Book Review: What Technology Wants

 

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 Technium

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.

Amish Hackers

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.

Techno-Optimism

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.

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]

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10 Comments on “Book Review: What Technology Wants”

  1. Quora says:

    What does technology want?…

    I’m not sure technology wants anything. If you haven’t already read it, I suggest reading What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. I wrote a lengthy review here: http://coffeetheory.com/2011/02/14/book-review-what-technology-wants-by-kevin-kelly/

  2. […] What Technology Wants was arguably one of the most interesting books published in 2010. After reading the book initially, I wrote a somewhat short review with the plan of coming back to it at some point. Well, I finally went back to it, added some stuff, and made some revisions. Since there are many new readers who weren’t reading Coffee Theory back at the time of my initial pithy review, I thought I’d provide an update here in case you want to check it out. Anyway, here it is: “Book Review: What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly“. […]

  3. Added to my reading list.

    The idea of technology robbing people of their freedom does not seem like the best way of thinking about it though. Instead, it subtly redefines the boundaries at the edges.

    • Greg Linster says:

      @TheJulior:disqus Thanks for the comment!  I’m sure you’ll thoroughly enjoy the book. 

      I’m not sure I understand what you are getting at, in regards to robbing people of freedom, when you say “it subtly redefines the boundaries at the edges.”

      • It’s a question of the mental model you use, i.e. something that exists *because of* a combination of physical, mental, and institutional boundaries VS. some platonic idea that exists out of time, which can only be soiled by our interference.

        I kind of wish I’d read this before my own post on “Faster is Different”, since the author and I certainly share a similar way of looking at technology. I hope I come across more as this guy than the Unabomber anyway.

        • Greg Linster says:

          @TheJulior:disqus Ok, I think I understand what you’re saying now.  And, yes, don’t worry, you don’t come across as the Unabomber 😉

          Interestingly, Kevin Kelly believes (if I recall correctly) that technology helps society on the macro level, but harms (by destroying innate beauties of human life) on the individual level.  So he’s essentially pro-technology for society, but tries to minimize it in his life.  At the beginning of the book he admits that his views on technology are contradictory (as are mine I suspect).  Anyway, I think Kevin Kelly is an incredibly interesting guy (whom I often agree with), but I find his technophilic optimism dangerously Panglossian.  

  4. Datxomin says:

    Thank you for reposting this review. Amusing notion that such a book exists.Based on your comments, it seems to me that Kelly makes a stand for a point of view that I’m afraid demonstrates more confusion than insight. For starters, he continuously and transparently attributes human characteristics and behavior to technology. For example, a computer wants nothing regardless of its programming. He is projecting. Desire is not possible for a device or, regardless of its origins, a thing.The matter of “humans today toil at jobs they hate” is simply ridiculous. Did our ancestors love their jobs and technology came (again, humanizing) to spoil paradise?Technology is no more than the application of science to commerce or industry. Provided a sufficiently reasonable definition of science, the ability to systematically make fire is technology. Humanize that into evil, please.And, yes, people die in car accidents. But many, many, many more would die if people went everywhere on foot while carrying on their backs the same amount of goods that are transported nowadays by means of vehicles… and that’s assuming the existing road network and construction technology. If we eliminate this too and have folks walking through rough and real landscapes (from sierras and rivers to forest, deserts, and seas), the death tool would be comparatively incomprehensible.Some people look at a blackberry and see the end of the world. Fair enough. Well, I’ve met folks that, in order to survive, still need a 1/5th of their extended families to do nothing but walk to fetch water every day… and, by the way, they only need a 1/5th because they have water-carrying jug technology. “What jugs want”, by Txomin.

  5. Datxomin says:

    Thank you for reposting this review. Amusing notion that such a book exists.Based on your comments, it seems to me that Kelly makes a stand for a point of view that I’m afraid demonstrates more confusion than insight. For starters, he continuously and transparently attributes human characteristics and behavior to technology. For example, a computer wants nothing regardless of its programming. He is projecting. Desire is not possible for a device or, regardless of its origins, a thing.The matter of “humans today toil at jobs they hate” is simply ridiculous. Did our ancestors love their jobs and technology came (again, humanizing) to spoil paradise?Technology is no more than the application of science to commerce or industry. Provided a sufficiently reasonable definition of science, the ability to systematically make fire is technology. Humanize that into evil, please.And, yes, people die in car accidents. But many, many, many more would die if people went everywhere on foot while carrying on their backs the same amount of goods that are transported nowadays by means of vehicles… and that’s assuming the existing road network and construction technology. If we eliminate this too and have folks walking through rough and real landscapes (from sierras and rivers to forest, deserts, and seas), the death tool would be comparatively incomprehensible.Some people look at a blackberry and see the end of the world. Fair enough. Well, I’ve met folks that, in order to survive, still need a 1/5th of their extended families to do nothing but walk to fetch water every day… and, by the way, they only need a 1/5th because they have water-carrying jug technology. “What jugs want”, by Txomin.

    • Greg Linster says:

      @cc64c304ebd42bf74ec96e59c79288fa:disqus Thanks for the thoughtful comment!
      1) You say that desire is not possible for a device.  What about a robot that realizes it’s running low on battery power and “desires” to plug itself in to recharge itself?  At what point, if ever, do we admit that AI is becoming human-like?

      2) I actually think that many humans today toil at jobs they hate (I know many of them personally).  Spending 8+ hours a day parked in front of a computer working in a white-collar sweatshop takes a psychological toil with a type of chronic stress that I don’t think existed in the past.  Humans were stressed in the past, but not in the ways we are now.  Overall, I agree with you though; it’s easy to romanticize the past.  Technology has, without a doubt, made our lives better, but Karl Marx warned about the dangers of capitalism run amok, some of which I think we see today.  Humans, I think, feel better psychologically when they aren’t forced to hyper-specialize as some Adam Smith followers would suggest.  For instance, all economic logic would dictate that I shouldn’t cook my meals at home.  I have a comparative advantage in other things economically, yet I enjoy cooking at home because it makes me happy.

      3) Again, I don’t think all technologies are categorically bad.  Sure, fire was a great human discovery that I think has helped us tremendously.  Unfortunately, I’m not so sure that I will be able to say the same thing about genetically modified foods though.

      4) We have to consider the full range of costs and benefits compared to the alternatives.

      5) I’m not a Luddite (and Kelly certainly isn’t either), but some technologies do have ill side effects and some don’t.  Some technologies have ill side effects, but the benefits far exceed the costs.  The real task at hand is to figure out which technologies, both individually and collectively, improve our well-being and which ones harm us.  

  6. […] [2] If you’ve never read KK’s essay “The Technium and the 7th Kingdom of Life“, I highly recommend it.  Also, check out my book review of What Technology Wants titled “What Can We Learn From Technophiles, the Unabomber, and the Amish?“. […]


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