What Technology Wants Hardcover – Oct 14 2010
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From School Library Journal
PreS–Little Bear awakes in early spring to a world covered in snow. He plays, and then realizes that he is lonely. As he makes a snowman for a companion, an otter and a rabbit show up to help. Worried that their new friend might be lonely while they are off exploring, they build a smaller snowman to keep him company. In this saccharine world, friendship means simply having someone near you. Loneliness is cured when playmates pop up with no effort. The story and the illustrations are similarly cutesy. The animals are soft as cotton balls and always smiling. This is a sparkling glitter book, and preschoolers will love touching the pages and moving them around to catch the light. However, this tactile pleasure is likely to shorten the book's shelf life in a library.–Amelia Jenkins, Juneau Public Library, AK
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
"...consistently provocative and intriguing."
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Roughly, this is a book about where our technology (or technium), if it can be considered autonomous, wants to go. The subtext is an lasting inquiry into whether, roughly, technology makes people happy or not. As such I'd consider it in a dialogue with writers like Thoreau and Edward Abbey, and more recent books like Shop Class as Soulcraft, Into the Wild, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
By profession I read a lot of tech books, from academia to business press and among them Kelly's book truly stands out. There are a few reasons. First, Kelly is just writing at a much deeper level than most authors have the courage to tackle. Most tech writers allow their natural optimism or pessimism to remain unexamined; For Kelly that is the topic itself, and it is refreshing. Compared with Kelly's book, many other books feel unbearably superficial (even perhaps my own!)
Second, Kelly writes from a level or deep personal experience which makes all the difference. This isn't about trite anecdotes or reporting, but rather the experience of a man who has tried living like the Unabomber at least for periods of his life. Basically, he has tried life with lots of tech, with little, and in between. He has, therefore, convictions from that experience that feel deep and genuine.
Third, Kelly has a natural, easy prose and an honesty in his voice which carries through every paragraph. It is extremely hard to write on abstract topics like the existence of a technium without quickly becoming technical or very confusing. For me at least, the book was a page-turner, which you expect from narrative but not from philosophy.
Next, he really doesn't understand technology, although he did quote a number of people who do. As a result, the book is really his struggle with trying to explain technology in his terms. It is a case where he knows what he wants to say, but is not sure how to say it. This goes on throughout most of the book- until he finds that the most cogent explanation of the problem with technology he can find is the diatribe written by the unibomber. Even he recognizes that this is strange and actually says that his friends told him not to write it.
The biggest problem with the book, however, is his notion that technology has somehow transcended humanity is simply wrong-that it is now some form of new life that has -or will soon-take over. While it is true that technology has its problems and has grown exponentially over the last 30 years, it is not true that it has become divorced from humanity. Humans evolved through technology. it has been a part of our survival since the earliest human species. Fire, stone spear heads and knives were what kept us alive back then. technology still keeps us going today. But, take away the humans and technology would soon grind to a halt. THat species would become as extinct as we were.
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 )