Review: What Technology Wants

I’ve never come away from a book feeling like this before.  I was so looking forward to reading it, and whilst I don’t come away feeling disappointed as such, I do feel unfulfilled.  That doesn’t mean I don’t recommend the book, because I do… read on.

This book sits at the intersection between technology and philosophy. It is less about wires and more about ideas.  Kelly spends a lot of time trying to establish the link he makes between evolution in life and his belief that a parallel evolution occurs in technology – perhaps too much time.  It is almost as if he feels compelled to hammer it home by returning to the subject over an over.  I am open to the main idea of the book – in fact, I’m reading because I want to follow the thinking behind the idea further.   But he must believe that there will be a significant part of his audience who will need to be convinced.  This does tend to stop the book getting into its stride, and to be honest, it makes you wonder if what comes next is worth persevering.

He doesn’t make life easy for himself at the beginning of the book, by coming up with the phrase the “technium” to describe the broad sense in which he wants to talk about technology.  I can see it is a necessary step but it is unexpected and as such it is hard work. It goes to highlight the problems you can come across when you want to discuss an idea in the abstract when the vocabulary required does not exist yet, or does not express all the connotations you wish it to:

No longer a noun, technology was becoming a force – a vital spirit that throws us forward or pushes against us.  Not a thing but a verb.

Issues of definition of words comes up elsewhere – other examples are entropy, exotropy and information.

He goes on to describe what he means by a “want”:

With the technium, want does not mean thoughtful decisions…  Its mechanical wants are not carefully considered deliberations but rather tendencies.  Leaning.  Urges.  Trajectories.  The wants of technology are closer to needs, a compulsion towards something.

Kelly then delves into history, which is interesting, particularly in relation to the invention of language and the development that permitted.  From that point Homo Sapiens never looked back.  Then on to one of those ideas that is simple, and obvious once somebody points it out:

…technologies don’t die… In this way they differ from biological species…  Technologies are idea based and culture is their memory.   They can be resurrected if forgotten…  Technologies are forever.

Later in the book it is time to frame his argument about direction, or convergence.  The principle is that nature’s evolution displays tendencies to converge on certain characteristics, for example, regardless of the differences between many species, they have developed the ability to see through eyes that function largely the same way. Because technology is an extension of nature, then it shares the same trait.  Kelly then follows with numerous examples of simultaneous invention – verging on overkill.

Even so, the book has hit its stride.  His chapter on exponential growth is very interesting, again looking back to ascertain that this is not just something that has started recently in only in the computing field – it has been occurring for over a century, spanning a number of different generations of technologies.  The next step is to look at the things that shape the technium:

By aligning ourselves with the imperative of the technium, we can be more prepared to steer it where we can and more aware of where we are going.  By following what technology wants, we can be more ready to capture its full gifts.

Then the book takes a bit of a dive, and it becomes clear quite how US-focused it is.  The section on Choices – dealing with issues such as how much should we embrace technology, what the implications are if we let it run its course, and how successfully can we choose to stay outside of the system – asks valid questions, but uses the examples of the Unabomber and the Amish community.  These evidently strike chords with an American audience, less so for those of us who are further afield.   Occasionally we get Kelly expressing his own personal opinion, which seems to be a bit over the top.  Technological utopianism?  The Californian Ideology?:

 … the internet as it has matured is closer to the technological equivalent of a place.  An uncharted, almost feral territory where you can genuinely get lost.  At times I’ve entered the web just to get lost.  In that lovely surrender, the web swallows my certitude and delivers the unknown.  Despite the purposeful design of its human creators, the web is a wilderness.  Its boundaries are unknown, unknowable, its mysteries unaccountable.  The bramble of intertwined ideas, links, documents, and images creates an otherness as thick as a jungle.  The web smells like life.  It knows so much… I feel amputated when I am away from it… I caress it with my fidgety fingers; it yields to my desires, like a lover…  I want to remain submerged in its bottomless abundance.  To stay. To be wrapped in its dreamy embrace.

The highlight of the book – and the bit I was waiting for – comes in the final section:  the chapter “Technology’s Trajectories”.  Here we find the characteristics of what technology wants; a number of increasing tendencies, among them complexity, diversity, specialization, beauty, structure and sentience.  This section is excellent and worth getting through all that came before.

So, overall, a worthwhile read – there are some brilliant ideas, and it definitely gives you a different viewpoint on the world.  You just have to be forgiving of some of the things you have to go through on the way.  Something tells me I will re-read it again in five years and it will all make perfect sense.





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