What Technology Wants

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Overview

A refreshing view of technology as a living force in the world.

This provocative book introduces a brand-new view of technology. It suggests that technology as a whole is not a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies. Kevin Kelly looks out through the eyes of this global technological system to discover "what it wants." He uses vivid examples from the past to trace technology's long course and then follows a dozen trajectories of technology into the near future to project where technology is headed.

This new theory of technology offers three practical lessons: By listening to what technology wants we can better prepare ourselves and our children for the inevitable technologies to come. By adopting the principles of pro-action and engagement, we can steer technologies into their best roles. And by aligning ourselves with the long-term imperatives of this near-living system, we can capture its full gifts.

Written in intelligent and accessible language, this is a fascinating, innovative, and optimistic look at how humanity and technology join to produce increasing opportunities in the world and how technology can give our lives greater meaning.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Kevin Kelly (Out of Control: New Rules for the New Economy) thinks that technology has a mind of its own. He doesn't mean that in the hackneyed sense of heavy-handed "robots gone wrong" sci-fi stories; instead in his carefully reasoned new book, he proposes that technology has become a near-living thing, an evolutionary life force that possesses its own trajectories and imperatives. The pervasive strength of those tendencies, he argues, make technology as great a force in the world today as nature itself. What Technology Wants is a visionary book, but it is grounded in specificity. In its pages, Kelly identifies the directions that technology is now leading us. Persuasive, cutting-edge arguments about an unavoidable subject.

Booklist
Verbalizing visceral feelings about technology, whether attraction or repulsion, Kelly explores the “technium,” his term for the globalized, interconnected stage of technological development. Arguing that the processes creating the technium are akin to those of biological evolution, Kelly devotes the opening sections of his exposition to that analogy, maintaining that the technium exhibits a similar tendency toward self-organizing complexity. Having defined the technium, Kelly addresses its discontents, as expressed by the Unabomber (although Kelly admits to trepidation in taking seriously the antitechnology screeds of a murderer) and then as lived by the allegedly technophobic Amish. From his observations and discussions with some Amish people, Kelly extracts some precepts of their attitudes toward gadgets, suggesting folk in the secular world can benefit from the Amish approach of treating tools as servants of self and society rather than as out-of-control masters. Exploring ramifications of technology on human welfare and achievement, Kelly arrives at an optimistic outlook that will interest many, coming, as it does, from the former editor of Wired magazine. --Gilbert Taylor
Kirkus Reviews

Wiredfounding editor Kelly (Asia Grace, 2002, etc.) attempts to balance a clear-eyed overview of the rise of technology and its place with a grand statement about what it all means.

The author's arguments are careful and convincing—to a point. What does he mean by technologywanting something? Is he serious? Yes, he is, and patient readers will find that Kelly has read and thought deeply about this question for decades, beginning with his days as a contributor to theWhole Earth Catalog in the '70s. He cites conversations with several dozen of the best-known thinkers and writers on the subjects of science, technology and cosmology, including Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright, Ray Kurzweil, Freeman Dyson, Stewart Brand and Chris Anderson, to name just a few. What Kelly and colleagues have observed is the steady, sometimes exponential growth of what the author calls the "technium" (the sum total of all human technology), the development of which mostly escaped human notice until Enlightenment inventors and engineers put it into overdrive. Kelly argues that the seeds for this critical mass were sown in the very beginning of time, that the techniumwanted to be and just needed the conditions, including sufficiently brainy primates, in place for its existence to be met. This argument, plausible as it seems, ultimately must be taken on faith. The strongest part of the book is the author's utilitarian defense of technology against technophobic critics—represented at the extreme by the Unabomber—and he holds up the Amish as an admirable example of a society that approaches technology with the proper mixture of suspicion and respect. No matter how someone feels about technology, however, Kelly claims that it will be what it wants to be, and humans need to understand the role we play in its uses and abuses.

Techno-mysticism aside, a timely and urgent book about the possibly dangerous fruits of human inventiveness.

William Rosen
…delivers many of the pleasures of a wonderful catalog, with page after page of entries, each one more appealing than the last, assembled by someone with an insatiable curiosity…As with a catalog, the lack of a narrative structure (or even an obvious destination) is beside the point and, in any case, is more than balanced by some truly fascinating detours…for most readers, Kelly's polymath erudition and infectious confidence…will prove more than sufficient.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
"A sharp-eyed study of our abiding need for cars, computers and gadgets." —-The New York Times
The Barnes & Noble Review

It's difficult to read the title of Kevin Kelly's prophecy-cum-manifesto What Technology Wants without visions of Terminators dancing in one's head. Surely this question belongs to some cratered and rust-dappled dystopian future? Surely technology still serves at our pleasure, 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't strictly mean machines or the Internet. He means the fruits of human creativity, everything from UNIX code to Hamlet to "philosophical concepts." Though he claims to "dislike inventing words," he proposes technium to denote "the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us." Forgive the obligatory Gladwellian neologism (hey, at least it condenses "fruits of human creativity" into eight letters) and one finds that Kelly delivers an absorbing, if occasionally credulous, account of the technium's progress.

The good news: the technium isn't self-aware in the Skynet sense. "Its mechanical wants," Kelly writes, "are not carefully considered deliberations but rather tendencies." The neither-good-nor-bad news: what the technium mainly wants is to evolve, expand, diversify, increase in complexity. Kelly argues that many of the ways in which it does so are, in a sense, predictable. He makes a parallel with biological evolution: just as certain features, like the eye, evolved independently in genetically distant creatures, many technologies arise independently at roughly the same time (often leading, also predictably, to high-stakes patent disputes) .

In other words, we'd most likely have had the light bulb with or without Edison, and the atomic bomb regardless of whose head that particular light bulb appeared above. Why? Mixing metaphors, as he often does, Kelly tells us that "the creative engine of evolution stands on three legs: the adaptive . . . plus the contingent and inevitable." In technology as in biology, we think primarily of adaptation, but there are also the guiding pressures of historical reality and the physical laws of energy and matter. The impossible, by definition, will never be: contingency says you can't invent cars before you invent the wheel; inevitability says such cars as we may have will drive on roads, not clouds. The right conditions for cars or light bulbs or A-bombs will tend to lead to them.

As a framework for understanding the historical forward march of the technium, this is useful, but minus the bunting of buzzwords, anecdotes, trivia, and illustrations (my favorites being "A Thousand Years of Helmet Evolution" and "Parallels in Blow Gun Culture"), it hardly strikes one as revelatory. That X, be it a biological organism or a component of the technium, cannot precede its predecessors, and that it can evolve only within the parameters its predecessors define, is merely logical, not mind-blowing. Whatever comes to pass, we are guaranteed to find, looking back, that the conditions preceding it were somewhere on the continuum from sufficient to ideal to bring it about. In the same way, we marvel at our fine-tuned universe, forgetting for an intoxicating moment that it only looks that way to the self-aware, and rather self-satisfied, product of its laws. Technological progress can be similarly intoxicating. The iPad may seem as though it were preordained by the cosmos -- but does that make it cool? Inevitability, real or imagined, shouldn't exempt anything from critical scrutiny.

Having explained at length, in sometimes elegant but always buoyant and engaging prose, how technological evolution works, Kelly moves to a more significant question: what to do with this knowledge? When we identify a trend in technological development, like Moore's Law, which "predicts that computing chips will shrink by half in size and cost every 18 to 24 months," we must use this to our advantage, both by keeping pace and by preparing for the inevitable plateau .

We must also protect ourselves. Kelly begins a chapter provocatively titled "The Unabomber Was Right" by enumerating the many inventions expected, in their innocent infancies, to bring world peace: airplanes, submarines, dynamite, machine guns, to name only a few. (Marconi, the inventor of radio, claimed that it would "make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous." He was about half-right.) What the Unabomber was right about, in Kelly's estimation, is "the self-aggrandizing nature of the technium," its tendency to propagate and strengthen itself without taking humanity's best interests into account .

But Kelly sees this as proof not of the technium's evil but of its potent neutrality. It increases our freedom, multiplies our choices, but every new technology is a solution that creates new problems and unintended consequences. The best answer is not to regard the technium as a basically destructive juggernaut, but to evaluate its many offerings -- as, believe it or not, the Amish do -- piece by piece, taking only what is useful and fixing, repurposing, or discarding what is not .

Kelly is too smitten with the idea that quantity begets quality. He measures scientific knowledge in terms of the number of journal articles published. He often seems to forget that his vaunted Internet, repository of our ever-increasing "information," is mostly porn, ads for "The One Secret to Losing Weight," and hilarious cat pictures. All the same, his conviction that creativity is a living force to be examined, harnessed, and sanctified can be inspiring. Our participation in the technium's development gives us a dignifying hand in our own evolution -- and, at the risk of anthropocentrism, I'd say that makes us pretty damn special.

--Stefan Beck

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670022151
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 10/14/2010
  • Pages: 416
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Kelly helped launch Wired magazine and was its executive editor for nearly seven years. He has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist. His previous books include Out of Control and the bestselling New Rules for a New Economy. He lives in Pacifica, California.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 28, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Wide-ranging look at the evolving life of technology

    In this fascinating book, Kevin Kelly, a co-founder and executive editor of Wired magazine, draws on a broad range of disciplines to make synthesizing observations about the relationship of technology to life. Unlike many contemporary writers, Kelly uses the term “technology” broadly. He isn’t just talking about the newest electronic gadgets; rather, he traces a history that reaches from chipped stone tools to the latest tech toys. Most readers will find some places where Kelly’s argument goes too far or slides past an objection, but anyone who dips into his treatise will find it compellingly written and vastly intriguing. getAbstract recommends this thought-provoking work to futurists, planners, innovators, and those interested in human nature and history.

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  • Posted August 11, 2011

    Kevin Kelly Does it Again!

    Kevin is a genius -- literally. I loved getting his back story. Makes reading everything else he's written even more powerful.

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  • Posted June 24, 2011

    The Singularitarian Perspective

    Heres a great piece of work. Excellent for those new, and experienced with futurism,technological singularity, or the Technium as Kevin Kelly has referred to it as. For the full PlusUltraTech review check out our dot com site.

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