What Humanity Wants

Kevin Kelly has written a superb book on technology, and our relationship with it.

What Technology Wants is sharply written in a clear easily approachable language that is the legacy of Kelly’s variegated life story of hippie turned tech guru turned born-again Christian. Kelly is perhaps the only person alive who could have Ray Kurzweil, James Wendell Berry, and Pat Robertson over for dinner and not have the evening end in a fistfight. In other words, Kelly transcends our contemporary limitations, and this shines forth in the smooth reasoning of his book, which appears to convince the reader by allowing whatever positions he has come to the work with to remain compatible with what is in fact Kelly’s assumption shattering argument.

Kelly tells an evolutionary story of technology, the emergence over time of the world of human technical, scientific, and cultural invention. What he calls the Technium. He believes that technology is, as it were, baked into the cake of the universe. There is a revolution against the innate trend of matter towards disorder or entropy. Exotropy, is the development of order out of the energy of chaos. Hydrogen atoms form more complex atoms which in turn form molecules, from this molecular stew emerges life, which evolves along complex paths to give birth to language and technology, which take evolution to yet another level of complexity.

Kelly disagrees with biologist, such as the late Stephen Gould, who argue, that evolution has no inherent direction. He sees evolution as constantly searching a limited possibility space for “tricks” that work. Thus, evolution independently evolved sight numerous times, as it did flight, because they are tricks that work in the environment life finds itself in. Exo-biologists are likely to find life similar to earth elsewhere in a universe where the same laws of physics hold sway.

Kelly extends this evolutionary argument to technology. Technologies represent good tricks and are likely to be discovered independently and repeatedly if lost. Technology represents good tricks in the possibility space that “want” to be discovered independent of their human creators. Kelly’s Technium, has a limited (for the moment) mind of its own separate from humanity thank can be observed in this independence.

The question, of course, is this, on balance a good thing? Kelly thinks yes. The more technology there is, the more capable human beings are of expressing their unique talents- think Jimmy Page without the electric guitar. Nevertheless, Kelly acknowledges our need to keep technology from overwhelming our capacities. His example for how we might do this is, strangely enough, the Amish who are the polar opposite of a Luddite madman like the Uni-Bomber. The Amish have found a way to pace the adoption of technology rather than abandon it whole cloth. As a person who has lived in Amish-country for a number of years, his observation of them as ingenious technological hackers is spot-on, but, given that the majority of us are unlikely to become Amish anytime soon, what is our own escape from being overwhelmed by technology?

For Kelly the answer is individualistic. Each of us needs to choose what technologies fit our needs and what we can ignore. I use a computer but avoid TV, etc. The problem with this individualistic idea of how to free ourselves from the seeming tyranny of technology is that it not really analogous at all for how the Amish deal with the challenges of technology. For them the essential question is “what will this do to the community?”.  Kelly gives us no way of answering this question as a collective- he has no sense of technology as a political question.

The word politics barely appears in Kelly’s book, and there only to make the point that despite what overarching economic system we had chosen in the 20th century- communism or capitalism- our current technological world was inevitable. It just would have occurred earlier or later had we chosen a different system. Kelly’s individualism seems like common sense when dealing with the flood of gadgets that enter our lives every year, but is it really a guide for technologies that promise or threaten the very nature of what it means to be human- AI and genetic engineering- to name just two.

Society, it would seem, has the very real moral obligation to take some degree of control over technology and science as a deterministic process, a foretaste of which we may have seen in the recent efforts to control the release of potentially dangerous biological information related to the study of the Avian flu.

Something I would love to see is the test of some kind of democratic forum when it comes to the ability to creating ethical guidelines for technology. Right now academic panels are largely responsible for such pronouncements. What if we created a “citizens panel” that was structured so as it would require knowledge and not just “gut level” opinions on the part of citizens when it comes to new technologies. How would such a forum stack up to the pronouncements of “experts”. Such participatory forums might give average, concerned citizens a say in the biggest existential questions of our time.

Kelly does not think we are capable of controlling the evolution of technology. This is less an issue of proof than one of faith. For in the end, he sees technology as part of the unfolding of God itself, the playing of an infinite game. It is such faith, despite Kelly’s tone of reasonableness, that should give us pause for it denies us the very freedom which God, (if such a thing exists) or nature has granted us in reference to our creations.

God vs the Big Brain: A Christmas Story

It’s Christmas time again. Along with the excitement of getting and decorating the tree, and anticipating the girls opening their presents, there is a kind of longing for a long-lost faith. Of all the aspects of Christianity that are hardest to let go of, Christmas is by far the hardest. It’s not just the secular aspects of the holiday, but the fact that during Christmas one confronts the beautiful meaning of the story of Christ. I know that Easter is supposed to be the penultimate Christian holiday, and therefore should be the holiday most pregnant with significance, but I am not all that interested in immortality. I am, however, interested in the meaning of life, the wonder of love and the relationship of a silent and distant God (if there is one) to humanity.

The beauty of the Christmas story is that God, the most perfect being imaginable, becomes a mere human being. He makes his appearance in a stable usually reserved for farm animals. This human being then spends his time, not with the big-wigs of human society, but with the rabble and the outcasts. In fact, his non-conformist ways eventually get him killed. The very torture and indignity of his murder forever flips the table of oppressed and oppressor. It is the oppressed who now share in the dignity of God.

What could be more beautiful than that?

What the Christmas story did was to re-imagine the 1st century nationalist sky God of the Jewish people, and the Unmoved Mover of the philosophers as, well, a person. A person who not only related to the high and mighty but focused his attention on you and me.

Today many are again re-imagining God as a process. This is something that must be implicit in the scientific world-view for it occurred to me years before I had ever heard of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, back when I was a young teenager and had first encountered science and begun to let go of my faith. For many process theologians, God is a form of intelligence that creates itself through evolution. Life, humanity, technology are evolutionary stages in the unfolding of God.  The problem I see with this is that it’s almost impossible under this theology to think of God in a supernatural way. God is a simply the biggest brain or the sum of all brains.

The Christmas story is unlikely to survive the victory of this idea of God. As we continue to create ever more intelligent forms of artificial intelligence, as we become capable of genetically engineering new forms of intelligent life, should we ever discover intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, the idea of a unique, appearance of God in history becomes frankly untenable.

A unique thinker who is both a Christian and a technologist would disagree. Kevin Kelly had his modern “Road to Damascus” moment in  which he hit upon a “technological metaphor” for God came in 1986 while  watching Jaron Lanier, one of the pioneers of virtual reality enter the world he had created.

I had this vision of the unbounded God binding himself to his creation. When we make these virtual worlds in the future—worlds whose virtual beings will have autonomy to commit evil, murder, hurt, and destroy options—it’s not unthinkable that the game creator would go in to try to fix the world from the inside. That’s the story of Jesus’ redemption to me. We have an unbounded God who enters this world in the same way that you would go into virtual reality and bind yourself to a limited being and try to redeem the actions of the other beings since they are your creations. So I would begin there. For some technological people, that makes the faith a little more understandable.

The problem for the Incarnation this technological metaphor poses is that it’s unclear why God should have done this only once. Kelly sees God as wanting as many forms of intelligence as possible, so the universe should be teeming with other technological civilizations. He could say with the mystic Giordano Bruno:

I can imagine an infinite number of worlds like the Earth, with a Garden of Eden on each one. In all these Gardens of Eden, half the Adams and Eves will not eat the fruit of knowledge, and half will. But half of infinity is infinity, so an infinite number of worlds will fall from grace and there will be an infinite number of crucifixions.

On the Cause, Principle, and Unity’, 5th dialogue

But of course, the same rationale applies on earth. Why should God have appeared only once in human history to Western civilization? After all, the origin of the word avatar is from Hinduism meaning a human incarnation of a God. If God really does need as many versions of intelligence as possible to express his infinite creativity, perhaps we should look at Christmas as a sort of universal birthday- all of our birthday’s in a sense a form of the Nativity. This might be a good way of looking at things, but Kelly and his fellow God as big brain theologians, by postulating that human being are the precursors to much higher forms of intelligence- indeed that the world itself- in Kelly’s term the Technium- is an emergent form of super-intelligence- inadvertently push human beings down the scale of being. Claiming God incarnates himself in such lower order beings as us when there are likely and will be advanced forms of intelligence of which we cannot even imagine is a little like the idea that God would incarnate himself in an ant to get an idea of what an ant’s life is like, and perhaps he does. However, what is clear is that by re-imagining God as a form of corporal intelligence, only vastly, vastly higher than our own, seems to inevitably lead to a sort of pantheism. The uniqueness of the Incarnation is lost and with it the spiritual meaning of Christmas.

All of which does not mean that I won’t love seeing my daughters open up their presents and help me bake Christmas bread once the day comes.