Monday, February 28, 2011

What Technology Wants - Kevin Kelly

This is the second book I've read recently that made me feel optimistic about the future. We get a good healthy dose of pessimism from the newspaper everyday, I think this makes a nice counterpoint.

The book starts with Kelly exploring his own relationship with technology. The attempt to figure out which pieces to use, and which to avoid. He points out that it just isn't possible to live without technology, because it isn't just what I think of as "high tech" like computers, cars, and cell phones. Kelly points out that as a species we've been using technology since the stone age, and that it is what has allowed us to succeed in a variety of inhospitable environments. He points out that humans are the reproductive organs of technology. Barring some sort of catastrophe, we are going to continue co-evolving with our technology. We're already way past the point where one single person can make everything they require for their day to day life. Even Mennonites who lag 50 years behind the curve in terms of acquiring new technology aren't entirely self sufficient.

Kelly argues that "The Technium" (sphere of technology comprising things which are made rather than born) is the 7th kingdom of life, and that it is co-evolving with us. Parts can migrate from one tool to another, things made for one purpose gain new and previously unimaginable uses. Attempting to ban technologies doesn't work in the long run. The more technology we have, the more choices are available, and that choice needs to be added to the positive side of the balance sheet when it comes to deciding whether a particular technology is a benefit to society or not. He concludes that we have a moral responsibility to create as many new things as possible, and to embrace our relationship with technology as that is the best way to increase the number of choices available to everyone. That refusing to use something simply because it is new and may cause unanticipated problems is selfish and backward thinking.

I really do like the idea that our goal should be to increase the number of choices available. In the world of China Mieville's Perdido Street Station the worst crime possible is choice theft, and I was found that perspective to be very illuminating. Increasing the amount of technology available isn't the only way of increasing the number of choices available in the world, trying to make sure everyone on the planet has enough to eat strikes me as something that would increase choices too, but I think it is a good one.

It has been argued that we have so many choices these days that it has become overwhelming. That people were happier when the course of their lives were laid out before them, and they could simply live their lives content in the knowledge that they weren't missing out on anything. The more I think about this, the more I agree that it is false. Having too many choices of breakfast cereal can be daunting, but learning to cope with choice is something we can learn to do. In fact, it is something that technology can help us with.

I really do like the vision of the world that Kelly offers here. I'm not convinced by his arguments that the evolution of technology is inevitable, but thinking about the Technium as a kingdom of life which is evolving and with which we have a symbiotic relationship is interesting and I think it is useful. It is easy to feel that technology is bad, that new 'improvements' are actually making our lives worse, but I'm definitely finding myself convinced otherwise. Especially watching the situation at the moment in various countries around the world as they use social networks to organize demonstrations against oppressive regimes I'm seeing the dramatic increase in choices as a direct result of technology.

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