What Technology Wants

One might think the title of Kevin Kelly’s new book, What Technology Wants, is meant to be provocative except that he means it literally. Or nearly so. His technium is the global techno-socio structure, the sustaining network of self reinforcing technological processes, the momentum pushing us toward progress (11-13). Yes, according to Kelly, the technium is not only deterministic, in that it has significant autonomy, but teleonomic, in that it seeks its inherent level of organization and advancement. The technium is likened to organisms and life itself, as it is the seventh kingdom evolving towards complexity and efficiency (44). (Kelly concedes his views on the inherent progress of biological evolution, upon which he bases his technium, is itself unorthodox.)

Kelly’s book is provocative, large, filled with wonderful detail on the history of parallel invention, and, despite his reputation as a technophile, surprisingly sensitive to the question of how to best manage the downsides of inevitable technological advancement. He attempts to adapt an ethic of technological adoption from the Amish in that we should be cognizant of the dangers of technology and perhaps we can delay new advances for a period so as to be better prepared. However, unlike the Amish, he argues humanity as a whole cannot maintain a 50-100 year lag in which to watch how things pan out for others. We must instead employ the proactionary principle: “The appropriate response to a new idea should be to immediately try it out” via anticipation, continual assessment, prioritization of risks, and rapid correction of harm (253): new technology will be the cure to the ills of the old. And, in the end, Kelly is as much the pundit for hype as ever:

Technology is stitching together all the minds of the living, wrapping the planet in a cloak of electronic nerves, entire continents of machines conversing with one another, the whole aggregation watching itself through 1 million cameras posted daily. How can this not stir that organ in us that is sensitive to something larger than ourselves? … The technium is not God; it is too small. It is not utopia. It is not even an entity. It is a beginning that is only beginning. But it contains more goodness than anything else we know.... The technium expands life’s fundamental traits, and in doing so it expands life’s fundamental goodness. (358-359)

My greatest complaint of the book, and perhaps it is an academic complaint of a popular press book, is that it fails to situate itself relative to decades old discussions on the topic. Beside some cursory engagement with Langdon Winner, there is little mention of previous arguments and theories of determinism, of autonomy, of teleonomy, etc. (In fact, questions of determinism and teleonomy aren’t even identified as such.) For example, in an appendix he recommends the excellent collection Does Technology Drive History? but unfortunately does not otherwise engage the arguments or authors found therein.

Ported/Archived Responses

Barry Kort on 2010-12-08

I’ve previously corresponded with Kevin Kelly on this subject, albeit under a different topic title. 

Rather than “teleonomy” as the topic keyword, he was talking about <A href=”http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2004/11/cosmic_origins.php”>the cosmic origins of entropy</A>.

In that context, I raised to his attention a <A href=”http://www.musenet.org/utnebury/fixed.point.html”>powerful mathematical idea</A> that potentially explains how undirected evolutionary processes seem to be going somewhere astonishingly divine.

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