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Reading :: What Technology Wants

Posted by: on Nov 25, 2011 | One Comment

What Technology Wants
By Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired, wrote this 2010 book as a meditation on how technology has developed and how it might develop autonomously. He coins the term technium to delineate what he’s examining:

The technium exists beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections. (pp.11-12) 

“Technium” is thus a very broad term, essentially covering civilization from the first use of language onward. That breadth allows Kelly to argue that

after 10,000 years of slow evolution and 200 years of incredible intricate exfoliation, the technium is maturing into its own thing. Its sustaining network of self-reinforcing processes and parts have given it a noticeable measure of autonomy. It may have once been as simple as an old computer program, merely parroting what we told it, but now it is more like a very complex organism that often follows its own urges. (pp.12-13)

The Latour fans out there may warm to the notion that Kelly is embracing a form of symmetry, seeing nonhumans in the same way that he sees humans. But that’s not Kelly’s viewpoint. This is not an ontological text.

Rather, Kelly is actually arguing that the technium – in which we are important but minority partners – is evolving as an organism (not as an actor-network). He makes his argument by starting with homo sapiens’s discovery of language (Ch.2) and moving on through various stages of technology. Based on this discussion, he proposes that evolution’s triad of vectors – functional (adaptive), structural (inevitable), and historical (contingent) (p.123) – is matched by a triad of vectors for technological evolution: intentional (open), structural (inevitable), and historical (contingent) (p.183). Indeed, he strongly argues that inventions seem to be inevitable at certain periods, and selects a number of examples of inventions that appeared at different points on the globe at roughly the same time. (The examples don’t include what I would consider to be the most important and germane one, writing, which was invented only three times in the world’s history, at very different times.)

Kelly, then, makes a very insistent argument for a teleological understanding of technological change, one in which we will be surpassed by and (Kelly hopes) integrated with our technological creations. It strongly reminds me of Kurzweil’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the book’s argument holds together well. At many points – such as Kelly’s argument that technological inventions pop up at roughly the same time across the globe – evidence is thin and seems cherry-picked. We don’t get to see many counterarguments or concessions. Since Kelly’s claim is extraordinary, we might expect some extraordinary proof, including a better explanation of why technological change could occur similarly in very different places under very different conditions – and neither the strong proof nor the strong explanation are forthcoming. Due to these issues, I can recommend What Technology Wants as an interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking read, but I can’t say that it lives up to its claims.

1 Comment

  1. Chris
    November 28, 2011

    I have an unfinished review of this that I've been sitting on for about a month. When I finished reading, I was disenchanted enough with the ridiculous breadth and hyperdeterminism of his claims (technium as a seventh kingdom of life?) that I could only force myself to sit down and write about it. And his expository method of example ad nauseum wore quickly. Suppose I'll have to finish. Thanks for the concise review.

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