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Review: What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (2010)

With the aim to “help others find their own way to optimize technology’s blessings and minimize its costs” (p. 17), What Technology Wants is authored by Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of digital culture magazine Wired. Rather than being a technology enthusiast per se, Kelly encourages us to “select technology for the empowerment of individuals” (p. 3-5).

A central question of this book, “How weakly or strongly should we embrace technology?” (p. 5). In Out of Control, Kelly explored how “technological systems were beginning to mimic natural systems”, hinting at the ability of technology to gain the properties of life itself (p. 9-10). Reading this, it is possible to perceive an interesting parallel in how gene sequencing discoveries have recently enabled the accomplishment of synthetic life: the true point of overlap between technological and natural systems.

Kelly calls the connected whole culture of technology the “technium”, and ascribes a kind of emerging will, an urge, or more simply a trajectory to it. Technology has “needs, a compulsion towards something.” In this sense, it is possible to talk about the will of technology and our obligations to technology. As Kelly notes, “the technium is now as great a force in our world as nature”. Our responsibility to channel the technium in a productive direction is as great as our responsibility to channel nature in a productive direction. We should “work with this force rather than against it” (p. 11-17).

Visiting the definition and history of what we call technology, Kelly explains how it went from evolving as a convenient trick of survival to propelling a “cyclotron of social betterment” as civilization developed from life and prospered. On the other hand, industrial civilization was doomed to gain infamy as a “beguiling Satan” because of its killing ability unleashed in wars (p. 21-41).

Technology is subject to the same organic forces of change as the natural world. However, there is one advantage a technology has over a species. It does not go extinct. Ideas live on, and can be visited again as many times as necessary (p. 43-56). This acclaim for the idea of exploring every branch (and every dead end) of invention and discovery can be related to the notion of discovering and recording all that is possible, as backed by K. Eric Drexler with the term “possibility space”. The bounds of this space can also be aptly visualized in what Kelly later pens as the “recurring forms” in evolution and “inevitable inventions” in technology (p. 128-129). Faced with this metaphor, it seems compelling to think that the aim of science should be to know and apply the limits of all possibilities within the constraints of our universe.

Further heightening our understanding of the place of technology, Kelly discusses extropy, the “reversal of disorder,” “an increase in order”, adding ever greater order and complexity to the universe in much the same way that sentience added something to life, and life to mere existence. The technium, Kelly considers, is not simply as significant as the movement of sea creatures onto the land. It is as significant in the move towards greater order and complexity as the emergence of planets in the universe, or the emergence of living things on those planets (p. 57-69).

In addition to the view of the technium as a new phase in the growing complexity of the universe, Kelly sees “progress” as the direct successor of biological evolution. It is a “reordering of the material world that is made possible by the flows of energy and the expansion of intangible minds” (p. 73-101) By such a judgment, all progress, whether social or technological, can be related as part of an inevitable march of history and evolution towards increased complexity, stability and order. The technium, Kelly says, is “evolution accelerated” (p. 103). Together, the technium and evolution represent a will that we are powerless to oppose:

Evolution – and by extension, the technium – has an inherent direction shaped by the nature of matter and energy. This direction introduces inevitabilities into the shape of life. These non-mystical tendencies are woven into the fabric of technology as well, which means certain aspects of the technium are also inevitable.”(p. 103)

As for humanity’s place according to the will of technology, Kelly arrives at the wise summation that “Homo Sapiens is a tendency, not an entity” (p. 128). Indeed, both evolution and history support the understanding of human significance as a bridge from one state to another, rather than a complete being. By such a judgment, we can say, “humanity is a process”. We are not really beings but “becomings”. Still, we can claim a special place in the universe because “among all living things (that we know about) we are the most open-ended.” Humanity is an “ordained becoming” of evolution. The niche in existence currently occupied by humanity belongs to a coming order unlike anything seen before.

As for what technology wants, Kelly suggests that an understanding of evolution itself holds the key to the right response to the question (p. 129). A view of invention and inventors is presented that is divorced from personality worship. Invention and discovery are inevitable, and are often arrived at by multiple personalities across the world at the same time. Like biological evolution, invention is often synchronous – not necessarily a product of genius but part of a path of inevitable discovery as one discovery or craft leads directly to the next. There needs to be a convergence of technological “species” for a new invention to emerge. Discoveries and hardware link up to produce inventions, almost on their own accord without the need for a specific act of will by some personage or another (p. 131-155).

Other parts of Kelly’s book consider familiar curves in the advancement of aerospace technology, microcomputers and other technologies, as projected by futurist speculators since the early 1950s (p. 157-173). Kelly’s view of such predictions is that they are useful in all forms, from science fiction fantasies to serious projections of such trends as future computer processing power or aircraft speeds. He understands, “when we spy on our technological fate in the distance, we should not reel back in horror of its inevitability; rather, we should lurch forward in preparation” (p. 173).

Kelly does not simply portray technology as a source of inevitabilities. There is, he acknowledges at length, a strong responsiveness to human input (not necessarily to the input of individuals but to society as a whole) in such a way that “by following what technology wants, we can be more ready to capture its full gifts” (p. 175-188). This is well expressed in Kelly’s arrival at five principles of “proaction” to restrict harms that may come from the abrupt introduction of new technologies. The five principles for our precautionary use are summed up as anticipation, continual assessment, prioritization of risks, rapid correction of harm, and redirection (rather than prohibition) (p. 255-257).

In addition, Kelly defines the technology that deserves humanity’s favor as “convivial” technology (compatible with life). Such technologies must promote collaboration between people and institutions, while at the same time being transparent, decentralized and distributed in such a way that there is no monopoly/oligopoly, as well as being easily modified, efficient and redundant so that they can easily be replaced. In this sense, the convivial technologies we must embrace are like organisms and will make the technium more and more comparable with a natural ecosystem (p. 264).

To finally answer the question proposed by the book, the best response would simply be that “technology wants what we want.” As for the people choosing what technology to include in our lives, Kelly concludes that “our task is to encourage the development of each new invention toward this inherent good, to align it in the same direction that all life is headed” (p. 269). We must ensure that technology meets the criteria that humanity strives towards, and that it entails the maximization of such things as complexity, diversity and freedom through technology (p.270).

Although Kelly’s full list is much longer than those important three things mentioned above for their popular resonance in politics today, he strongly argues that we must be suspicious of how new technologies affect our freedom. In sum, we must review each technology to ask if it is part of the technium’s liberation struggle or, alternatively, a real threat to our ability to live as we choose (e.g. mass surveillance). To prepare for the latter, Kelly encourages everyone to occasionally stop and reconsider the arguments of the people and communities who have chosen to oppose the footprint of technology to safeguard freedom (p. 191-238). This, he sees as necessary part of the mission of promoting technology itself.

4 Comments

  1. In my opinion What Technology Wants is perhaps the most optimistic, coherent, beautiful and poetic defense of technology. It provides unique depth and breadth of its techno-analysis together with an altogether new theory of the evolution and interplay of both technology and biology (and Homo Sapiens). (In some ways it may arguably serve as the unofficial prequel to Ray Kurzweil‘s The Singularity Is Near.)

    Some time ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the author himself and during our 45 min conversation I got Kevin to share his thoughts on technology in general and his book in particular but also other topics such as religion, the Unabomber, artificial intelligence, the technological singularity and the omega point.

    http://www.singularityweblog.com/kevin-kelly/

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