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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

What Technology Wants

I recently read Kevin Kelly's "What Technology Wants". I think my biggest complaint is the lack of humility when it comes to the big ideas, particularly with respect to the ill-defined "technium". The claims are grand and vague on the one hand, and at the same time it is stated that it is expected that these concepts will go through a number of iterations and changes over time. Stephen Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science" had a similar grandiosity to it. It allows the author some maneuver room later to claim further developments under his/her rubric.

I think one can classify this book under the category of books where the author holds two divergent view points and tries to build some kind of narrative that encompasses the two. In this case, Kelly seems to have some kind of Christian God viewpoint that he is seeking to capture in the "Technium", and at the same time has the computer science and general science background that is perhaps less able to make statements about overall meaning or goal orientation in the universe. I think this dissonance can occur in scientists who also have religious commitments. John Hagelin's writings connecting Transcendental Meditation to Unified field theories is one example. Frank Tipler's "Physics of Immortality" is another. Fritjof Capra's "The Tau of Physics" is another example, but I think less difficult to swallow. (Actually these first two struck me as so strange that I doubted the honesty of the authors, whereas with Capra, and here with Kelly, one feels a fervency that doesn't seem so forced, even if the logic is flawed. Perhaps the real dishonesty simply comes in with the claiming that such an integration has been achieved, and this could indeed relate to high levels of self-deception.) In all of these works, it would be nice to see a section evaluating how well the author believes such a synthesis has worked. But perhaps the existence of such a section would have a rhetorical effect of diminishing the power of the hoped for unification.

I did really appreciate Kelly's discussion of the Amish, and in general about ways of thinking about adoption of technology and the imperative that one (individually and collectively) have the option of saying no sometimes. And his discussion of the "Technium" did make me want to seek out a more precise definition of some collection of human created artifacts and tools including some ideas, culture, and laws perhaps, that might usefully be viewed as having a sort of unity to it. The identification of this not well articulated entity with a biological entity did not seem to be so well founded. Clearly it is the recent widespread adoption and development of some internet communication technologies that provides the ground for such speculations and theorizing. In any case, it seems to be the same kind of thinking in conspiracy theories where agency is ascribed to some larger entity that may contain people as elements. Certainly one can find some truth out of this kind of thinking, but it seems to often lead to more errors and less clarity than it illuminates.

(Update... here is an interview of K.K. on his explicit religious views about the "technium")

Thinking a little further, I think that what we should celebrate (and engage with) in this book, is the fact that Kelly is articulating a system of values here. In particular, he is willing to say and argue as why technology is intrinsically "good". I'll have to track down the relevant quote, but the basic point he makes is that each technology has a possibility to be used in both positive and negative ways. However, the very existence of this choice is what tips it to the positive. Do I believe this? Its not obviously wrong. And in fact it may be part of what motivates me to contribute to the world of ideas and technology. Its hard to say that its always true, though. Can we stomach it for guns, say? A gun allows you the new choice to either defend yourself, or to injure/kill someone else. There are certainly some who would argue that this choice is not a net benefit for society. For the case of the Amish, Kelly wants to say that their choices to reject a given technology are appropriate for them, but not necessarily overall. So his encouragement of this practice doesn't invalidate his larger point. What about the bigger, more questionable technologies (genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and nuclear). I think he wants to say that even here, more choice is better, even if those choices seem pretty odd. (With nuclear weapons, one has the new choice to blow up this city, or that city. Ok, maybe one can conceive of positive options, but it seems likely that as a whole, the options created are not really a net gain.)
Anyway, it seems to be a somewhat slim blanket justification, but it is better than a complete lack of engagement in ethics, which is the norm for technologists.

Qualifying this somewhat... I guess, the main point (or guess, or suggestion) Kelly makes is that technology is slightly more "good" than "bad". So even if sometimes the creation of more options isn't "good", if the options produced by most technologies are on the whole "good", then it could still come out ahead. The question then might become, what is this unified thing that is slightly more good than bad? Is it really one thing, or have the good things just somehow been selected. Are repugnant political philosophies that yield great harm on humanity considered part of the technium? Or does he really just have something like the current manifestation of the internet and the associated technologies that are required to create a sort of closure surrounding that?

Update, Aug. 30, 2012.  Here is an interesting article critiquing the book from the cybergology blog.

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