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Monday, October 10, 2011

What Does Technology Want?

I just finished reading Kevin Kelly's book from last year entitled, What Technology Wants. When I first heard about this book when it was published it sounded a little too woo-woo for me. Technology wants something? Isn't technology simply a manifestation of our own ideas and creations? When I found a used copy of the book, I decided to check out what Kelly was trying to say.  After finishing the book, I would have to say that I pretty much agree with his premise.

So what is Kelly's thesis?  He basically believes (and provides many supporting pieces of data) that the universe is not only governed by entropy (the thermodynamic force leading to increasing disorder) but by a force he dubs "exotropy"- a tendency for the universe to become more ordered with an ever-increasing energy density associated with each layer of order. Since the Big Bang, particles have self-assembled into atoms which have self-assembled into molecules which have lead to solar systems, planets, water, and the building blocks of life. The self-assembly goes on with the evolution of simple cells, multi-cellular organisms, animals and plants, and finally primates and humans. All of this has been well-documented in the scientific literature.

According to Kelly, the next level of exotropy is the human creation of technology - simple at first (think fire and stone axes), but becoming increasingly complex as different technologies are combined and recombined into evermore complex technologies. The highest energy density in the universe can now be quantified as being, not in the core of the sun or a star, but in a Pentium computer chip.  The sum of all this technology is what Kelly dubs the "technium" - a complex web of everything that humans have created.  All the technology that exists can now be recombined at an ever-increasing rate to lead to new capabilities. This is the basis for Moore's Law and a host of other trends that can be shown to be increasing at an exponential rate.

While not truly thinking or sentient (yet), Kelly argues that technology now is on a path that is moving beyond the control of its creators.  Think about the internet. We would have a hard time drawing an exact map of every server and page on the internet because it is constantly changing. The changes are not organized from one central planning organization. They happen because of the spontaneous activity of millions of people. And yet the system works beautifully, rarely failing us and never going completely dark. The internet is not sentient but there is the sense that it is more than the sum of its human-created parts.

Kelly argues that technology wants what life itself wants:


  • Increasing efficiency
  • Increasing opportunity
  • Increasing emergence
  • Increasing complexity
  • Increasing diversity
  • Increasing specialization
  • Increasing ubiquity
  • Increasing freedom
  • Increasing mutualism
  • Increasing beauty
  • Increasing sentience
  • Increasing structure
  • Increasing evolvability
He goes into detail in his final chapter of what each of these mean in more specific terms.

Kelly is not a wholehearted devotee of technology. He sees the dark side of technology as well. In a chapter entitled, The Unabomber Was Right, Kelly writes:

I, too, argue that the technium is guided by "technical necessity." That is, baked into the nature of this vast complex of technological systems are self-serving aspects - technologies that enable more technology, and systems that preserve themselves - as well as inherent biases that lead the technium in certain directions, outside human desire. [Ted] Kaczynski [the Unabomber] writes, "Modern technology is a unified system in which all parts are dependent on one another. You can't get rid of the 'bad' parts of technology and retain only the 'good' parts."

Kelly sees technology and the technium as being, on balance, a little more slanted to good than evil. If it weren't that way, that particular technology would eventually die out. Nonetheless, both sides are always with us. The internet brings great connectivity but also a loss of privacy. Fossil fuels have powered the technium for over a century but they bring on climate change.

One particularly interesting chapter entitled, Lessons of Amish Hackers, delves into a society that actively rejects some technology and yet embraces other technologies readily. The fundamental reason for the rejection of, say, electricity to the home is that it connects the Amish to the grid which invariably leads them to being drawn into a tainted society. Yet, the Amish have no problem with putting a diesel generator behind their barn which run an air compressor which pipes compressed air into the house to run everything from the washing machine to a food blender. The difference?  They are off the grid. Kelly argues that their basic ability to make such choices is facilitated by the very technology they reject. Without machined parts and transportation systems, they couldn't live their lives in the way they choose. Kelly is not against the Amish. In fact, he finds their lifestyle to be attractive on many levels. But he argues that one of the prime reasons to embrace technology is that it expands individuals' choices for the pursuit of their own fulfillment. The Amish limit schooling to the 8th grade level. There are no Amish doctors or lawyers. Their lifestyle limits their choices.

In the final analysis. Kelly believes that the trajectory the technium is on is the right one, or maybe more accurately, the only one in could be on. But he also observes that we are moving into an era when technology will start to become decoupled from human control and this is a totally new era for humanity. Where it will all lead is anybody's guess. What Technology Wants is a thought-provoking book that should be on the reading list of anyone who is interested in the broader questions of where we are going.

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