What Technology Wants

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What Technology Wants
Kevin Kelly, Viking Press, 416 pp., 2010.
What Technology Wants: Kevin Kelly

Does technology have desires? Is it alive? Can technological change be predicted or controlled? Baffling questions, and who better to tackle them than Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired magazine. But until I read that Kelly doesn’t own a smart phone, I figured this for a lightweight celebration of the technological universe, or “technium.”

Kelly makes big, controversial claims, but he backs them up with solid, historical arguments. Defining the technium as the seventh domain of life, Kelly explores evolution to explore how the living world has changed and focuses on the appearance of the same solution among unrelated organisms. Social behavior, for example, evolved separately in ants, bees and mammals. Kelly quotes evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins: “The eye has evolved independently between 40 and 60 times… it seems that life, at least as we know it on this planet, was almost indecently eager to evolve eyes.”

Suggesting that a similar imperative governs technology, Kelly presents eye-opening examples of simultaneity: Galileo was one of four to discover sunspots in 1611. Samuel Morse and five others discovered how to send information via electrical pulses on a wire — the telegraph. Five people “invented” the steamboat. In each case, Kelly contends, the current technology made the breakthrough almost inevitable.

To define the technium, Kelly cites the Unabomber, a terrorist whose technophobic manifesto was much mocked. “Ted Kaczynski … was right about one thing. Technology has its own agenda. It is selfish… Technology is a dynamic, holistic system. It is not mere hardware; rather, it is more akin to an organism. It is not inert, nor passive; rather the technium seeks and grabs resources for its own expansion.”

No technophobe, Kelly. If technology and its products are so onerous, he reasonably asks, why do people around the world flock to the cities that concentrate technology? Aren’t chain saws appropriate technology for taking down trees? His early participation in computer networks proved, Kelly says, that “cold silicon chips, long metal wires and complicated high-voltage gear were nurturing our best efforts as humans.”

This book is worth reading just for its discussion of how the Amish judge and regulate technology, which is a much bigger part of their lives than stereotype admits. Yet Kelly defines the first law of technology as this: “The greater the promise of a new technology, the greater its potential for harm as well.”

Granted, technology has a life of its own, and “we can’t demand that technology obey us any more than we can demand that life obey us,” Kelly asserts. Still, he suggests we may be able to shape the form or use of technology.

Although I would love to see a discussion of whether early restrictions on nuclear bomb research could have slowed the nuclear arms race, if you’re curious about how technology is changing our world, I can’t think of a better launching pad.

– David J. Tenenbaum