175 of 184 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
There is much in this book that is thought-provoking and interesting, and there are no regrets for having invested the time and effort in reading it. While the book is not a difficult read - Mr. Kelly's prose is clear and pleasing - it is a challenging read in that it requires an occasional pause to fully consider what exactly is being proposed in the author's seductive writing style. It is hard not to admire the author's deep knowledge of and passion for the subject, but reasonable people will disagree as to the content.
First, the positives. There are excellent overviews of the historical development of science as well as the concept of convergence that recurs in scientific and technological development (and also, as the author points out, in film-making). The case for considering technology as a self-perpetuating organism is forcefully made, and examples of parallels between evolutionary development and technological development are treated in depth.
There is also a helpful discussion about man's relationship to technology, covered in three chapters collectively called Choices. Here Mr. Kelly views the perspective of the Unabomber, the Amish, and a proposed contemporary search for a convivial relationship. As odd as it sounds to use the Unabomber as a lens through which to view technology, it is extremely powerful. The obvious point is that it is quite unthinkable to live without technology (Ted Kaczynski typed his manifesto and rode a bike), so that finding a personal balance with it should be the goal (preferably one that does not include bombs - either mail-bombs or the nuclear variety).
Second, the controversies. If I correctly interpreted what Mr. Kelly has to say about technology, it is something like this: technology (or his word, technium) is the sum total of man's progress, or "8,000 years of embedded human knowledge" and that it includes all the progress man has made (resulting in extended life spans, creation of leisure, etc.). Because this technium is "an outgrowth of the human mind" it is an extension of life itself. Further, this technium has reached such an advanced stage that it has now developed into an independent organism.
From there Mr. Kelly stretches for his ultimate conclusion, "the technium expands life's fundamental traits, and in doing so it expands life's fundamental goodness." What does technology want? Goodness, apparently. Technology is postured as some benevolent god, created by man in man's own image (which is an idea that should be terrifying).
For technology geeks and techie true believers I can understand how this book could rate five stars. Mr. Kelly is a compelling evangelist for technology. But as for the rest of us, while we acknowledge technology's benefits, we probably have already made our peace with technology at less than unqualified love (perhaps a "love-wariness" relationship?). Looking back to the editorial review on the product page, the book is described as a "visceral" expression, and that is absolutely correct. This book contains Mr. Kelly's personal, inward feelings on technology, not, despite the trappings, a consciously scientific study of the subject.
Read this book and enjoy this book, but be prepared to occasionally shake your head and say, "Really? He can't possibly believe that." Technology deserves our ambivalence precisely because it was created by man and is an extension of man, and therefore has all our potential for both good and bad.
Addendum 7/24/12: Excerpts from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1993 address to the International Academy of Philosophy - "Time passed, and it turned out that Progress is indeed marching on, and is even stunningly surpassing expectations, but is doing so only in the field of technological civilization ... Progress was understood to be a shining and unswerving vector, but it turned out to be a complex and twisted curve, which has brought us back to the very same eternal questions that loomed in earlier times, except that facing these questions then was easier for a less distracted, less disconnected mankind." Food for thought, perhaps.
33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Are you simply trying to decide whether to buy this book?
The answer is "buy it. Absolutely, yes!"
It is Kevin Kelly's (KK's) magnum opus.
It is important, clearly and elegantly written, and
thoroughly researched. Also, it's so good,
it was hard to put down.
Nobody is better qualified to write about technology and tools.
This has been KK's lifetime focus, first as an editor of
the Whole Earth Catalog (the bible of the hippie back-to-nature movement),
second as a cofounder of the Well (a prominent early online community),
then as executive editor of Wired, and finally as curator of Cool Tools
(a popular website that reviews favorite tools) -
not to mention his other widely-read books, eg "Out of Control."
Other reviewers have summarized the book's major themes,
included key quotations, and told you why the book is important.
Coming late to the party, I will just hit a few crucial points that
other reviewers have neglected.
First, what I absolutely love about the book is KK's personal approach to life.
Reading Wired you might think he would be using every fancy tech gadget
the minute it comes out. Nothing could be further from the truth.
He does not carry a cellphone; does not travel with a laptop;
has no cable connection and does not watch tv. Why?
Because he genuinely cares about his QUALITY of life.
Kevin is a guy who spent years owning nothing but a sleeping bag and a bike,
who admires the Amish, and who is decidely not an early adopter.
Like the Amish, he will thoroughly evaluate a new device
before allowing it into his personal world.
Ambivalence and thoughtful examination are the essence of KK's approach to technology.
I occasionally attend his wonderful Quantified Self seminar,
where that sensitivity to life's nuances shines through.
KK is not an unabashed flag-waver for technology,
and human values are highly prized in WTW and in his life.
Now, on to another topic.
The New York Times Sunday Book Review of Nov 5, 2010 recently
featured a critique of What Technology Wants (WTW) written
by prominent biologist Jerry Coyne.
Professor Coyne, an expert on evolution, fired a big gun at WTW.
He said that while technology may have a "drive" toward complexity,
albeit a metaphorical one, that is certainly not the case with evolution.
Parallels between "the technium" and evolution figure prominently in WTW.
Coyne rightfully points out that the biosphere (largely comprised
of billion year old simple and unchanged bacterial species) has no mind of its own,
and technology also does not.
Coyne accuses Kelly of being a teleologist in the spirit, say, of Teilhard de Chardin.
(I personally think Teilhard was right on the money.)
Coyne is surely right in the sense that humankind was not predestined
to rule Earth (and Kelly is quite aware of the highly contingent nature of evolution).
The misleading part in Coyne's critique is his apparent
neglect of the autocatalytic nature of both technology and biologic evolution,
which WTW so superbly spells out. Both the technium and biology
are propelled forward by building on past innovations,
ie by "standing on the shoulders of giants," as Isaac Newton said.
The innovations for technology were language, printing, science, and the internet
(not to mention a ten millennia portfolio of other inventions).
The innovations for biology were protocell formation,
replicating macromolecules, energy storage, protein synthesis,
photosynthesis, motility, sexual reproduction, etc.
Since the Cambrian explosion, for us multicellular types,
the patent portfolio has continued to accumulate:
intercellular signaling networks, complex developmental programs,
neural signaling, internal skeletons, teleceptors, etc.
WTW shows exactly how the technium is autocatalytic in the
same way that biology is. (Coyne's point that biologic evolution is
fueled by random, non-prescient mutation is almost irrelevant. Nature is so prolific
that the important part of its generate-and-test algorithm is really the test part.)
Now, on to my major disagreements.
My most important criticism of WTW stems from my concern
for other species and our biosphere. Humanity and its technology have devasted
the biosphere and are creating the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years.
Technology has been a great boon to the human race (otherwise there would not
be nearly 7 billion of us), but it has been an unmitigated disaster for all other species.
KK devotes a chapter to these problems, but then seems to express equal concern
about the slowing growth of the human population.
He and I completely part company on this one.
Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is a disaster: internicine warfare, famine, AIDS.
Closing your eyes to Malthus may work in California (and even here, not really)
but not in Africa. Nanotechnology may eventually create a bright future
for massive humanity, but before that there is a multidecade valley of death
due to war, resource depletion, pollution, and disease.
The planet does not need more humans.
OK, technology has been great for humans but not for non-humans.
How about the future? Again I disagree with KK, although here I am less vehement.
(The future is profoundly unknowable: no one can see beyond the singularity,
which is technology's future event horizon.)
I don't share KK's rosy view of technology's fond embrace of humanity,
although I hope it's true. Yes, technology gives us more options,
which we can always renounce (as he himself frequently does.)
However, in the medium-term (by 2050), technology
(artificial intelligence, robotics, cognitive science) will rapidly
leave humanity in its dust. See those marginalized gorillas in Africa,
clinging for their lives. That could well be us.
My great hope is that technology will create a Garden of Eden on Planet Earth
just as WTW envisions. On the other hand, I think that outer space,
will not be explored or settled by us but rather by highly advanced technology
just as it currently is by NASA's space probes.
This bifurcation between humanity and the technium will happen before 2050.
I see no reason why a superior technium will inevitably share our values or value us.
Our hands are stained with the blood of the world's species. Why won't we be next?
Again, this is an important work, and I urge you to read it, my criticisms not withstanding.
(I am a former Stanford AI researcher and physician who covers cognitive neuroscience
and its overlap with AI on my website: bobblum.com )