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What does technology want?

To most people this question sounds ‘incorrect’ as technology doesn’t want anything. Only human beings or animals are able to want things. In his provocative and deep book, Kevin Kelly (KK)- founder of my beloveth Wired magazine – makes a conving case that technology does want something.

First of all, he explains that technology is not limited to humans (I can’t think of a more convincing display than the movie 2001 – space odessey where a monkey starts using a stick to gain power). Ant hills and bird nests are also forms of technology (houses) even when we typically classify these examples under ‘nature’. KK explains it as follows: “However you define life, its essence does not reside in material forms like DNA, tissue or flesh, but in the intangible organization of the energy and information contained in those material forms. And as technology was unveiled from its shroud of atoms, we could see that at its core, it, too, is about ideas and information”. Stated differently, “technology is unnatural-by definition. And technology is natural-by a wider definition”.

KK reluctantly invents the new word ‘technium’ to emphasize an important property of technology: “The technicum extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. [] And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology inventions and more self-enhancing connections”. Moreover, as the “technicum is an outgrowth of the humand mind, it is also an outgrowth of life, and by extension it is also an outgrowth of the physical and chemical self-organization that first led to life”.
These definitions seem pretty self evident, as the technicum is occurring on earth, therefore it must abide to the laws of nature, which resulted in life itself. However, KK extends this by stating: “The techinicum wants what we design it to want and what we try to direct it to do. But in addition to those drives, the technicum has its own wants. It wants to sort itself out, to self-assemble into hierarchical levels, just as most large deeply interconnected systems do. The technium also wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself, to keep itself going. And as it grows, those inherent wants are gaining in complexity and force”. This seems like anthropomorphisation (the attribution of human-like qualities to something that isn’t human), but according to Kelly even a worm wants moisture, so it doesn’t seem unthinkable that the technicum has wants too.

The technicum is important, according to KK: “the technicum is now as great a force in our world as nature, and our responses to the technicum should be similar to our response to nature. We can’t demand that technology obey us anymore than we can demand that life obey us.”

In a discussion about evolution he singles out sex as the biggest step in reordering of biological information as it combines traits of both partners which results in faster evolution.

For technology, he considers ‘language’ the most important development. Not just because it helps us to store and communicate ideas efficiently, but because language “allows the mind to question itself; a magic mirror that reveals to the mind what the mind thinks; a handle that turns a mind into a tool”. Moreover, language bridges the natural evolution (single-cell to multicell etc.) to technological evolution (book knowledge to the scientific method etc.).

Kelly argues that the technicum and evolution are both emergent adaptive systems that tend to converge on ‘inevitable’ solutions. Examples are the telephone which was independently invented by multiple people at the same time and eyes that appear in unrelated species. The fact that the same (biological) ‘invention’ happens multiple times strengthens Kelly’s faith in convergent evolution. According to Kelly: “In the old view, the internal (the source of mutation) created change, while the external (the environmental source of adaption) selected it; in the new view, the external (physical and chemical constraints) creates forms, while the internal (self-organization) selects or directs them”. He identifies 3 vectors:
a. adaptive: adapting to your environment increases chance to breed offspring
b. luck
c. structural inevitability
I found this a tough part both to understand and to agree with. The following helped me: “all of the main morphological features of organisms:
– hearts, brains, guts, limbs, eyes
– leaves, flowers, roots, trunks, branches
[] are emergent results of morphogenic principles and would reappear if the tape of life was rewound”. This means that [e]very organism (and artifact) is a wholly improbable arrangement of it’s constituent atoms. Yet within the long chain of reproducing self-organization and restless evolution, these forms become highly probable, and even inevitable because there are only a few ways such open-ended ingenuity can actually work in the real world”.

Kelly considers it necessary to defend technological progress. According to him it’s better to have a more limited freedom within many choices, than unlimited freedom within a fixed set of choices. He also concludes that: “To improve our chances of making better decisions, we need-I almost hate to say it-more technology”. Kelly writes a heartfelt argument, but in my opinion the section that could have been called ‘what we should want for technology’ should have been saved for a different book. My main reasons for that are that Kelly firstly argues that a lot of developments for the technicum are inevitable. Secondly, because of technicum’s self reinforcing powers the human brain is unlikely to be capable of keeping up even with technology monitoring tools. As Kelly argues himself: we’re currently unable to keep up with the impacts of a technology (who thought about ‘suburbs’ when the car was invented?). Thirdly, even if we are capable of fully assessing the pro’s and cons of a technology before or during the start, it’s unlikely that somebody would be capable to gather sufficient power to stop the development.

The stories Kelly narrates are a big plus to the book. He fondly narrates the choices the Amish make (and forgets that there are many similar people even in The Netherlands who abstain from technology), and he brings remarkable insights in the mind of the Unabomber and painlessly includes little pearls of wisdom. However, the stories also reduce the clarity of the bigger picture significantly. Same applies to the scenario’s and multitude of frameworks. Stated differently, I would have loved to be his editor 😉 I would have focussed him more on identifying the long term trends in technology and some guidance on policy actions for the present.

Kelly opens the last chapter of his book with what he considers ‘playing the infinite game’. Finite games have fixed rules. Infinite games keep going by changing its rules. Needless to say that he considers the techicum an infinite game. Furthermore, he considers the waste of human potential if the right technologies wouldn’t have been available to the right persons. For example: if Mozart would have been born and the piano wouldn’t have been invented. An interesting thought, but it hardly justifies the suffering of many due to the rapid development of technology. I am as big a techno-optimist as Kelly, but for different reasons. Kelly quotes Heinz von Foerster’s Ethical Imperative: “Always act to increase the number of choices” (for yourself and others). And he defines God as the autocreator and “if you believe humans are made in the image of God [], then we have done well, because we have just birthed our own creation: the technicum”.

His last words are: “It will take the whole technicum, 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 connections, more diversity, more unity, more thought, more beauty, and more problems. Those add up to more good, an infini
te game worth playing. That is what technology wants”.

random quotes:
– King Henry had some fine clothes and a lot of servants, you could not pay people to live as he did, without plumbing, in dark, drafty rooms, isolated from the world by impassable roads and few communication.

– The majority of neighborhoods in almost every modern city are merely successful former slums.

– Try to imagine imagine the same rise in wealth in the past two centuries if the world market [population] […] had shrunk every year.

– If we’d gone on as we were, as hunter-gatherers, we’d have needed about 85 earths to feed 6 billion people. [] We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools, but with the tools of tomorrow. This what we call progress.

– When critics asked us champions of the Internet what we were going to do about the digital divide and I said “nothing”, I added a challenge: “if you want to worry about something; don’t worry about the folks who are currently offline. They’ll stampede on faster than you think. Instead you should worry about what we are going to do when everyone is online

– How we handle life’s cascade of real choices within the larger cages of our birth and background is what makes us who we are. It is what people talk about when we are gone. Not the given, but the choices we make

In my opinion Kevin Kelly has written a truly remarkable book. It’s wordy at times (so am I) and sometimes lacks focus too. This will make it easy for adversaries to attack the details. Also, the book switches between an aaabbb and ababab structure, which makes it a confusing and needlessly complex read. However, most of his statements and conclusions are resounding truths. Especially that technology is something natural is regularly overlooked. He adds to that an amazing breadth of knowledge in this excellently researched book. The stories to back up his arguments almost make it as exciting as a pageturner novel. In short, it’s a must read for everybody in our technology driven society.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Darn. Now I need to add yet another book to my wishlist.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Wow Gijs, thanks for sharing so much about India:-)

  3. Anonymous says:

    <html><body bgcolor="#FFFFFF"><div>You won’t regret it!<br></div><div><br>Op 12 nov. 2010 om 14:21 heeft</div></body></html>

  4. Anonymous says:

    <html><body bgcolor="#FFFFFF"><div>The book wasn’t about a lot of things except india ;-)<br><br><div></div></div></body></html>

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