What Technology Wants

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“What technology wants” by Kevin Kelly is an intellectual exploration of the nature of technology (What is technology?), its fundamental character (Is technology good, bad or indifferent?) and humanity’s relationship to technology (How do we control technology’s evolution?).

My biggest insight from the book is an answer to the last question – How do we control technology’s evolution? The answer: we don’t, really (as we like to think), but we can steer technological development by using new technologies for the best possible use.

To answer “What is technology?”, Kevin Kelly defines the technium, the “organism” of technologies from past, present and future, “the technological assemblage we have surrounded ourselves with”. Much of the book tries to explain the what this technium wants. This concept is at times difficult to grasp. Unlike mice, monkeys or humans, the mixture of factories, iPads and screwdrivers does not have a “brain”. The technium is not conscious. So, where does the will – or where do the goals – of the technium come from? According to Kelly, the will of the technium is more like the tendencies and urges of technology. According to phsycial principles, technologies develop in some way. We can study the technium’s will by looking at the history of technological development and the evolution of life.

Kevin Kelly makes the argument that technology’s will is similar to human will. Increased efficiency, increased opportunity for development and increased complexity (the number of lines of code in Microsoft Windows has increased 10x between 1993-2006) are examples of both human and technological wills. An interesting observation: the wants of technology and humans are different from nature’s wants (I don’t observe nature wanting more efficiency or complexity).

Although we can not pick and choose technologies, there is a role for us to influence technology’s evolution. Kevin Kelly suggests that our task is “to encourage the development of each new invention toward this inherent good, to align it in the the same direction that all life is headed”. We need to “steer our creations toward those versions, those manifestations, that maximize that technology’s benefits”. Looking at our track record, this task of steering technology to its best version is not easy: the inventors of torpedo’s, radio, machine guns, color television and dynamite all believed there inventions would bring peace. They did not – and I did not find an answer in Kelly’s words how we can effectively steer our creations to be more benign.

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