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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"...consistently provocative and intriguing."
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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.
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.
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 )
Kelly posits a link between biology and technology, implying that the evolution of our evolution is the technium, which is developing its own wants and tendencies and is shaped to some extent by inevitable forms. Although he doesn't come out and imply that the machines will wake up and skynet is going to take over, he definitely uses the word sentience enough to keep you wondering where he's headed with his argument.
Given the same evidence I draw different conclusions or at least phrase them very differently from Kelly. The things we make (technology) change us and our wants change accordingly. This cycle repeats itself endlessly. Now that one billion of us can easily communicate on the internet, we're discovering that we want new things, things we didn't know we wanted 100 years ago. I'm just not convinced that the "technium" wants anything for itself. Maybe this is just semantics and I'm really just agreeing (in part) with Kelly? I don't know.
Conclusion - definitely worth reading, has some great sections (tech has overall positive effect, discussion of Unabomber's manifesto), but Kelly thinks technology is and end, where I think it is a means to an end.
I am not as integrated in my close-knit horse-and-buggy community as I once was; since my latest and most dramatic, "hack" on life is that I'm currently enrolled as an undergrad at Columbia University. Life in NYC is great, but I still maintain close ties with the sharply-contrasted microcosm I came from. I too, just as Kevin does, understand the invaluable insight one can gain on contemporary culture by examining a given technology in a quite different social environment. I guess in some ways such a contrast can serve as a social scientist's independent variable.
I want to testify that Kevin did not sensationalize his observations on the Amish Hacker and I can speak out of first person experience when I say that Kevin knows our culture and he knows it well!
Incidentally, I think his introspect on technology and civilization is fresh, enlightening and a must-read for anyone planning to live in the coming decade and beyond! In less than a decade, Facebook and Google have inextricably integrated themselves into practically all of our lives. So more than ever, we need visionaries like Kevin to help us make sense of "its" agenda.