Brendan's Reviews > What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
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Dec 06, 2011

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bookshelves: 2011, digital-era, evolution, history-journalism, multimodal, new-media, non-fiction, philosophy-religion, science, scholarship
Read in December, 2011

Kevin Kelly’s nonfiction treatise explores the question of what we should make of the seemingly-independent course the technological apparatus around us charts daily. This apparatus, which Kelly calls the technium, both depends on and guides us, and our ability, or inability, to ignore its treasures goes only so far as we’re willing to become Amish in some way (even the Amish adopt new technologies, it turns out). A few thoughts:

Like Manuel De Landa in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, Kelly describes the “arc of the technium” in evolutionary terms, suggesting that technology is life‘s way of expanding in complexity, ubiquity, and a bunch of other -itys. DeLanda writes his book as a robot in the machine future, describing how humans led us to it. Kelly might not disagree.
At the same time, Kelly is still skeptical of technology en masse. He suggests that each piece of technology should be understood and grappled with on its own terms, and doesn’t seem to be Kurtzweilian in his love of technological progress. That said, chapter 14 is pretty darn optimistic about the possibilities inherent in a technologically-advanced future.
Part of me spent the whole book grumbling that Kelly doesn’t invoke McLuhan more, because the essential argument at the heart of this book turns on the way technology serves as an extension of man, something that drives and is driven by us. McLuhan’s seminal Understanding Media made the same argument in less accessible terms decades ago.
I found the chapter on the Unabomber most compelling, since Kelly outlines his debate about whether or not to include Kaczynski’s writing in his discussion of the dangers technology poses for us. Kelly points out how Kaczynski and nearly all the anti-technology crazies like him take full advantage of systemic technology in order to produce and disseminate the screeds they write against technological society. The unabomber could have, Kelly suggests, cut himself off from the grid and actually developed a subsistence lifestyle. Instead, he bicycled into town and bought groceries and other supplies at Wal-Mart.
If you only have time for a little of the book, I recommend chapter 13, in which Kelly lays out the nine trajectories evolving life forms (and technology) tend toward: efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, evolvability. These forces help Kelly make his final argument that technology ultimately helps us more than it hurts us, and that we’ve got a bright future ahead of us.
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message 1: by Sue (new) - rated it 4 stars

Sue I, too, thought it was interesting that he invoked Kaczynksi. He missed mentioning that Kaczynksi was totally alone. That's a much better argument against Kazcynski's ideas than anything else: They don't work for more than one person at a time.


Brendan Good point!


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