It took me a while, but I’ve finally finished Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants,” first published last year and now out in paperback. Befitting a tome that took five or so years to write, Kevin’s book is not the kind of work that is easily digested – at least for me.
But that’s not to say it’s not worthy. It most certainly is. I worked with Kevin for five wonderful years as a co-founding editor of Wired, and throughout that tumultuous period (1992-1997) Kevin never ceased to surprise me – both with stories of his extraordinary life (after converting to Christianity whilst wandering in the Middle East, for example, he bicycled across the US under the self imposed belief that he would die at the end of his trip), as well as with his boundless curiosity. I was very young when we worked together, to say he had a profound impact on how I understood the practice of writing is an understatement. Together we edited every single word in more than fifty issues of Wired, after all.
With those caveats declared, then, let me get to the book at hand. Some non-fiction books present themselves as lectures or arguments. And still others are very clearly the manifestation of the author’s own unscratchable itch. What Technology Wants is both of these, and more. In the introduction, Kevin pretty much sums it up: “What was (technology’s) essence? If I didn’t understand the basic nature of technology, then as each new piece of it came along, I would have no frame of reference to decide how weakly or strongly to embrace it.”
Kevin’s core question is all of ours: We understand technology seems to have a life of its own, to be rather out of our control. We both love and fear it, and we’re not quite sure whether to embrace it. Is it good, bad, or indifferent?
Kevin’s answer is clear: Technology is not only in the balance good, it’s also far, far bigger than us. He argues that technology is a natural product of evolution – an extension of us – but he also argues that we are an extension of larger forces than ourselves. If that sounds like it borders on the religious, well, it does. Kevin is a religious man, but he’s careful to not let that get in the way of the book’s thesis – too much.
As I read, I sometimes found myself wondering if Kevin wasn’t attempting an elaborate and roundabout proof of God’s existence, and it left me wondering what his unvarnished views were on the subject. What Technology Wants doesn’t quite go there, but it comes close, and I found that lack of directness oddly frustrating. (Reviewers at the Times and the Journal found other frustrations, but I’ll let you peruse those on your own).
What the book does state directly is the existence of what Kevin calls the “technium,” which is a complex of all technology past, present, and future – a living system and process that flows from our own creation, but is not of our own making. If your head’s starting to hurt, you’d not be alone. The technium is a tough concept to internalize, because it challenges the notion that somehow mankind is preeminent. Humans are simply an outgrowth of the technium, a necessary technology that furthers a much grander design. I think many of us sense this could be true, but Kevin insists it is - and then asserts that we needn’t worry, because in the end, technology wants what we want: more freedom, more diversity, more beauty, and more choice.
Where What Technology Wants fails is as a narrative – there isn’t a clear thread pushing the reader forward. It’s utterly packed with interesting stories and anecdotes – a provoking study of the Unabomber, a thoughtful journey into the heart of Amish philosophy, a primer on how life began – but I tend to like books that have a through line.
If there is one, it’s that in the end, we’re all going to be better for the rise of the technium. I want to believe in what Kevin proclaims, because I share his optimistic views. But I’m still unclear on the link to God, and it’s probably that link that I’d most like to explore the next time Kevin and I speak. I’ll be meeting with him soon, and look forward to the conversation, which I’ll report here. In the meantime, I believe that What Technology Wants is an essential read for anyone who wishes to claim both cultural and technological literacy. Highly recommended.
For more on Kevin’s book, including reviews and ongoing thoughts, I also recommend the book’s portion of his site, found here.
Other books I’ve reviewed recently:
In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)
The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)