What Technology Wants: Kevin Kelly’s Theory of Evolution for Technology
Over the past week I read Kevin Kelly‘s latest book, What Technology Wants. It’s a highly ambitious and expansive book, which looks at technology from an evolutionary perspective. Over 350 pages, Kelly outlines and explores technology as a living system, akin to humanity’s biological evolution. The title alludes to this – ‘What Technology Wants,’ as if technology is a living, breathing thing.
Kelly’s book is a must read for technologists and anybody interested in the future of the Web. In this post I’ll explore a few of the main themes of the book, in particular as they relate to the evolving Web. (there won’t be any spoilers, for those of you in the middle of reading it or if you haven’t yet read it!) Two of the main themes are how technology will evolve and how we – humanity – can guide it and make the best use of it.
The book literally starts from The Big Bang, proceeds through 4 billion years of our planet’s evolution, and finally looks ahead to how technology will evolve.
The Technium: a Living System of Technology
Key to the book is a new term that Kelly invents: the technium. He spends about 6 pages explaining the term, but at it’s most basic it means a system of technologies. It includes not only what we ordinarily think of as specific technologies (such as cars, radar, computers), but the entire system around technology – culture, art, social institutions, “the extended human” and more.
Another key to grokking the technium is that it’s a living system, that evolves in a similar way to how humans have evolved. On page 45, Kelly explains that “The technium can really only be understood as a type of evolutionary life.” He goes on to suggest that technology evolves in a mix of inevitable and chance ways, just as humans have done. His point being that we can fairly accurately predict the macro evolution of the technium (that computers will eventually acquire a level of intelligence akin to a human, for example), but not the micro details of that evolution.
We’ve been writing about the Internet of Things, when real world objects become connected to the Internet, for the past couple of years on ReadWriteWeb. Kelly’s book reinforces what a profound change in the Web this is. As everyday objects get connected to the Internet, they almost become ‘alive’ to us. They might not be able to think for themselves, yet, but millions of ‘things’ in the world will be able to sense and compute information about the world.
Living With Technology’s Increasing Power
On page 254, Kelly writes that “technologies are nearly living things.” So we will need to adjust to this and figure out how best to utilize – and live with – technologies. Kelly lists five “proactions” that humanity should take to assess and engage with technologies:
- Continual Assessment
- Prioritization of Risks, Including Natural Ones
- Rapid Correction of Harm
- Not Prohibition but Redirection
At one point he compares technologies to children. As parents we aim to guide our children to reach their potential and contribute something to the world. “We can’t really change the nature of our children,” Kelly writes on page 257, “but we can steer them to tasks and duties that match their talents.” Likewise, he suggests, we can guide and steer technology.
Was The Unibomber Right?
Kelly spends a significant part of the book exploring the moral and ethical issues around an ever more powerful technium. Is it wise for humanity to continue to let technologies evolve, until the technium is more intelligent than humanity?
A whole chapter is devoted to the theories of the infamous Unibomber, Ted Kaczynski. Kaczynski wrote a manifesto about destroying modern technology before it destroys us. He killed 3 people with mail bombs, while attempting to carry out his manifesto. Kelly at first defends Kaczynski’s theories, but he ends the chapter by attacking him on a moral level. Kelly writes (page 212-213):
“But despite the reality of technology’s faults, the Unibomber is wrong to want to exterminate it, for many reasons, not the least of which is that the machine of civilization offers us more actual freedoms than the alternative [...] so far the gains from this ever-enlarging technium outweigh the alternative of no machine at all.”
The Optimistic View of Technology
Ultimately ‘What technology Wants’ is an uplifting and optimistic book about the future of technology. It contrasts in many ways to another thought-provoking technology book, which I read and reviewed a year ago: You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto; by Jaron Lanier. In that book, Lanier argued that technology reduces our humanity – for example by promoting the ‘hive mind’ over individual expression. Interestingly, Lanier is quoted on the jacket of Kelly’s book. He recommends you read this book, “even though I profoundly disagree with aspects of it.”
It’s always beneficial to have skeptics about technology, so there’s a place for Lanier’s arguments. Both of Lanier’s and Kelly’s books are stimulating and well worth reading. However, I find myself much more swayed by Kelly’s theories. Whereas Lanier dismisses the Internet as meaningless in and of itself, Kelly essentially argues that the technium (of which the Internet is a part) is a hugely important evolving system. It’s as much a living system as humanity is. That, I suspect, is one of the aspects that Lanier would disagree with. But I find Kelly’s theory to be compelling – and helpful as an approach to the increasing power of technology.
The book concludes that technology is ultimately good for humanity. Admittedly that was Kelly’s pre-destined outcome – back in November, 2004, when he began writing the book, he blogged: “I sense that overall, technology is a good thing.” However the end result of his 7 year quest, the book, compellingly makes that case. I think this line near the end of the book sums it up beautifully:
“How can technology make a person better? Only in this way: by providing each person with chances.”
(which incidentally echoes my own thoughts after I read Lanier’s book: “[...] Lanier glosses over the benefits of web 2.0 – that it gives everyone who has a computer (and nowadays a smart phone) a publishing platform with which to explore their creativity and have their say.”)
I gave this book 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, because ultimately it provides useful advice on how to think about and deal with technology. Perhaps aspects of the book can be challenged on scientific or philosophical terms, as some have argued. But that seems beside the point. I think we’d all agree that technology is evolving incredibly fast. We need to try and understand the changes. We need strategies to get the best out of technology. That’s what Kevin Kelly wants; and in my view the book achieves it.
Photo credit: Doc Searls