What Technology Wants

August 18, 2011

We can better understand and orient ourselves to technology if we consider it a living thing.

In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly has two things to say: first, that technology is, by an expansive but increasingly inevitable definition, a living thing1; and second, that we should be happy about this, because technology lives alongside us and wants many of the same things we do. Still, Kelly devotes a surprising number of pages of his technophilic tome to famous technology-skeptics like the Amish and the Unabomber, all in service of the point that while technology is fundamentally good, we must be careful and transparent about its failings, in order to produce not less technology but better technology.2

The author acknowledges that technologies are a mixed bag–vaccines on one hand, nerve gas on the other–but his central argument suffers from depending on the seemingly arbitrary judgment that that the good outweighs the bad, even if it’s just a 51-to-49 split. Alright, it isn’t arbitrary. Kelly argues at length that if you look at human lifespan, GNP, household income, or virtually any other measure of human wellness, they all increase over time just like the metrics of technology (processor speed, books in circulation, patents filed, etc.) But what about things we can’t measure? I’d venture that the growth in technology also tracks a rise in alienation, a decline in practical intelligence (as we offload more and more of our intelligence to our machines), and a rise in feelings of discontent.

On that last point, the author quotes David Riesman that “The more advanced the technology, on the whole, the more possible it is for a considerable number of human beings to imagine being someone else” (236). Kelly continues, “We expand technology to find out who we are and who we can be.” But this point has two sides: technology encourages growth and empathy by allowing us to imagine better and other selves, but it also enables perpetual discontent with who we are. Compare the physical and imaginative isolation of the hunter-gatherer in 10,000 B.C. with someone in the modern world, constantly bombarded by images of other lives with better stuff.

The Seventh Kingdom

What Technology Wants opens with a drawn-out comparison between technology and life. All life is divided up into six kingdoms–animals, plants, fungi, protists, archaebacteria, and eubacteria–and Kelly suggests that we might think of technology as a seventh kingdom. It shares much in common with life, such as the the abilities to evolve and to reproduce. To the objection that technology can’t reproduce on its own, Kelly responds that more than half of all living species on Earth are parasites. Technology and humanity may exist in a mutually parasitic relationship, as symbionts. But how did humans get by before technology? We didn’t: technology is a more ancient species than ours. Beavers were building dams, birds were weaving baskets, and sea otters were hammering clams with stones long before we came along.

There’s something else, something cosmic, that life and technology share. Both are mechanisms of exotropy, the tendency toward order. Kelly paints a thrilling picture of the universe tending toward entropy–chaos and disorder–and eventually an inevitable heat death where the entire universe essentially comes to a cold stop. But life and technology both buck this trend. Organisms are complex and highly ordered, and they reproduce, perpetuating that order. Nature learns (with this knowledge stored in DNA) and so do we (with our knowledge stored in technologies like hard drives, books, and social structures), eventually producing things like human beings and microchips, the most energy-dense things in the known universe. It’s poetic: nature allied with technology in order to create a little bubble of order around the planet Earth in the middle of a slowly fraying, dying universe.

Lessons of the Amish Hackers

Kelly feels great kinship with technology, and applies the lever of poetry to make us feel likewise. So, for a while I was baffled by his affinity for the Amish and his defense of some of the Unabomber’s anti-technology arguments. But perhaps his thinking goes something like this. Maybe it’s not technology’s fault that it seems to be the root of so many ills. Maybe it’s our fault, for not immediately grasping the implications and effects of our technologies. We seem perpetually caught off guard by them. People thought the VCR would end the movie industry, but we adjusted. I’m sure people were freaked out by planes and tractors too, until we figured out a way to work them into our lives without losing it. Here’s where we can learn from the Amish, modern masters of judging technology (and taking their time to do so):

  • They are selective. They know how to say no and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ignore more than they adopt.
  • They evaluate new things by experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.
  • They have criteria by which to make choices: technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
  • The choices are not individual but communal. They community shapes and enforces technological direction. (225)

Number three seems key. If Kelly is right and technology has its own agenda and values distinct from ours, then the only way not to get swept up in it is to have our own values (and strongly held ones) against which to measure technology, and not just accept every new gadget and service as it comes along.

And when considering the effects of a technology, it’s important to consider not just the effects of its existence, but of its ubiquity:

One thousand automobiles open up mobility, create privacy, supply adventure. One billion automobiles create suburbia, eliminate adventure, erase parochial minds, trigger parking problems, birth traffic jams, and remove the human scale of architecture. (300)

More than anything else, the Amish value community, and their techno-skepticism is rooted in the fact that “minimal technology, unburdened by cultural innovations such as insurance or credit cards, forces reliance on neighbors and friends” (229). Which got me thinking about how much technology enables us to shift our dependence from each other to our technologies. We produce so much stuff we so rarely use–how much of that is just so we don’t have to share?

Technology Makes Us Better

Kelly ends the book on a soaring, laudatory note. The reason we should embrace technology is because it makes us better. Not on an individual scale, but on the whole. The technology of law keeps us honest. The technologies of language, painting, and sculpture increase our power to express ourselves. And technology amplifies human potential. Technologies birth new crafts, industries, and skills to hone. However, Kelly ignores wholesale the ways in which technology makes us worse. The history of military technology, for example, is one in which taking a human life has become progressively easier. And it’s hard to ignore how in the last century technology has for the first time in history unleashed the possibility of our species destroying itself.

I’m not quite convinced by Kelly’s arguments, but that’s almost beside the point. He succeeds at raising some fascinating questions about what technology is, the nature of our relationship to it, and how we might think usefully about it.

  1. He doesn’t go so far as to say technology is specifically alive, but that “technology and life must share some fundamental essence” (10), and that “large systems of technology often behave like a very primitive organism.” 

  2. Kelly coins a term, “the technium”, for technology-in-general, to distinguish it from individual technologies. I think context renders this new term unnecessary, so here I’ll stick with “technology” and “technologies”.