MICHELE NORRIS, host:
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
Laptops, smart phones, iPods Americans today are more wired than ever. And no sooner do we start using a new gadget than we quickly find we can't function without it. And that raises the question: Is technology taking over our lives? A new book says the answer is yes.
Susan Jane Gilman has this review.
Ms. SUSAN JANE GILMAN: Last week, my computer crashed. Without it, I felt helpless and foolish. How could I've 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, though not of our genes, but of our minds.
Everything which 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 technology - 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.
The essence of life does not reside in material forms like DNA, tissue or flesh, he writes, but in the organization of energy and information. Since technology is all about organizing energy and information, it, too, is an evolving form of life - beholden to the same forces of the cosmos. And it now has a greater potential to alter us than we have to alter it. Already, it's taking over jobs we used to do - rendering human skills obsolete. Some technology has even become self-replicating - computer viruses, genetically modified organisms. This, Kelly argues, is inevitable.
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 a thousand 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's 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 imbue them with our values.
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 he sometimes sounds like a lobbyist or, dare I say, a 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.
NORRIS: Susan Jane Gilman's latest book is "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven." She reviewed "What Technology Wants" by Kevin Kelly.