Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants is an inspiring, provocative and sweeping account of how our world works and where it’s going. Kelly is one of the great technology thinkers, an old Whole Earth editor and co-founder of Wired, an extraordinary photographer, a technology refusenik, and a truly great writer.
Kelly’s central thesis is this: technology has its own internal logics and rhythms that are distinct from (and sometimes adverse to) the desires of the humans that create it. Technology creates itself, using humans to do its bidding, and our normal view of inventors creating technology is a kind of romantic fairy tale that ignores the fact that nearly every great invention is invented nearly simultaneously by many people at the same time, all over the world.
Kelly isn’t mystical on this subject, however. His self-directing technology isn’t powered by haints or spirits. Rather, it unfolds according to a certain inevitability that is dictated by the circumstances of the technology that came before. Just as every river ends up looking river-like (though every river’s course is also unique and impossible to predict in advance) because of the inescapable constraints of physics and geology, technologies follow courses that humans can influence and see the gross forms of, but humans cannot direct or prevent technology’s course, at least not in the long run. Like water contained behind a dam, relentlessly seeking escape, technology will eventually find its way into our hands.
Neither is Kelly entirely happy about this. There are plenty of technologies that he doesn’t use (including laptops!), and he is very bullish on individuals and communities making thoughtful and concerted efforts to choose the tools that work best for them. His chapter on Amish hackers — the early-adopter Amish technologists who experiment with new gadgets and report back to their communities on how they effect the rhythms of their lives — is an inspiring call to arms. Kelly wants you to make choices about technology, but he also wants you to understand that technology is also making choices about you.
What Technology Wants ranges very wide, connecting technology’s “exotropian” character (this being a variant on the more familiar “extropy” — the property of making things more orderly, as when a human embryo temporarily reassembles simple molecules into extremely complex ones) to the long sweep of time starting with the Big Bang and the subsequent creation of a series of ever-more-complex elements, conditions and circumstances. I’ve seen Ray Kurzweil make this argument before, but not so well as Kelly does — Kelly tells this story in a more grounded way, connected to the stories of modern conscientious objectors to technology from the Amish to the Unabomber.
I had many quibbles with Kelly’s argument. I think he understates the power of monopolies and regulatory capture to twist technological progress; I think he glosses over the privacy implications without examining them; I think he fails to do justice to the special equivalence of computing machines that distinguishes them from the gadgets that came before them. But I think it would be impossible not to quibble with a book as grand and grandiose as What Technology Wants. Anyone who attempts to assemble a coherent narrative that starts with the Big Bang and ends in the infinite future is bound to say some things I disagree with.
And I agree with much more than I disagree with. I read my first issue of the Whole Earth Review in 1989 — the special “Is the Body Obsolete?” issue. It was the first reading material I’d found that made a connection between the philosophical elements in the science fiction I enjoyed with the world I inhabited. Four years later, I found issue 1.1 of Wired on a news-stand near the Toronto Greyhound station as I was heading to the University of Waterloo. Within days, I had a Unix account at the University of Toronto, had found Bruce Sterling’s 1992 Game Developers Conference keynote, and had dropped out of school to become a computer programmer.
Something in that whirl of ideas and tools and communities poleaxed me, filled me with excitement until I split open like a hot chestnut. It was the idea that whirlwind technology had taken a turn that was about to truly transform the world, and that anyone could jump into the eye of the storm and ride it up and up.
That’s the feeling I got from What Technology Wants: a rekindling of that adolescent delight and excitement and sense of potential that made me drop everything to chase this dream. It is an extraordinary book and I commend it highly to you.
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