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'What Technology Wants': Feed the Machine

A philosophical look at why technology is a force for good, and why its very nature might be beyond our control.

What Technology Wants

Publisher: Viking
Length: 416 pages
Author: Kevin Kelly
Price: $27.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2010-10

I don’t read many philosophical treatises. I don’t imagine most people do. Then again, not many of them are both page-turning reads and full of thought-provoking ideas the ways Kevin Kelly’s new book, What Technology Wants, is. I came to this book expecting some prognostications about future innovations and imaginings about what kinds of gadgets we’ll be using to post to which kinds of new social networks. Thankfully, Kelly’s book does none of that, since that kind of guess-work seldom turns out to be right or as interesting as the coming reality. Instead, Kelly steps way, way back and tries to take as long term and as broad a view of technology as possible. From this vantage he sets forth a philosophical argument about the nature of technology, our relationship to it, and the forces that might shape and guide it through time.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, and I didn’t find him entirely convincing. In parts, I found him quite unconvincing, but he lays out his arguments in such well-composed and even-handed detail that readers will have plenty of data and analysis from which to draw their own conclusions. Along the way, they’ll also be treated to numerous fascinating case studies and examples that I found intriguing outside of the context Kelly’s overall theses. For example, I loved the long section about “Amish Hackers” who use a variety of intriguing devices and cheats to get around the strictures their community has set upon technology. I think I came away from this part of the book drawing different conclusions than Kelly did from his extensive research, but that’s to the book’s credit. His presentation of the facts and data he’s basing his argument on are pleasingly distinct from the conclusions he then draws.

Kelly invents a new word for his book, and I think it’s a useful one. “Technium” (which he’s been using on his own blog of the same name for years) designates, “the greater, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.” He further explains that, “the essential quality of the technium [is]: this idea of a self-reinforcing system of creation.” The technium thus not only encompasses all of our gadgets, tools, software languages, and other inventions, but it also includes the interactions between those elements and how they can influence one another. As I read through the book, I usually thought of technium as kind of a companion term to “biosphere”, with similar implications. I think it’s a great term, and if everyone I knew had read this book or at least learned the word, I’d find frequent use for it my day to day conversation and writing. I hope it catches on.

One of Kelly’s central arguments about the technium is that it has built into it an innate direction and that many of the kinds of technology that develop are inevitable. It might not be inevitable that a certain person invents a certain thing at this time and place, but rather that the way the technium fits together ensures certain evolutions over time. He cites as evidence the not uncommon occurrence of multiple people “inventing” something like radio or the light bulb separately. Kelly places the evolution of the technium within the context of overall evolution, and repeatedly makes the assertion that technology is just an extension of life, and therefore so is its evolution. I agree as far as this goes, but where I and many others might differ is on the nature of how evolution works. Kelly seizes upon a minority opinion in modern evolutionary theory that ascribes a directionality and underlying structure to evolution. Kelly maintains, for example, that humans or something very much like us was an inevitable result of evolution.

Many esteemed biologists (like Stephen J Gould or Jerry Coyne) would probably disagree, and I don’t think the evidence he marshals here supports his case. Unfortunately, this conceit of a teleological force is one of the book’s central points, and it was here that the book fell flat for me. Probably because it’s so important, Kelly spends more pages than I appreciated defending this hypothesis, often in ways that threaten to become repetitive. Especially towards the end, I found the book dragging.

Where What Technology Wants triumphs, however, is in its thoughtful and carefully argued defense of technology as a whole. Kelly clearly states his position that, while he admires and studies technology, he’s not prone to loving it thoughtlessly or embracing its hottest and most popular trends. He’s cautious about adopting any new technology (something he admires about the Amish), and says he tends to want the least amount of gadgets in his life that will maximize the advantages they can bring him and his family. For him, this is the essence of technology’s power and innate virtue: it constantly increases choice. The technium has produced plenty of negatives, but it has also opened vast vistas of better options and more opportunities for most people on the planet.

I found Kelly’s arguments for choice incredibly compelling, even while his case for directionality failed to sway me. You might well draw the opposite conclusion. You might agree or disagree entirely. The only way to find out is to read the book, and if it’s a subject that interests you in the least, I recommend you give it a try. You might find yourself smiling in agreement or scowling in frustration on multiple occasions, but hey, that’s exactly what a philosophical treatise should do: make us think.


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