What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

Book Summary

We face existential questions about our relationship with technology. To answer them, it helps to first accept that technology is an extension of life and nature. In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly offers a look into the history of technology. He also shares his insights on where tech could go into the future.

Notes and Quotes

What Technology Wants Summary
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Kelly is known as a connoisseur of computer culture. He is the founding executive editor of WIRED Magazine and well-respected voice on technology. Despite his reputation, Kelly has always had healthy ambivalence with technology. For example, his family bought a TV when he was 10, but he didn’t care for it. He saw television as one of many “bossy technologies”, a kind of technology that gets people to serve it rather than the other way around.

Kelly is an avid traveler, who spent much of his young adulthood backpacking the world. When he first went online, he saw the internet through the prism that he experienced travel: as a new frontier ripe for exploration.

“I acknowledge that my relationship with technology is full of contradictions. And I suspect they are your contradictions, too. Our lives today are strung with a profound and constant tension between the virtues of more technology and the personal necessity of less: Should I get my kid this gadget? Do I have time to master this labor-saving device? And more deeply: What is this technology taking over my life, anyway? What is the global force that elicits both our love and repulsion? How should we approach it? Can we resist it, or is each and every new technology inevitable? Does the relentless avalanche of new things deserve my support or my skepticism – and will my choice even matter?”

Kelly coined a term called technium. In his words, “it’s the greater, global massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us”. Some of its qualities include:

  • Extends beyond hardware and incorporates culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types.
  • It’s now maturing into its own entity.
  • The technium is “an outgrowth of the human mind,” which makes it “also an outgrowth life, and by extension it is also an outgrowth of the physical chemical self organization that first led to life.”
  • “The technium also wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself, to keep itself going. And as it grows, those inherent wants are gaining in complexity and force.”

The technium is like nature. We respect it, but at the same time must “bend its natural course to meet our own”.

  • We don’t have everything that the technium demands, but we can learn to work with this force rather than against it.”

We tend to see technology as separate and oppositional to nature. This is because tech has “grown to rival the impact and power” of the world itself. But Kelly reminds us that the origins and fundamentals of technology make it “as natural as our life”.

Some historical context to the development of technology and culture:

  • Hunter-gatherers had “affluence without abundance.”
    • They had enough food, but never too much.
  • Within 100 generations of following the introduction of language, Sapiens enjoyed the following technological developments:
    • Better hunting tools (like throwing spears)
    • Better fishing tools (barbed hooks + trap)
    • Better cooking methods (using hot stones for heat and extraction of calories from wild plants)
  • As a result of improvements in technology, longevity has enjoyed a steady increase over the last 50,000 years.
    • Anthropologist Rachel Caspari: “Increasing longevity ‘provide[d] a selective advantage promoting further population increase,’ because a higher density of humans increased the rate and influence of innovations, which contributed to increased populations.”

“In the past 10,000 years alone, in fact, our genes have evolved 100 times faster than the average rate for the previous 6 million years.”

  • Technology has contributed to our domestication as a species.
    • “We are coevolving with our technology, and so we have become deeply dependent on it. If all technology – every last knife and spear – were to be removed from this planet, our species would not last more than a few months. We are now symbiotic with technology.”

The technium is a self-amplifying entity. Breakthroughs lead to a seemingly infinite loop of more breakthroughs. 

  • For example:
    • Invention of Language → Invention of the Alphabet → Invention of Books → Invention of Libraries → Invention of the Internet

Kelly notes the importance of recognizing that not all technological development has been positive.

  • Sailing ships and mechanical cotton gins enabled industrial-scale slavery.
  • War has been a cause for technological inventions that can cause mass destruction (like nuclear bombs, etc.).

“If technology is an extension of humans, it is not an extension of our genes but of our minds. Technology is therefore the extended body for ideas.”

Marshall McLuhan noted these following examples of technology as an extension of humans:

  • Clothes as an extension of our skin.
  • Wheels an extension of our feet.
  • Cameras and telescopes as extensions of our eyes.

Major transitions in the technium:

  • Primate Communication → Language
    • This transition has had the greatest impact. Why?
      • It allowed information to be stored in “a memory greater than individual’s recall”.
      • “Learnings could be reproduced and remembered.
      • “Language enabled humans to adapt and transmit learning faster than genes.”
      • Writing systems for language structured learning. It allowed ideas to be “indexed, retrieved and propagated” more easily. 
  • Oral Lore → Writing/Mathematical Notation
  • Scripts → Printing
  • Book Knolwedge → Scientific Method
    • “The scientific method followed printing as a more refined way to deal with the exploding amount of information humans were generating.”
      • Applying it to craft invented “mass production of interchangeable parts, the assembly line, efficiency, and specialization. All these forms of informational organization launched the incredible rise in standards of living we take for granted.”
  • Artisan Production → Mass Production
  • Industrial Culture → Ubiquitous Global Communication

“Just as the evolutionary tree of Sapiens branched off from its animal precursors long ago, the technium now branches off from its precursor, the mind of the human animal.”

The story of the technium is one rooted in “expanding cosmic activity”.

  • “It is not as life and mind simply embedded in the nature of matter and energy; but rather, life and mind emerged out of the constraints to transcend them.”
  • “Our present economic migration from a material-based industry to a knowledge economy of intangible goods (such as software, design, and media products) is just the latest in a steady move toward the immaterial.”
  • “We are steadily substituting intangible design, flexibility, innovation, and smartness for rigid, heavy atoms. In a very real sense our entry into a service- and idea-based economy is a continuation of a trend that began at the Big Bang.”

Kelly on whether technology is doing more harm than good, or vice versa.

  • As much bad as there is, there’s plenty of good being created, too.
    • Some techno-optimists believe that 60 to 80 percent of the changes that take place on the technium make the world a better place.
    • Kelly believes that the positives of technology outweigh the negatives, but with one caveat:
      • “A bunch of what we produce is crap. Maybe nearly half of what we do. But if we create only 1 percent or 2 percent (or even one-tenth of 1 percent) more positive stuff than we destroy, then we have progress.”

Wharton School Research found that affluence brings increased satisfaction. Today’s world is more affluent.

  • Kelly’s take: money brings us more choices.
    •  “We don’t find happiness in more gadgets and experiences. We do find happiness in having some control of our time and work, a chance for real leisure, in the escape from the uncertainties of war, poverty, and corruption, and in a chance to pursue individual freedoms – all of which come with increased [affluence].”

Kelly on urban development

  • “We live in urban and suburban environments for the same reason migrants do – to gain the marginal advantage of more choice.”
  • “We have lots of opportunity to revisit the past, but few people really want to live there.”
    • For example, if you want to experience what life was like in the 1890s, hang out with the Amish. Few people do though.
  • “Propagating slums is what cities do, and living in slums is how cities grow. The majority of neighborhoods in almost every modern city are merely successful former slums. The squatter cities of today will become the blue-blood neighborhoods of tomorrow.”
    • Technology evolves in the same way.
      • First comes the prototype.
      • Then is a progression something that barely works.
  • Progress over the last 200 years has also been fueled by cheap, abundant energy.

Arguments that dispute progress

  • What we think we’re measuring is illusionary.
  • Progress is only half real. Material advances occur, but don’t mean much.
  • Material progress is real but too costly to produce.
    • “We should take this argument seriously. Progress is real, but so are its consequences. There is real, serious environmental damage caused by technologies. But this damage is not inherent in technologies. Modern technologies don’t have to cause such damage. When existing ones do cause damage, we can make better technologies.”
      • “We don’t go on as we are. We address the problems of tomorrow not with today’s tools but with the tools of tomorrow. This is what we call progress.”

“Humanity is a process. Always was, always will be. Every living organism is on its way to becoming. And the human organism even more so, because among all living beings (that we know about) we are the most open-ended.”

“The technium is a tendency, not an entity. The technium and its constituent technologies are more like a grand process than a grand artifact. Nothing is complete, all is in flux, and the only thing that counts is the direction of movement.”

“The whole history of inventions is one endless chain of parallel instances. There may be those who see in these pulsing events only a meaningless play of capricious fortuitousness; but there will be others to whom they reveal a glimpse of a great and inspiring inevitability which rises as far above the accidents of personality.”

Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber

Some people don’t like the idea of inevitability in technological progress.

  • Contradicts a belief that human choice is central to our humanity and essential to civilization.
  • “Admitting that anything is ‘inevitable’ feels like a cop-our, a surrender to invisible, nonhuman forces beyond our reach. Such false notion, the thinking goes, may lull us into abdicating our responsibility for shaping our destiny.”

Moore’s Law is a picture of acceleration. But it’s become more of a self-fulfilling prophecy according to its creator, Gordon Moore.

  • Carver Mead, American Scientist and Engineer: Moore’s Law “is really about people’s belief system, it’s not a law of physics, it’s about human belief, and when people believe in something, they’ll put energy behind it to make it come to pass.”

“Technology’s imperative can be seen in the rigid acceleration of progress in DNA sequencing, magnetic storage, semiconductors, bandwidth, and pixel density. Once a fixed curve is revealed, scientists, investors, marketers, and journalists all grab hold of this trajectory and use it to guide experiments, investments, schedules, and publicity.”

The inevitability of technology

  • Kelly compares the advancement of technology to development of humans over the course of their lifetimes.
    • Going from a baby to an adult is an inevitable process. You can look at the changes of the technium in the same way.
  • Like personality, technology is shaped by a triad of forces:
    • Preordained Development
      • This includes the laws of physics and self-organizing tendencies within its large, complex, adaptive system.
    • Technological History
      • The gravity of the past influences what will happen in the future.
    • Society’s Free Will
      • What choices do we make to shape the technium.
  • We have a choice to either align with the direction of technology or resist. Doing the latter may cause more trouble than good.
    • “The vortex of the technium has grown its own agenda, its own imperative, its own direction. It is no longer under the full control or mastery of its parent and creator, humanity. We worry, like all parents, particularly as the technium’s power and independence increase.”
    • “By aligning ourselves with the imperative of the technium, we can be more prepared to steer it where we can and more aware of where we are going. By following what technology wants, we can be more ready to capture its full gifts.”

The Amish’s relationship with technology

  • “In fact, on my several visits with them, I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkerers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers. They are often, surprisingly, pro technology.”
    • They adapt to the world by embracing new technology at their own rate.
    • The Amish default to new technology is “not yet” rather than an immediate yes.
      • Building strong community is the motivation behind this slow approach to technology adoption.
    • The Amish motto: “Try first and relinquish later, if need be.”
  • How the Amish Adopt Technology
    • They’re selective. Know how to say no and aren’t afraid to refuse new things. They ignore more than adopt.
    • Evaluate the new based on experience instead of theory. Let early adopters hey their jollies by pioneering new things under watchful eyes
    • Tech must enhance family and community and distance them from the outside world.
    • Choices are communal based rather than individual.
  • Why Kelly focuses on the Amish experience in this book.
    • They provide an example of voluntary simplicity. If we can choose practice some elements of minimalism in our lives, we’ll gain a better understanding of our technological priorities.

“This should be the first law of technological expectation: The greater the promise of a new technology, the greater its potential for harm as well.

The precautionary principle 

  • “A technology must be shown to do no harm before it is embraced. It must be proven to be safe before it is disseminated. If it cannot be proven safe, it should be prohibited, curtailed, modified, junked or ignored.”
  • Kelly believes this works better as a theory rather than practice. The principle is better at stopping technological progress than encouraging it.
    • Instead, society should embrace testing technology over and over. It’s also important that society embraces that technology will never be fully declared as “safe”.

Kelly’s five proactions for approaching technology

  • Anticipation: Imagine that both positives and negatives result from new technology.
  • Continual Assessment: Eternal vigilance. We should always consider ourselves experimenting and testing technology in real time.
  • Prioritization of Risks: Not all risks are equal and therefore, they must be weighted and organized by priority.
  • Rapid Correction of Harm: “When things go wrong – and they always will – harm should be remedied quickly and compensated in proportion to actual damages.”
  • Not Prohibition but Redirection: Don’t ban technology. Instead, find a new role/job for it.

“We have the choice of how we treat our creations, where we place them, and how we train them with our values. The most helpful metaphor for understanding technology may be to consider humans as the parents of our technological children. As we do with our biological children, we can, and should, constantly hunt for the right mix of beneficial technological ‘friends’ to cultivate our technological offspring’s best side. We can’t really change the nature of our children, but we can steer them to tasks and duties that match their talents.”

The technium’s long-term trajectory is a desire for what evolution began: progress. Technology wants what life wants which is:

  • Increasing efficiency.
  • Increasing opportunity.
  • Increasing emergence.
  • Increasing complexity.
  • Increasing diversity.
  • Increasing specialization.
  • Increasing ubiquity.
  • Increasing freedom.
  • Increasing mutualism.
  • Increasing beauty.
  • Increasing sentience.
  • Increasing structure.
  • Increasing evolvability.

Technology makes people better by giving everyone a chance to realize their potential. But to make the most of the choices technology provides, we also need to have values in place.

  • “Choices without values yield little, this is true; but values without choices are equally dry. We need the full spectrum of choices won by the technium to unleash our own maximum potential.”

“Evolution, life, mind, and the technium are infinite games. Their game is to keep the game going. To keep all the participants playing as long as possible.”

Process theology

  • The idea of God as a perfect process.
  • God is “less a remote, monumental, gray-bearded hacker genius and more of an ever-present flux, a movement, a process, a primary self-made becoming”.

“Life is less a miracle than a necessity for matter and energy. The technium is less an adversary to life than its Extension. Humans are not the culmination of this trajectory but an intermediary, smack in the middle between the born and made.


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