'What Technology Wants' Tracks The Tech Evolution

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What Technology Wants
What Technology Wants
By Kevin Kelly
Hardcover, 416 pages
List price: $27.95

Read An Excerpt

Last week, my computer crashed. Without it, I felt helpless — and foolish. How could I have gotten so dependent on a machine? Why did I feel like I'd just lost a body part?

Because, according to Kevin Kelly, I had.

His provocative new book, What Technology Wants, claims that technology is an extension of the human body — not "of our genes, but of our minds." Everything that humans have thought of and produced over time — which Kelly dubs "the technium" — has followed, shaped and become integrated into human evolution — so much so, in fact, that it's now a part of evolution itself.

As such, Kelly argues, the goal of the technium — its "want," if you will — is to foster progress ... human betterment ... and even a portrait of God.

While Kelly stops short of arguing that a MacBook, an opera or Hammurabi's Code are the equivalent of, say, a live chicken, he comes close. "However you define life, its essence does not reside in material forms like DNA, tissue or flesh," he writes, "but in the intangible organization of energy and information contained in those material forms." Because the technium is all about organizing energy and information, it, too, is an evolving form of life — beholden to the forces of the cosmos.

And now, it has a greater ability to alter us than we have to alter it. Increasingly, it's taking over jobs we used to do — rendering human skills obsolete. Some technology has even become self-replicating, such as computer viruses and genetically modified organisms. This progress, Kelly argues, is inevitable.

Kevin Kelly is senior maverick for "Wired" magazine. i

Kevin Kelly is senior maverick at Wired magazine. Courtesy Kevin Kelly hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Kevin Kelly
Kevin Kelly is senior maverick for "Wired" magazine.

Kevin Kelly is senior maverick at Wired magazine.

Courtesy Kevin Kelly

Yet his vision doesn't conjure up some bleak, sci-fi future ruled by cyborgs. What Technology Wants is exuberantly optimistic. The technium, Kelly says, ultimately creates more good than harm.

"Can you imagine how poor our world would be if Bach had been born 1,000 years before the Flemish invented ... the harpsichord? ... If Vincent Van Gogh had arrived 5,000 years before we invented cheap oil paint?" The technium has its dangers and downsides. But, Kelly is quick to point out, it's far preferable to the alternative — life without civilization or progress.

Best of all, he says, we're not powerless. "Consider humans as the parents of our technological children." As such, we have choices: how we treat our creations, how we train them with our values.

Kelly is scientifically astute, down-to-earth, inventive. He visits the Amish for lessons in adopting technology. He looks to "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski to articulate why people fear progress. At times, What Technology Wants is a sophisticated, almost theological meditation. Other times, it's a scientific argument debunking the split between what's "natural" and what's manufactured. Always, it's a banquet of ideas.

Yet, Kelly exalts the technium to such a degree that sometimes he sounds like a lobbyist — or, dare I say, a stereotypic mad scientist. One day, we'll create robots that will "radiate an evolved attractiveness that will dazzle us," he claims. When he concludes, "We can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog," frankly, he alienates me. There's a whiff of geek-hubris here that borders on a sort of creepy tech-evangelism.

What Technology Wants is stimulating and controversial. And so, it fulfills Kelly's very premise by adding to the evolution of ideas. It advances the great debates of our times. It opens new doors, challenges old assumptions. It compels us to keep reading.

Excerpt: 'What Technology Wants'

What Technology Wants
What Technology Wants
By Kevin Kelly
Hardcover, 416 pages
List price: $27.95

At the age of 28, I started selling mail-order budget travel guides that published low-cost information on how to enter the technologically simple realms most of the planet lived in. My only two significant possessions at the time were a bike and sleeping bag, so I borrowed a friend’s computer (an early Apple II) to automate my fledgling moonlight business, and I got a cheap telephone modem to transmit my text to the printer. A fellow editor at the Whole Earth Catalog with an interest in computers slipped me a guest account that allowed me to remotely join an experimental teleconferencing system being run by a college professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I soon found myself immersed in something altogether bigger and wilder: the frontier of an online community.

It was a new continent more alien to me than Asia, and I began to report on it as if it were an exotic travel destination. To my immense surprise, I found that these high-tech computer networks were not deadening the souls of early users like me; they were filling our souls. There was something unexpectedly organic about these ecosystems of people and wires. Out of complete nothingness, we were barn raising a virtual commonwealth. When the internet finally came along a few years later, it seemed almost Amish to me.

As computers moved to the center of our lives, I discovered something I had not noticed about technology before. In addition to technology’s ability to satisfy (and create) desires, and to occasionally save labor, it did something else. It brought new opportunities. Right before my eyes I saw online networks connect people with ideas, options, and other people they could not possibly have met otherwise. Online networks unleashed passions, compounded creativity, amplified generosity.

At the very cultural moment when pundits declared that writing was dead, millions began writing online more than they ever had written before. Exactly when the experts declared people would only bowl alone, millions began to gather together in large numbers. Online they collaborated, cooperated, shared, and created in myriad unexpected ways.

This was new to me. Cold silicon chips, long metal wires, and complicated high-voltage gear were nurturing our best efforts as humans. Once I noticed how online computers stirred the muses and multiplied possibilities, I realized that other technologies, such as automobiles, chain saws, biochemistry, and yes, even television, did the same in slightly different ways. For me, this gave a very different face to technology.

I was very active on early teleconference systems, and in 1984, based on my virtual online presence, I was hired by the Whole Earth Catalog to help edit the first consumer publication that reviewed personal computer software. (I believe I might have been the first person in the world hired online.) A few years later, I got involved in launching the first public gateway to the emerging internet, an online portal called the Well.

In 1992, I helped found Wired magazine—the official bullhorn of digital culture—and curated its content for its first seven years. Ever since, I’ve hung out on the cusp of technological adoption. My friends now are the folks inventing supercomputers, genetic pharmaceuticals, search engines, nanotechnology, fiber-optic communications—everything that is new. I see the transforming power of technology everywhere I look.

Yet I don’t have a PDA, a smart phone, or Bluetooth anything. I don’t twitter. My three kids grew up without TV, and we still don’t have broadcast or cable in our home. I am often the last in my circle to get the latest must-have gadget. I ride my bike more often than I drive these days. I see my friends leashed to their vibrating handhelds, but I continue to keep the cornucopia of technology at arm’s length so that I can more easily remember who I am.

At the same time, I run a popular daily website called Cool Tools, which is a continuation of my long-ago Whole Earth job evaluating select technology for the empowerment of individuals. A river of artifacts flows through my studio sent by vendors hoping for an endorsement; a fair number of those artifacts never leave. I am surrounded by stuff. Despite my wariness, I have chosen to deliberately position myself to keep the maximum number of technological options within my reach.

I acknowledge that my relationship with technology is full of contradictions. And I suspect they are your contradictions, too. Our lives today are strung with a profound and constant tension between the virtues of more technology and the personal necessity of less: Should I get my kid this gadget? Do I have time to master this labor-saving device? And more deeply: What is this technology taking over my life, anyway? What is this global force that elicits both our love and repulsion? How should we approach it? Can we resist it, or is each and every new technology inevitable? Does the relentless avalanche of new things deserve my support or my skepticism—and will my choice even matter?

I needed some answers to guide me through my technological dilemma. And the first question I faced was the most basic. I realized I had no idea what technology really was. What was its essence? If I didn’t understand the basic nature of technology, then as each new piece of it came along, I would have no frame of reference to decide how weakly or strongly to embrace it.

My uncertainty about the nature of technology and my own conflicted relationship with it sent me on a seven-year quest that eventually became this book. My investigations took me back to the beginning of time and ahead to the distant future. I delved deep into technology’s history, and I listened to futurists in Silicon Valley, where I live, spin out imaginative scenarios for what will come next. I interviewed some of technology’s fiercest critics and its most ardent fans. I returned to rural Pennsylvania to spend more time with the Amish. I traveled to mountain villages in Laos, Bhutan, and western China to listen to the poor who lack material goods, and I visited the labs of rich entrepreneurs trying to invent things that everyone will consider essential in a few years.

The more closely I looked at the conflicting tendencies of technology, the bigger the questions became. Our confusion over technology usually starts with a very specific concern: Should we allow human cloning? Is constant texting making our kids dumb? Do we want automobiles to park themselves? But as my quest evolved, I realized that if we want to find satisfying answers to those questions, we first need to consider technology as a whole. Only by listening to technology’s story, divining its tendencies and biases, and tracing its current direction can we hope to solve our personal puzzles.

Excerpted from What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. Copyright 2010 by Kevin Kelly. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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