What Technology Wants – History and Future of Technology

on Nov 19, 2010

click to go to Kevin Kelly's websiteIt’s rare to come across something that touches the very fabric of our existence in such profound ways – it’s mesmerizing. So it is the case with What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly. In one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read, Kevin Kelly weaves together thoughts on the journey of technology (which as a whole, he calls the technium) and ties it in with all other parts of life, the universe, and everything (quite literally). This is of course through a broad interpretation of the definition of technology, going beyond just gizmos – to inventions and knowledge. It’s quite similar to the a crucial perspective I take on this blog and hence I welcome this understanding. With this, Kelly connects technology with the very birth of the universe and the increasing complexity that has emerged from the universe itself – from simple hydrogen atoms to energy-dense microprocessors. He likens technology to a sort of unstoppable force and considers it another kingdom of life. As strange as that seems, it’s very plausible in my eyes. His incredible comparisons between technology and evolution fit well in presenting such arguments – these comparisons are so thoughtful that I felt my deep background in evolution was strengthened with his discussion (and there is no question that he blew away my understanding of technology).

Kelly reconciles two opposing concepts – ordained-ness and free will – in an a strangely convincing manner. He states that technology, to elaborate that it’s an unstoppable force, builds upon itself and that its agents (we humans) inevitably bring it to greater life. This is the basis for his explanation of why similar ideas and invention seem to appear simultaneously from different areas of our globe. He shows that such convergent “evolution” is very much the regular case in the technium as it is in the [other] kingdoms of life. At the same time, he assesses the free will of technology and goes down to the very level of the seeming free will that appears in the random noise of subatomic particles.

There is a practical element to Kelly’s discussion as well. Kelly provides a framework by which to consider technology – new and old – providing guidance as the world around us is increasingly transformed by technology. For example, because he believes that the emergence of any technology cannot be indefinitely thwarted, he presents some rules on how to approach any technology in a manner that beneficial for the global human community. He discusses such rules in the seemingly extreme case of the Amish. Interestingly, many groups of Amish are not quite the luddites we typically perceive them to be. Rather, they’re extremely mindful of the technology they use: they take care to consider the potential community problems arising from inventions and often experiment and observe with a small adoption – one can’t help but respect such mindfulness. (In fact, this discussion is so striking that I suggest that you check out Kevin Kelly’s blog post on it.)

There are a couple of points where Kelly is off. Well, not quite off, but rather he’s missing a level. For example, he states that advances in human communication – such as the inventions of language and writing – were the cause of our uniquely human power. Based on the research of folks I work with, these communication technologies were instead a consequence of a more precise cause of our rise to dominating the planet – solving the conflict of interest problem on larger scales thus facilitating greater level of human cooperation. This Human Uniqueness Theory that I work with does well to explain the Behavioral Modern Revolution of 40,000 years ago and the Neolithic revolution of 10,000 years ago, among our other technological revolutions that Kelly mentions. It’s understandable why one would assume that communication tools were the catalyst for human advancement, especially given how closely they relate to our uniquely human trick of cooperating on large scales to do incredible things. Still despite these minor details, Kelly’s insights are very telling and completely appropriate.

As someone entrenched in technological and humanistic disciplines, I’ve had a real pleasure reading this book. Some of Kelly’s thoughts are sure to raise a few eyebrows, but it seems he accomplishes his goal to get us to step back and think over the technology our lives are intertwined with. At the very least, you’ll see how thoroughly he has put together his thoughts, and so eloquently too. I recommend this engaging book deeply to anyone with an interest in technology and to anyone that wishes to learn more about the world around them.  I especially encourage those in technological fields to consider Kelly’s points.

Being ‘Mindful’ with Technology

on May 21, 2010

A central theme of this blog is on using technology mindfully. But what does it mean to be mindful? is there a concrete process to this? In fact, there is: it’s the scientific process – the act of questioning things, in this case: technology. We should ask the following questions with any new technology, be it a gadget, a piece of software, or a technique.

What do we gain from using this technology?
Is it something that makes getting things done easier? Does it bring enjoyment? Is it a precursor to something bigger and better? We should be careful not to dismiss technology simply because it seems useless or trivial. Or, if anything, does it serve as a mental training exercise to a new way to think? Most of the time, technology does bring advancement, but this isn’t always the case.

What are the potential pitfalls of using this technology?
Does it make things more complicated? Does it damage social relationships? Can it be dangerous? Does it just push evolutionary buttons. Is it used to mislead? Is it expensive? It’s often difficult to see problems right off the bat. And sometimes even “obvious” problems are of little significance.

Do we, as a society, come off better off as a whole?
Who benefits from using the technology? Who has something to lose? Who’s pushing forward the technology? Who’s trying to dismiss it? We can discern much about the consequences by noting whose interests are at stake.

Still, things aren’t always black and white. A technology might bring great efficiency in some applications but cause problems in other situations, as noted in the case of processing food or with mobile phones. So it’s especially important that we continue to apply the scientific process, as technology emerges and as we use it. A last point is to never accept new things blindly.

The Other Part to Consuming Information

on Apr 10, 2010

We’re fortunate to live in the information age. Not only do we access to news and blogs and such, but there’s also formal learning such as online video lectures. Access to learning is especially accessible because many of us carry the internet in our pockets with app phones. But the argument is made that we’re suffering from information overload. There’s the constant stream of news feeds, be it articles or other updates. I propose an idea that brings agreement to these conflicting issues.

Basically, there’s two parts to leaning. The first part we know very well: consuming information. The second part is less obvious: processing and reflecting upon the information. An easier way to understand this idea is to compare it to the two parts of training your body, where the first part is the physical activity itself and the other part is the recovery. Just as the body needs to repair itself and reconfigure muscles to work better for the activity in the future, the mind needs to reflect upon new information and fit it with all existing knowledge to bring an overall deeper understanding of something.

So just consuming information doesn’t result in learning. New information must be mindfully considered. The scientific process occurs and information is tested against all previous knowledge and experience. Bad information is thrown out. Perhaps old knowledge is tweaked or looked upon in a whole new light. We all know this process – it’s that moment of clarity that emerges when we relax into deep thought (why does this always happen in the shower?).

So while we are blessed with the incredible technology of having information at hand at all times, we should be mindful in how we consume it. That is, we’re best off consuming as much as we can so long as we can maintain the opportunity to reflect upon and think about it.

The Financial Crisis and How We Understand How Things Work

on Mar 3, 2010

The 2008 financial crisis was especially rough because it was so unexpected. This fact raises a couple of interesting points. One is that those within the industry that understood what was really going on were keeping mum as it was in their interest to do so. The other is that so many of our economics experts and whatnot didn’t see this coming. This latter point tells us a lot about how we understand how stuff works.

There are two approaches to understand how any part of the world works. The initial and more accessible manner is to discern patterns from observations without necessarily having an understanding of the underlying mechanisms. This was pretty much the only way humans made sense of the world for most of history. This top-down approach is quick and dirty – immediately useful – and a required process to eventually, if ever, build another method of understanding how something works.

The bottom-up approach is to understand basic mechanisms and build more complex mechanisms from more simpler ones. This approach is very powerful because it works on a system of rules which allows us to make testable predictions. Empirical data, instead of coloring the model, determines whether or not the rules (and their predictions) are valid. This is actually another way of expressing the scientific process.

So a top-down understanding of the workings of a car could mean that you understand that the pedals and steering control the motion of the vehicle and that it requires gasoline to run. This is sufficient knowledge to operate the vehicle. But this doesn’t help you if you’re car begins to malfunction. A bottom-up understanding of machinery inside a car would aid greatly in this case. However, for the sake of efficiency, most of us put trust in specialists that understand cars (auto mechanics) so that we don’t need this knowledge ourselves. Which is fine for this circumstance.

How does this work for understanding something complicated than a car, like the economic system? Surely we have specialists (the “experts” I mentioned in the first paragraph) but what is their approach? For most economists (if not all) it is top-down. They build models from empirical data (and they really do an incredible job of gathering this data). Their models are probably generally accurate but not all the time. The financial meltdown is a very clear, and costly, example of when it is not. So what happened? Well, because top-down understanding is built from empirical data, it possesses the danger of being colored by the data. Over time, the model is tweaked to fit new information, which can bring about even greater surprise if it’s wrong.

So what would be a bottom-up understanding of economics? It’s most certainly difficult to approach it this way; it’s doable though. Since economics is really just social exchange between humans, we can determine a good theory of it if we understand human social behavior. I’ll be sure to discuss this in a future post.

As for our approaches in understanding how things work: each method has its strengths and weaknesses. We should use the top-down approach whenever it is sufficient, as it is very sleek. But we should be mindful of when its disadvantages may spell trouble. Otherwise, a bottom-up approach, if available, proves to be essential.

Two Simple Rules to Grow in Whatever You Do

on Feb 18, 2010

These general concepts apply everywhere, from work to physical training to any sort of learning.

1 – Show Up Consistently
Obviously nothing happens if you don’t put the hours in. Less obvious is that you must be a regular. There is a strong correlation between one’s ability in something and the amount of time put into it. Every session adds up, positively for every one you attend an negatively for every one you miss (and more than doubly so for consecutive attended or missed sessions).

2 – Be Conscious in Every Session
Just passively showing up typically brings about slow progress at best. The time put in must be quality time. By constantly and actively evaluating what you do, you find weaknesses and can work on correcting them (this is reminiscent of the scientific process).

The Meaning of Life and Death

on Jan 21, 2010

Science, from the perspective of evolution, can give us a remarkably simple explanation of  the notion of ‘death’. Simply put: it’s beneficial. Not to the individual organism, but rather to its genetic information. Death allows for adaptability as each new organism that comes to life has varied genetic information from the previous generation (in most species) and this in turn could provide better traits for surivival in the continuously changing environment. So in a way, genetic information is potentially immortal, though in return it gives up a piece of its “essence” every generation. That leaves us individuals in the crossfire of evolution: we have life and death at the benefit of genetic information but at the expense of each of us individually.

Science, the Critical Process for Ideas

on Jan 21, 2010

Under the definition that technology is a tool that helps us advance our lives, science represents a very ancient yet still essential technology. Science is the tool of analyzing and making sense of the world. Its primary weapon is doubt. By constantly subjecting any concept [explaining some part of the world] to skepticism, we test its plausibility. What is left (but still subject to doubt) is an understanding that we can rely on more so.

The creative process is also this scientific process. The way we form ideas follows this. Every idea is subject to critique and it is the good ones that stand this test. It is imperative to have lots of ideas, including seemingly bad ones, because you never know which ones will actually be good ones. It likely takes ninety-nine bad ideas to make a good idea, but the creative (scientific) process will allow good ones to prevail.

Another place that the critical scientific process is present is in our genes. The process of natural selection (evolution) uses the ability to replicate genetic information as the critical yardstick. And while the changes that appear in genetic information are at first random, the critical process determines which changes are better. Consistent with the creative process, there are a large number of bad changes for every positive one. But it is those few positive changes that matter so dearly, as with those few good ideas, and these positive changes or ideas can only exist through having all the bad ones.

So don’t be afraid to explore thoughts that are outrageous. You never know which crazy ideas will turn out to be fantastic ones. And don’t be afraid to mess up or be wrong, because the only way to put out some good things is to put out lots of bad things.

Where else in life do you see the critical process at work?