It’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.