It’sdifficult to read the title of Kevin Kelly’s prophecy-cum-manifesto What TechnologyWants without visions of Terminators dancing in one’shead. Surely this question belongs to some cratered and rust-dappled dystopianfuture? Surely technology still serves at ourpleasure, whether it’s driving us to Dunkin Donuts, nuking our leftover Thai,or finding us “cobra versus mongoose” videos on YouTube?
By “technology,”Kelly, a co-founder of Wired, doesn’tstrictly mean machines or the Internet. He means the fruits of humancreativity, everything from UNIX code to Hamletto “philosophical concepts.” Though he claims to “dislikeinventing words,” he proposes techniumto denote “the greater, global, massively interconnected system oftechnology vibrating around us.” Forgive the obligatory Gladwellianneologism (hey, at least it condenses “fruits of human creativity”into eight letters) and one finds that Kelly delivers an absorbing, if occasionallycredulous, account of the technium’s progress.
The good news: thetechnium isn’t self-aware in the Skynet sense. “Its mechanical wants,”Kelly writes, “are not carefully considered deliberations but rathertendencies.” The neither-good-nor-bad news: what the technium mainly wantsis to evolve, expand, diversify, increase in complexity. Kelly argues that manyof the ways in which it does so are, in a sense, predictable. He makes aparallel with biological evolution: just as certain features, like the eye,evolved independently in genetically distant creatures, many technologies ariseindependently at roughly the same time (often leading, also predictably, tohigh-stakes patent disputes).
In other words, we’d mostlikely have had the light bulb with or without Edison, and the atomic bombregardless of whose head that particular light bulb appeared above. Why? Mixingmetaphors, as he often does, Kelly tells us that “the creative engine ofevolution stands on three legs: theadaptive . . . plus the contingent and inevitable.” In technology as inbiology, we think primarily of adaptation, but there are also the guidingpressures of historical reality and the physical laws of energy and matter. Theimpossible, by definition, will never be: contingency says you can’t inventcars before you invent the wheel; inevitability says such cars as we may havewill drive on roads, not clouds. The right conditions for cars or light bulbsor A-bombs will tend to lead to them.
As a framework forunderstanding the historical forward march of the technium, this is useful, butminus the bunting of buzzwords, anecdotes, trivia, and illustrations (myfavorites being “A Thousand Years of Helmet Evolution” and “Parallelsin Blow Gun Culture”), it hardly strikes one as revelatory. That X, be it a biological organism or acomponent of the technium, cannot precede its predecessors, and that it canevolve only within the parameters its predecessors define, is merely logical,not mind-blowing. Whatever comes to pass, we are guaranteed to find, lookingback, that the conditions preceding it were somewhere on the continuum fromsufficient to ideal to bring it about. In the same way, we marvel at ourfine-tuned universe, forgetting for an intoxicating moment that it only looksthat way to the self-aware, and rather self-satisfied, product of its laws.Technological progress can be similarly intoxicating. The iPad may seem asthough it were preordained by the cosmos—but does that make it cool?Inevitability, real or imagined, shouldn’t exempt anything from criticalscrutiny.
Having explained atlength, in sometimes elegant but always buoyant and engaging prose, howtechnological evolution works, Kelly moves to a more significant question: whatto do with this knowledge? When we identify a trend in technologicaldevelopment, like Moore’s Law, which “predicts that computing chips willshrink by half in size and cost every 18 to 24 months,” we must use thisto our advantage, both by keeping pace and by preparing for the inevitableplateau.
We must also protectourselves. Kelly begins a chapter provocatively titled “The Unabomber WasRight” by enumerating the many inventions expected, in their innocentinfancies, to bring world peace: airplanes, submarines, dynamite, machine guns,to name only a few. (Marconi, the inventor of radio, claimed that it would “makewar impossible, because it will make war ridiculous.” He was abouthalf-right.) What the Unabomber was right about, in Kelly’s estimation, is “theself-aggrandizing nature of the technium,” its tendency to propagate andstrengthen itself without taking humanity’s best interests into account.
But Kelly sees this asproof not of the technium’s evil but of its potent neutrality. It increases ourfreedom, multiplies our choices, but every new technology is a solution thatcreates new problems and unintended consequences. The best answer is not toregard the technium as a basically destructive juggernaut, but to evaluate itsmany offerings—as, believe it or not, the Amish do—piece by piece, taking onlywhat is useful and fixing, repurposing, or discarding what is not.
Kelly is too smitten withthe idea that quantity begets quality. He measures scientific knowledge interms of the number of journal articles published. He often seems to forget thathis vaunted Internet, repository of our ever-increasing “information,”is mostly porn, ads for “The One Secret to Losing Weight,” andhilarious cat pictures. All the same, his conviction that creativity is aliving force to be examined, harnessed, and sanctified can be inspiring. Ourparticipation in the technium’s development gives us a dignifying hand in ourown evolution—and, at the risk of anthropocentrism, I’d say that makes uspretty damn special.