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Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants”

By - November 09, 2011

It took me a while, but I’ve finally finished Kevin Kelly’sWhat 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:

Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (my review)

The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood by James Gleick (my review)

In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives by Steven Levy (my review)

The Future of the Internet–And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain (my review)

The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century by George Friedman (my review)

Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 by Michio Kaku (my review)

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20 thoughts on “Kevin Kelly’s “What Technology Wants”

  1. vickivanv says:

    I love this book and have thought of it quite often in the months since I read it. Most of what I’ve read on technology tends to look back no further than the Industrial Revolution, and focuses on a somewhat narrow area of products and developments. But Kelly zooms out to look at it in terms a much larger, long-term framework, as something that has evolved symbiotically with humanity, intertwining with it and developing in ways that mimic biological development. Some of the analogies to biology work better than others, IMO, but the book is never anything less than fascinating and thought-provoking. And like the best books, it has changed my outlook by giving me a new perspective on things I’ve taken for granted o thought of only in vague terms.

  2. Anonymous says:

    John, Kevin spoke at the Long Now Foundation in January (Jan 28, 2011), and his talk provided a lot of the missing narrative that you’re looking for (I think he’d done the talk so many times that he’d had time to create a narrative). They video-ed the talk and were going to put it online though I can’t find it on longnow.org…maybe you could ping them to find out if it’s available. Definitely worth a watch…and make sure to watch the Q&A at the end where he had to answer some tough questions.

  3. Great posting! helpfull and informative article. Really you good job. I bookmarked this

  4. Hi John, I have read Kevin Kelly’s book and also took me a while to finish it. On top of being in English (there wasn’t Spanish version at the moment) I’ve found that some of his ideas needed to grow inside me before I can continue. At least in that sense (but not the only one) a great book. I have also missed a narrative that gives continuity tho the whole but I have found that after your review (thanks!).

    I’m reading now The Black Swan (Nassim Nicholas Taleb) and was wondering if you have read it or if you will because it tackles the impossibility to predict the future and that’s part of your thesis for you new book.

    Thanks for your time and your insightful and inspiring blog/events/book/etc.

  5. Julie Blanchez says:

    John,
    i recommend you
    Grab (a summary of) Teilhard de Chardin’s thinking and you will see thelink to god transpiring from KK’s book. I would be curious to know of KK has been inspired by TdC ?

  6. Thanks for the genuine review.
    After reading KK’s book I also came away thinking it somehow missed a clear (and convincing?) narrative. Still looking for that narrative, I recently finished reading ‘The Nature of Technology – What It Is and How It Evolves’ by W Brian Arthur and found it to provide (at least some of) what I was hoping for in Kevin’s book. My plan now is to go back and read ‘What Technology Wants’ again…

  7. Tom Crowl says:

    While I’ve not yet read the book… I followed (and commented occasionally) on his blog ( http://KK.org/thetechnium ) as he was publishing essays which I believe came to form the core of “What Technology Wants”

    Essentially I agree with his view… (if I’m stating it roughly correctly that both life, and the technology produced by life… are natural parts of a more comprehensive universal drive towards consciousness, intelligence… or something akin to old Teijard’s vision).

    The only issue I have is what sometimes seems like excessive optimism about the outcome.

    For whether you’re an atheist physicist or a fundamentalist Christian (NO, I don’t believe KK is a fundamentalist!)…

    The assumption they’ve both come to share is the essential and universal nature of uncertainty…

    For the physicist this is exemplified by Quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s Cat…

    For the Christian its the dilemma of Free Will and the prospect of Heaven or Hell.

    While the universe may drive to Godhead… individuals, civilizations and planets most likely don’t make it. I’d suspect that any single planet’s evolutionary process has less chance of getting to Godhead… than an individual seed in the tomato on your sandwich has of becoming a tomato plant.

    It really is about the decisions we make individually and collectively… And I”d suggest that the technologies of decision are being sorely neglected.

    And naturally I’m going to add…

    Money is a Decision Technology. I’d suggest that there’s as much or more utility in regarding it as a store of ‘decision rights’ as there is in regarding it as a store of ‘value’…

    In a scaled civilization its ESSENTIAL to make transaction in very small amounts viable… especially in speech, opinion and decision related activity involving large numbers of people. I suppose its a bit over the top to suggest that its a pre-requisite for planetary survival… but maybe not. Because our planetary decision systems suck the big one right now.

    Though I’m sure its worthy of some discussion.

  8. [...] few more passes by a structural editor), but it is an important one to read. As Kevin Kelly said in What Technology Wants, Kurzweil has written a book that will be cited over and over again as our culture attempts to sort [...]

  9. [...] What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review) [...]

  10. [...] What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review) [...]

  11. [...] What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review) [...]

  12. Rob Stolzy says:

    Technology doesn’t want anything.  It is not an entity capable of desire.  The ‘technium’ is simply something KK dreamt up, a concept he has become in love with.  And the reason the reviewer has the sense that no real narrative argument is presented to justify according any reality to KK’s dreamt-up concept is simply that there is none.  Like an enchanted philosopher stoned on his almost wannabee worldview, he churns about amidst myriad delightful anecdotes and memes which inhabit his mind, unable to enforce any structure upon them to create a convincing meaning. KK’s thinking has always had this boundless bouncing character since I first became aware of him 3 decades back.  He’s better suited to uncovering and pointing to new phenomena than he is to abstracting a system from all his observations.

    Readers wanting an example of less ego-submerged thinking about social and technical developments are better off consulting Jaron Lanier, whom the reviewer also has discussed recently. Lanier offers much more cogent insights, and one has the sense that further refined observations are coming about the themes which interest him. Besides arguments derived from real human experience instead of abstract theorizing, Lanier offers a grounded approach which is no afraid to proclaim the self-evident reality of things like mind and spirit and consciousness.  Thus he is not handcuffed like many modern intellects by a slavish allegiance to an ideology which cannot withstand serious scrutiny, but rather tried to survive and extend itself by escaping critical examination and functioning as a modern axiom.

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for your comments, Rob. I hope to bring all these points of view (and more, way behind in my reviews) when I finish writing.

  13. [...] What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (my review) [...]

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