What Technology Wants

When I wrote "The Hi-Tech Imperative" about twenty years ago for Scientific American (who spurned my generous offer), I hoped to show that threats like Peak Oil and Global Warming are not just fortuitous conditions that we are unfortunate enough to have run into and now have to grapple with as best we can. I appealed to the idea of Buckminster Fuller that we are part way into a natural development that we should follow rather than try to undo.

What Technology Wants a book by Kevin Kelly [1] is the perfect sequel to "The Hi-Tech Imperative". The latter urges us to embrace technology and continue Doing More With Less. Kelly says we are beyond mere embrace—that we are symbiotic with technology.

Understanding technology is a matter of life and death. Make a wrong choice, and disaster ensues. At the same time, less technology is not an option. Wanting less technology is rooted in a conception such as that of the Noble Savage, according to which early humans lived in harmony, though they had it tough. Compare that with actual observations such as Jared Diamond's in "Guns, Germs, and Steel", where he describes how, when two strangers from the Papua highlands meet, they interrogate each other, in hopes of finding an excuse from trying to kill each other (the default among strangers). Analyses of damage to prehistoric skulls suggests that this was universal throughout most of the time that mankind existed.

Technology-as-necessary-evil is based on
A common misconception about human evolution is that the historic tribes and prehistoric clans of early [Homo] Sapiens achieved a level of egalitarian justice, freedom, liberty, and harmony that has only declined since then. In this view, the human inclination to make tools (and weapons) has only introduced trouble. Each new invention unleashes new power that can be concentrated, wielded asymmetrically, or corrupted, and therefore the history of civilization is one long devolution. By this acount, human nature is fixed, unyielding. If that is true, then attempts to alter human nature will only lead to evil. So in this view, new technologies generally erode the innate, sacred human character, and can be kept in check only by keeping technology to a minimum, under strict moral vigilance.
The reality is the opposite. Human nature is malleable. We use our minds to change our values, expectations, and definition of ourselves. We have changed our nature since our hominim days, and once changed, we will continue to change ourselves even more. [pages 88-89; my emphasis]
By 1800 there was a long history of inventions transforming paleothic societies to sophisticated webs of agriculture, horticulture and numerous crafts for shelter, clothing, food preparation, ... There was writing, printing, painting, orchestras, libraries, ... Yet even as new technology hit society like an avalanche with the beginning of the industrial revolution, there was no name for what started with paleolithic bow drills and had recently led to steam engines. Finally in 1802 Johann Beckmann recognized it as the force it was, gave it a name, and gave this name a place in the title of his book "Anleitung zur Technologie".

There are inventions and techniques. Each new one is enabled by its predecessors or is in symbiosis with contemporary developments. Thus we speak of a technology when it is no longer a single isolated invention and we are looking for a word that describes the entire ecosystem of technologies that co-evolves with humans and changes human nature. Kelly has chosen Technium.

Choices in technology can be matters of life and death. Hence the need to choose wisely. But are we free to choose? Kelly argues that the Technium has an intrinsic dynamic that limits such freedom. Hence the importance of understanding this dynamic, hence "What Technology Wants".

In his quest to discover the dynamic of the Technium Kelly is led to a radical view of evolution. He argues against the view of biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould, who reject the idea that evolution has a direction. Gould would have taken a dim view of Kelly's book, where evolution not only has a direction (towards more complex organisms) but where evolution of biological organisms is part of a larger evolution that encompasses the Technium as its manifestation since the appearance of humans and that encompasses the entire process in which the primordial universe of hydrogen and helium gave rise to the stable isotopes of 92 elements, on to a much larger variety of molecules in space and on the surface of planet Earth even before the appearance of life. That is, from a universe consisting of hydrogen and helium only to one containing minds.

In this sweeping view of evolution, Kelly has converged to the trajectory followed by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), in writings starting in the 1920's and culminating in The Phenomenon of Man, posthumously published in 1955. Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest and a researcher in palaeontology, concentrating on early man. For decades the Church has suppressed promulgation of his ideas, forbidding him to teach in institutions subservient to the Church, forbidding his works to be held in libraries of Catholic institutions, denying permission to accept invitations to geological conferences. In the 1960's The Phenomenon of Man became fashionable among young Catholics, and a number of priests privately confessed interest. Soon after, the first priests came out publicly in support of the book, followed by several popes. Kelly, writing apparently in ignorance of the Teilhard phenomenon, has written a book that would have gratified his predecessor.

Both "The Hi-Tech Imperative" and "What Technology Wants" are on the side of New Greens like Stewart Brand [2]. On the other side are idols of the Greens like Henry David Thoreau and Wendell Berry. Thoreau wrote a book [3] that became to the Greens a standing rebuke for not living the life described there. Apparently Thoreau thought this commendable for other people; he himself got ants in his pants after two years on Walden Pond.

Berry, an influential Green, acknowledged the need for some technology, but stressed the danger of embracing more than the optimum. He lived the optimum on his own farm and described this way of life in a winning way in his writings, where he argues that technology peaked in 1940, when the essential implements had become as good as they can get. Kelly puts this in perspective:

... it seems pure foolishness, if not the height of conceit and hubris, to believe that in the long course of human history, and by that I mean the next 10,000 years in addition to the past 10,000 years, that the peak of human invention and satisfaction should turn out to be 1940. It is no coincidence that this date also happens to be the time when Wendell Berry was a young boy growing up on a farm with horses. Berry seems to follow Alan Kay's definition of technology. Kay ... came up with as good a definition of technology as I've heard: "Technology", Kay says, "is anything that was invented after you were born." The year 1940 cannot be the end of technological perfection for human fulfillment for the simple reason that human nature is not at its end.

We have domesticated our humanity as much as we have domesticated our horses. Our human nature itself is a malleable crop that we planted 50,000 years ago and continue to garden even today.


[1] What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. Viking, 2010.
[2] Whole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands, and Geoengineering Are Necessary by Stewart Brand. Penguin, 2010.
[3] Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Published 1854.