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.