Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What Technology Wants / Kevin Kelly -- NY: Viking, 2010

Computer technology, particularly the Web, is having profound impacts on the world and our lives, but that is entirely uncontroversial. It is the significance of those impacts that is worthy of discussion. Which changes wrought by technology are important and which are trivial? Which are beneficial? Which are detrimental? How will they shape our future? I had hoped that Kevin Kelly, a former editor of Whole Earth Catalog and the founding editor of Wired Magazine, would provide some illuminating answers to these kinds of questions in his new book What Technology Wants. Sadly, he has not.

What Technology Wants places the rise of technology in an evolutionary -- indeed, cosmic -- context. According to Kelly, technology (or "the technium" as he calls its collective existence) is an inevitable product of the self-organizing forces of nature, set in motion with the big bang. The technium is one of Earth's seven kingdoms of life, an ever developing outgrowth of the human mind that has already taken on such characteristics as autonomy and sentience. These are startling claims outside the circles of science fiction and require much stronger defense than Kelly provides.

Nonetheless, much of What Technology Wants is interesting and informative. In his acknowledgements, Kelly tells us that the book was based on interviews and conversations with the 48 smartest people he knows, and much of that knowledge-base is manifest in the rich detail of his book. Unfortunately, when Kelly goes beyond the details and asserts broader philosophical claims, he is out of his depth.

The book's central idea is disclosed in its title. The technium is (or at very is now becoming) capable of intentional action on the order of highly evolved living species, including humans, but with all due respect to Kelly, I can want to close a window in my house to keep from getting cold, but my thermostat does not similarly want to regulate the temperature in my house. It is simply a changeable physical link between the electric power grid and my radiator system. Kelly blithely disregards the distinction. He willfully attributes human traits to technology based on the slenderest similarities. Furthermore, crucial concepts, like intelligence, sentience, choice, and freedom, are so ill-defined that he can assert nearly anything he likes about their relationship to technology. His treatment of these psychological and philosophical ideas are surprisingly naive.

More worthwhile aspects of his book include his discussion of evolutionary forces. Here, he goes beyond a simple outline of natural selection and notes the significance of structural and historical influences on the modification of species. His extension of these observations to the development of technologies is interesting, though not aways clear. The basic outlines describe a sequence of technologies, where each new technology is predicated on its predecessors. Technologies are transformed by (1) human intention, (2) the laws of nature i.e., the structure of technologies, and (3) historical accident. Together, these forces make certain technological developments inevitable. So much so that any particular discovery commonly is made multiple times, independently, and just at the time they are ripe for discovery. Kelly suggests that this inevitable development is the trajectory that technology "wants." It is unfortunate that he employs this description, since it distracts from a serious examination of the likely future of discovery.

Among the most egregious omissions from What Technology Wants are analyses of economic forces. Today, the inevitable progress of technology likely has to do less with the nature of the technology and more with the imperatives of capital. This, of course, fits with human intentionality that Kelly identifies as driving technological development, but his fixation on the structure of technology underplays this as the most significant driving force. At most, the structure of technology establishes certain limits to what can be or is likely to be developed. By overlooking the significance of economic forces, Kelly overstates the inevitability of certain technologies. Government regulation can significantly influence the path of technological development, if the political will can be mustered.

The second greatest omission is an analysis of the consequences of the end of easily acquired oil as an energy source. This historical accident might profoundly delay or reverse the growth of technology. Kelly suggests that the accumulation of technological advances has led to an constant doubling of the power of the technium. This is known as "Moore's Law" when applied to the development of computer chips. Allegedly, this exponential growth has generated the astounding explosion of technology in recent years, but was is missing here is the discovery and use of easily available oil as a fuel for growth. Kelly might, of course, identify the harnessing of oil as a technology that fits within his growth curve, but he does not recognize that far from being an interim step toward greater growth, oil-powered technologies are only as sustainable as the reserves that fuel them. Kelly's unlimited technological development is more likely to slow and even reverse when our oil-based economy slows to a crawl.

Finally, at least for the purposes of this review, Kelly's notion of progress is based on expanding "freedom" understood as nothing more than a greater range choices. For Kelly, the evolving technium is a choice-creating force and choice-creation appears to be his highest value. Kelly explicitly rejects the alternative value of human happiness as a direct measure of the value of individual technologies or the technium in general. While it is certainly true that technologies often have promoted human happiness, they have also promoted human suffering. Kelly believes the the former slightly out weighs the latter. It is a judgement that is hard, if not impossible, to quantify, but Kelly's infatuation with technology ensures his own answer. It is likely to be persuasive only to those previously convinced of its truth.

In the final chapters, Kelly confides his infatuation with technology. He probably expects the readers who have stuck with him for so long agree with him. He writes, "I find myself indebted to the net for its provisions. It is a steadfast benefactor, always there. I caress it with my fidgety fingers; it yields to my desires, like a lover. Secret knowledge? Here. Predictions of what is to come? Here. Maps to hidden places? Here." He continues this sort of lurid prose for several paragraphs. In the final chapter, Kelly discusses the technium's relationship to God. He writes, "If there is a God, the arc of the technium is aimed right at him....The ongoing self-organized mutability of life, evolution, mind, and the technium is a reflexion of God's becoming," and "we can see more God in a cell phone than a tree frog."

What Technology Wants is a lively, interesting, entertaining, infuriating, absurd book, filled with over-generalizations, willfull surrender to conceptual errors, inappropriate analogies, and dubious metaphysics. Hopefully, better books on its important topic will evolve soon.

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