary regulations of new or existing technologies. Demanding nothing less than irrefutable proof of danger would have kept lead paint and asbestos on the market. It also assumes equal access to environmental monitoring and product safety. Poor communities rarely have control over (or are even aware of) the environmental dangers that threaten their homes. This lack of scientific, measurable proof is a function of values and morals- things that Kelly refuses to factor into his work because, for him, global average progress is the only kind of progress that matters.

Strangely enough, the essays of Charles Dickens become relevant here. Dickens was a staunch critic of, what was then, the new field of statistics. For Dickens, the invention of the “average man” was a powerful silencing force for politicians and greedy businessmen. They need only point to the increasing wage/health/happiness of the “average person” to justify their actions. Talk of averages prevented conversations about the poorest in a society. Kelly does the same thing when dismissing the darker sides of the “technium”:

- He [Wendell Berry] gets stuck on the cold, hard, yucky, stuff, such as steam engines, chemicals, and hardware, which may be the mere juvenile state of more mature things. Viewed from a wider perspective, where steam engines are merely a tiny part of the whole, convivial forms of technology really do allow us to be better.

Who is the “we” that is living better? The chinese sweatshop workers who build iPads are more likely to deal with the “yucky stuff” than the Palo Alto knowledge worker. Kelly challenges the claims made by the Amish about living totally off the grid (they purchase and rely upon goods that are manufactured using tools they outlaw in their own communities) but does not offer the same critical thought to American capitalism. We need authoritarian regimes to produce the artifacts that embody the glorious technium.

For Kelly, “moral progress, is ultimately a human invention. It is a useful product of our wills and minds, and thus it is a technology.” Human betterment is “propelled by technology” so any effort to slow down technological progress is an effort to slow down social betterment. This is a common analytical error that is not unique to Kelly. Most popular press books, through one way or another, conclude that technological progress is equivalent to; evidence of; or a prerequisite for social change. Winner has challenged these sorts of claims throughout his work, but it is ignored by Kelly.


Kelly’s book and Kacynski’s writings both benefit from extreme abstraction and macro perspectives that erase the kinds of important distinctions that make for good theory and critique. Both Kelly and Kacynski do a poor job of operationalizing the relationship of nature and technology. For Kacynski, technology is a distinct, identifiable and alien entity that invades the natural order. For Kelly, technology emerges out of human activity and picks up where biology left off- diversifying and adding complexity to the universe. These sweeping explanations ignore the social realities of knowledge production and the embedded politics of technological artifacts.

Kelly gives the average reader a powerful shove into the world of science and technology studies. He urges us to earnestly consider the deeper meaning and underlying motivations of our creations. But his conclusions are, by design, morally ambiguous and dangerously ambivalent to the real-world plight of most humans.Anyone with a degree in Science and Technology Studies should read Kelly’s book. Not because he has a new set of ideas that you should incorporate into your work, or because he he does a good job of bringing the theories of Winner, Nye and Ellul to a popular audience. He does neither of these things. Instead, Kelly has taken advantage of the social problems approach that is so popular within STS, and has provided a solution- a practice that is not very popular in STS. My bookshelf is full of very well-articulated problems, but very few solutions. Kelly’s book has one very clear suggestion- leave technology alone so that it may reach its inevitable conclusion." (http://thesocietypages.org/cyborgology/2012/02/23/the-unabomber-was-only-half-right/)


On the goodness of technology

Kevin Kelly:

" Technology is stitching together all the minds of the living, wrapping the planet in a vibrating cloak of electronic nerves, entire continents of machines conversing with one another, the whole aggregation watching itself through a million cameras posted daily. How can this not stir that organ in us that is sensitive to something larger than ourselves?

For as long as the wind has blown and the grass grown, people have sat beneath trees in the wilderness for enlightenment -- to see God. They have looked to the natural world for a hint of their origins. In the filigree of fern and feather they find a shadow of an infinite source. Even those who have no use for God study the evolving world of the born for clues to why we are here. For most people, nature is either a very happy long-term accident or a very detailed reflection of its creator. For the latter, every species can be read as a four-billion-year-long encounter with God.

Yet we can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog. The phone extends the frog's four billion years of learning and adds the open-ended investigations of six billion human minds. Someday we may believe the most convivial technology we can make is not a testament to human ingenuity but a testimony of the holy. As the technium's autonomy rises, we have less influence over the made. It follows its own momentum begun at the big bang. In a new axial age, it is possible the greatest technological works will be considered a portrait of God rather than of us. In addition to holding spiritual retreats in redwood groves, we may surrender ourselves in the labyrinths of a 200-year-old network. The intricate, unfathomable layers of logic built up over a century, borrowed from rainforest ecosystems, and woven together into beauty by millions of active synthetic minds will say what redwoods say, only louder, more convincingly: "Long before you were here, I am."

The technium is not God; it is too small. It is not utopia. It is not even an entity. It is a becoming that is only beginning. But it contains more goodness than anything else we know.

The technium expands life's fundamental traits, and in so doing it expands life's fundamental goodness. Life's increasing diversity, its reach for sentience, its long-term move from the general to the different, its essential (and paradoxical) ability to generate new versions of itself, and its constant play in an infinite game are the very traits and "wants" of the technium. Or should I say, the technium's wants are those of life. But the technium does not stop there. The technium also expands the mind's fundamental traits, and in so doing it expands the mind's fundamental goodness. Technology amplifies the mind's urge toward the unity of all thought, it accelerates the connections among all people, and it will populate the world with all conceivable ways of comprehending the infinite.

No one person can become all that is humanly possible; no one technology can capture all that technology promises. It will take all life and all minds and all technology to begin to see reality. It will take the whole technium, and that includes us, to discover the tools that are needed to surprise the world. Along the way we generate more options, more opportunities, more connection, more diversity, more unity, more thought, more beauty, and more problems. Those add up to more good, an infinite game worth playing." (http://www.realitysandwich.com/playing_infinite_game)

More Information

  1. Kevin Kelly's interviewed by BBC 5 Outriders about his new book, via http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/fivelive/pods/pods_20101123-0335a.mp3
  2. Audio interview: Kevin Kelly on the Technium