What Technology Wants

What Technology Wats by Kevin Kelly
Viking / On Sale: October 14, 2010 (Hardcover Edition)

How is technology like a living system?
Today no technology can stand alone. Each piece made is dependent on hundreds of other technologies, in either its manufacture or operation. The incredibly complex interdependencies between modern technologies resemble a rainforest more than a machine. Engineers create new technologies by recombining old technologies, much like sexual reproduction in genes. Innovations follow a pattern of improvement that is almost identical to natural evolution. Our technological system as a whole exhibits emergent behaviors and tendencies, just like all living systems do.

What does it “want”?  Where is technology taking us?
The emergent tendencies of interacting technologies tend to favor the very things life favors. High tech industries demand pure water, as animals do. Over time technologies tend toward energy efficiency, as living organisms do. Technologies begin as generalists (a simple camera) and evolve toward specialists (a panoramic camera, an underwater camera, a spy camera, an infrared digital camera) just as natural evolution does. Technology is taking us more towards life, or rather a more extreme form of life.

Is a modern life full of technology natural?  Is it good?
Every since we left Africa, we humans have been remaking ourselves. We long ago invented the technology of cooking, which serves as an external stomach, and has allowed our teeth and jaws to shrink, and altered our body chemistry. Without technology of any sort, humans would die in a few months. We are naturally technological because we are, in part, our own inventions.

You say technology is a positive force, yet people are constantly talking about how gadgets and the Internet are dumbing down culture – how do you reconcile those two viewpoints?
Both views are true. We are slaves to our own inventions. Complex modern inventions are self-inflating; they tend to make the world friendlier to more technology. For instance, TV is a device to sell more devices. We have to guard against that tyrannical tendency in our own personal lives by occasionally saying “no” to new stuff. (No Twitter for me!) At the same time technology’s self-enlargement keeps bringing us many new choices and endless possibilities. Progress is founded on these increased choices.

Many people say that every new possibility for good developed by technology is cancelled by a corresponding new possibility for harm, and therefore technology is simply neutral. But they forget that that the very choice between good and harm birthed by a new invention is itself a good, and that tiny unexpected advantage tips the balance – just a wee bit – away from neutral toward the good overall. Turns out that a wee bit is all you need. If you create just 1 percent more possibilities than you destroy, then that tiny advantage, compounded over centuries, is enough to make civilization and to reveal technology as the most positive force in the world.

For More Information:
Press Release (hardcover only)
Cover Image (hardcover only)
Author Q&A
Author’s Website

Please note: For paperback edition details and images (Penguin Paperback / On Sale: September 27, 2011), please contact Yen.Cheong [at] us.penguingroup.com

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