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'What Technology Wants' Tracks The Tech Evolution

Oct 26, 2010 (All Things Considered)

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Last week, my computer crashed. Without it, I felt helpless — and foolish. How could I have gotten so dependent on a machine? Why did I feel like I'd just lost a body part?

Because, according to Kevin Kelly, I had.

His provocative new book, What Technology Wants, claims that technology is an extension of the human body — not "of our genes, but of our minds." Everything that humans have thought of and produced over time — which Kelly dubs "the technium" — has followed, shaped and become integrated into human evolution — so much so, in fact, that it's now a part of evolution itself.

As such, Kelly argues, the goal of the technium — its "want," if you will — is to foster progress ... human betterment ... and even a portrait of God.

While Kelly stops short of arguing that a MacBook, an opera or Hammurabi's Code are the equivalent of, say, a live chicken, he comes close. "However you define life, its essence does not reside in material forms like DNA, tissue or flesh," he writes, "but in the intangible organization of energy and information contained in those material forms." Because the technium is all about organizing energy and information, it, too, is an evolving form of life — beholden to the forces of the cosmos.

And now, it has a greater ability to alter us than we have to alter it. Increasingly, it's taking over jobs we used to do — rendering human skills obsolete. Some technology has even become self-replicating, such as computer viruses and genetically modified organisms. This progress, Kelly argues, is inevitable.

Yet his vision doesn't conjure up some bleak, sci-fi future ruled by cyborgs. What Technology Wants is exuberantly optimistic. The technium, Kelly says, ultimately creates more good than harm.

"Can you imagine how poor our world would be if Bach had been born 1,000 years before the Flemish invented ... the harpsichord? ... If Vincent Van Gogh had arrived 5,000 years before we invented cheap oil paint?" The technium has its dangers and downsides. But, Kelly is quick to point out, it's far preferable to the alternative — life without civilization or progress.

Best of all, he says, we're not powerless. "Consider humans as the parents of our technological children." As such, we have choices: how we treat our creations, how we train them with our values.

Kelly is scientifically astute, down-to-earth, inventive. He visits the Amish for lessons in adopting technology. He looks to "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski to articulate why people fear progress. At times, What Technology Wants is a sophisticated, almost theological meditation. Other times, it's a scientific argument debunking the split between what's "natural" and what's manufactured. Always, it's a banquet of ideas.

Yet, Kelly exalts the technium to such a degree that sometimes he sounds like a lobbyist — or, dare I say, a stereotypic mad scientist. One day, we'll create robots that will "radiate an evolved attractiveness that will dazzle us," he claims. When he concludes, "We can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog," frankly, he alienates me. There's a whiff of geek-hubris here that borders on a sort of creepy tech-evangelism.

What Technology Wants is stimulating and controversial. And so, it fulfills Kelly's very premise by adding to the evolution of ideas. It advances the great debates of our times. It opens new doors, challenges old assumptions. It compels us to keep reading.

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