Book Review: What Technology WantsPosted: February 14, 2011 | Author: Greg Linster | Filed under: Book Reviews | 10 Comments »
Is technology merely a creation of human ingenuity or can it develop wants of its own? The title of Kevin Kelly’s provocative book What Technology Wants will likely prompt readers to ask a form of this question immediately. Soon after reading the first chapter, I quickly realized this book was going to be one of the most philosophically interesting, albeit controversial, books published in 2010. Kelly, a former editor of Wired magazine, discusses many important issues related to technology, our relationship with it, and what it ultimately means to be human in the book.
Kelly’s central thesis is that technology and biological life must share some fundamental essence. And technology, he argues, is driven by the same evolutionary forces that resulted in the biological evolution of the human brain. He claims that electronic networks eerily exhibit near-biological behavior in many respects. Furthermore, he asserts that this whole process has been progressive and predictable. I think it’s also fair to say that Kelly is a technological determinist and, without a doubt, a technological optimist. While he makes a compelling argument that ought to please most technophiles, I think he ultimately neglects too many important philosophical issues.
The Costs of Technology
It is seldom acknowledged that every new technology creates new problems, a point well made by Edward Tenner in his book Why Things Bite Back. That’s not to say, however, that technology doesn’t solve problems either, because it does. As Tenner pointed out though, most technology strictly solves problems from the last round of technological innovation. In my mind, the decision to embrace technology all comes down to a simple economic calculation: does the marginal benefit of any given technology exceed the marginal cost? Each one of us must answer that question individually and we must also answer it as a collective society. The problem is that we never really know what the true cost of any given technology is at the time it’s created, nor do we know the true benefit. Kelly admits to some of the devastating psychological costs of technology in what follows:
“Thousands of traditional livelihoods have been sidetracked by progress, and the lifestyles around those occupations eliminated. Hundreds of millions of humans today toil at jobs they hate, producing things they have no love for. Sometimes these jobs cause physical pain, disability, or chronic disease. Technology creates many new occupations that are indisputably dangerous (coal mining, for one). At the same time, mass education and media train humans to shy away from low-tech manual work, to seek jobs working for the digital technium. The divorce of the hands from the head puts a strain on the human psyche. Indeed, the sedentary nature of the best-paying jobs is a health hazard–for body and mind.” [emphasis is mine]
Many individuals, and society as a whole, seem to have accepted the unhappiness, emptiness, and an unhealthy lifestyle as a cost we’re willing to pay for technology. We have, as Kelly reluctantly alludes to, become imprisoned in the technological framework of what the poet William Blake called “the mind-forg’d manacles.”
The root of the book’s title can be traced back to a time when Kelly was visiting a start-up in California called Willow Garage where he witnessed an incident with the PR2 research robot. The robot, when it needed more power, had been programmed to look for power outlets to plug itself in. Kelly noticed that although the robot wasn’t conscious, he could feel the robot want to recharge itself, hence the book’s title.
Near the beginning of the book, Kelly bravely coins a neologism called “the technium”. He describes the technium as follows: “The technium extends 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.”
One of the more interesting claims that Kelly makes in the book is that, with rare exceptions, technologies don’t die. He writes: “Technologies are forever. They are the enduring edge of the seventh kingdom of life.” Admittedly, it’s very hard to destroy technologies once they’ve been invented (even deliberately), but I think Kelly is wrong on this point. There are a handful of examples that prove this point, but there is also an epistemological issue at hand. How do we know that technologies haven’t died that we never knew about in the first place? In other words, there is a selection bias at play here.
What Kelly had to say about the Amish in the book was fascinating. The Amish’ motivation for avoiding certain technologies is that it strengthens their communities. They believe that most technologies are destructive to their culture and way of life. Kelly lists four important lessons that all societies could learn from the Amish in terms of technology adoption.
1) They are selective. They know how to say no and are not afraid to refuse new things. They ignore more than they adopt.
2) They evaluate new things by their experience instead of by theory. They let the early adopters get their jollies by pioneering new stuff under watchful eyes.
3) They have criteria by which to make choices: Technologies must enhance family and community and distance themselves from the outside world.
4) The choices are not individual but communal. The community shapes and enforces technological direction.
Was the Unabomber right?
Another one of the most controversial, albeit interesting, chapters of the book was titled “The Unabomber Was Right”. If reading about the Unabomber makes one uncomfortable, it’s likely because some of what he believed in resonates deeply, or at least that was the case for me. Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), without a doubt, was a severely disturbed and evil individual; however, I found it fascinating to learn more about him.
In describing the Unabomber, Kelly writes: “The Unabomber is right that technology is a holistic, self-perpetuating machine. He is also right that the selfish nature of this system causes specific harms. Certain aspects of the technium are detrimental to the human self, because they defuse our identity.” Unlike many self identified anarcho-primitivists who hypocritically bash technology and civilization over the Internet, Kaczynski practiced what he preached. He took his beliefs to their logical conclusion. However, even in the Montana wilderness, Kelly argues that he still lived off the fat of civilization. He just couldn’t escape the wrath of technology.
By the end of the book, Kelly clearly demonstrates the he is an ardent advocate of technological progress, although he doesn’t completely ignore the costs either. For example, he writes: “They point to vices that I cannot deny. We seem to be less content, less wise, less happy the “more” we have… The most cynical believe that progress simply extends our lives so that we can be unsatisfied for decades longer.” At the end of the day, I think most readers will agree that he discounts the costs too much while overstating the benefits of technology.
It seems that developing a healthy relationship with technology is no simple task in today’s world. In my opinion, developing a healthy balance technology has become one of life’s greatest challenges. We, as strange as it sounds, can learn some valuable philosophical lessons about what it means to be human from the Amish, the Unabomber, and this book. Ultimately, I agree with Kelly that Kaczynski’s first axiom is simply not true: technology doesn’t necessarily rob people of freedom, although, like the Amish, I find myself more skeptical of technology than ever.