Saturday, February 26, 2011

Book Review - What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

I decided to order a few non-fiction book from Amazon a few months ago, as a change from the reality-escaping high-fantasy, grand space opera or hard sci-fi that I usually churn through. I suppose it's got something to do with growing up getting older.

Included in the package was:
  • Managing Humans by Michael Lopp (has a very neat 'geek & manager' blog at randsinrepose.com)
  • Linchpin by Seth Godin (has a pretty unique 'be awesome now' blog at sethgodin.com)
  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (the book won the Pulitzer Prize)
  • Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customer by Geoffery A. Moore (was recommended due to the other books I've ordered)
And, the reason for this post:
  • What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (former Wired editor, etc. Website at kk.org)
Apart from the last one, I've also finished the two first and heartily recommend them.  I might review them too, but if you can't wait for that, I'm fairly certain you won't regret spending some time with them. Also, I'm currently a third of the way into Guns, Germs and Steel and it has not disappointed the slightest yet.

Anyway, withour further ado, here comes my short and humble review of:

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
(This review is also posted on Amazon.com)

What Technology Wants is a slightly puzzling title which poked my interest. Can technology actually "want" something? What does that phrase mean? Does it attempt to imply that technology has a will of its own, is it is a "force of nature", or just something inevitable built in the rules of the universe?

These questions might sound a bit like "hippy-talk" (for lack of a better term) and while reading the first chapters of the book, which try to grasp this rather evasive concept, it felt rather hard to follow out where the author tries to lead. Solid lines of reasoning do emerge eventually, so if the narrative feels a bit vague in the beginning, one should not give up. Getting the grips on the driving force behind all the technology that most of us humans has ready access to, and what this actually means, is to say the least a rather daunting task. Also, I suppose the book tries to cater for many readers, not just the tech-savvy, so it attempts to gather everyone and provide a foundation on which the ideas and theories of subsequent chapters can build on.

The amount of background research made for the book is phenomenal. He devotes a large part of the book on the Amish, being that they are a successful group that chooses to live outside the "normal" western civilization, actively choosing to abstain from much of today's technology. However, he notes, crucially in my (and his) opinion, that the Amish would not be able to function without the rest of the society, and that they continually lag about 50 years behind.

This choosing of technology is not specific to Amish though. Everyone is doing it, one way or the other. Often, we are not very consistent in our choices. I.e. we may be on the cutting edge on one part, but several generations back on another, just because we want to.

Kelly relates this to the fact that Amish seem to live a pretty happy and unstressful life, at least in comparison to many of the rest of us. They perform their honest work and labor with the tools they have, being fairly content with the situation. They choose their tools by waiting for the rest of society (and select individuals of their own) to try out technologies before choosing that which is good and not disruptive to their way of living. This of course relies on the fact to the rest of us continues to provide spare parts for old tech, as well as continuously producing new technology.

An interesting side-fact (related to the issue of spare parts above) that is stated is that, apparently, no technology ever dies. You can find somewhere to buy a piece of flint and steel, an axe, an abacus, vacuum tubes (for your "this-goes-to-eleven" guitar amp), a vinyl player, etc. It don't doubt it at all, and it does help to choose between various technologies.

The book also contains a treatise on the unabomber. Being Swedish (and rather young at the time of the event), I knew very little about him before reading this book. There are some excerpts of the unabombers manifesto included (and discussed) in the book, which make the case that technology is inevitable and people cannot escape it. From this, IIRC, the unabomber draws the conclusion that since it's forced upon people by the system, so the system (and/or civilization) such as it is must be destroyed completely for the people to be free.  Most of us agree with the first part, but our rejection of the latter conclusion probably separates civilization from apocalypse. (Also, even the unabomber tried to reject civilization and technology for several years, but could not do so completely, since he needed bullets for his rifle, rope for his traps and gasoline for the car to be able to travel to trade these things.)

Kelly proffers the same statement here, which is that technology in something inevitable, in the same sense that the universe has given us  DNA, multi-cellular organisms, mammals, humans and civilization (for better or worse). One simply cannot prevent technology from appearing, given how far everything have gone already, and from where it actually started (i.e. the primordial soup). Complexity, and the perpetual increase thereof, is inherent in the foundations of the universe. We've had natural evolution for almost four billion years, and for the last ten to twenty thousand years (give or take a few), mankind (a product of the above) has been selecting, domesticating, refining and reworking different parts of nature to its liking. Now, we're selecting technology instead, and technology is undergoing evolution under the same criteria that (probably) made us domesticate the wolf rather than the hyena. (It's more beautiful, more intelligent, more adaptable, etc etc.)

This strive towards beauty, complexity, adaptability, etc etc is going on with technology today. Personally, I see this in the world of computer components, libraries, frameworks, utilities, etc. The open-source ecosystem a good example of this evolutionary process, as  libraries come, evolve and leave. Some evolve quickly then stagnate when there is no opposition, then either gets wiped out when a new, better toolkit appear, or they attract sufficient interest (from it's users and developers) to catch up. The book's final chapters summarizes a number of criteria that are selected for in the evolutionary process, that will continue to be the driving force of change as technology evolves into more diverse, specialized, complex, interlinked, adaptable and beautiful manifestations..

Kelly, rather early, names the entire technological sphere the Technium. In the end, he concludes that what it wants is just to live and prosper, just like any other self-evolvable entity. The difference is that the Technium can evolve a thousand or a million times faster, and that it this speed is because it does not evolve by chance (i.e. mutation), but rather the fact that it is actively driven (you could say developed) towards improvement with every generation. Also, since it's so interlinked, and has perfect memory (i.e. the Internet, more or less), it will build upon itself much faster than evolution (wherein for instance the eye evolved independently eight times) and even faster than human civilization (which could not communicate ideas and inventions especially fast until we had the Internet).

I think this book is awesome in several ways. The question it attempts to both define, investigate and answer is immense. It is also a most relevant question, as I (and I suspect a few more) wonder where we are heading with all this technology, how it will shape us and what we can do, if anything, to guide it during its evolution. And since it actually manages to pull it off, I cannot by heartily recommend it to anyone that has some kind of interest in the field.

Having left me me with a sense that there is really no difference between the big bang and the forming solar systems, life and evolution, humans and civilization and finally technology (and thus the Technium, as Kelly names it), I feel that I'm standing slightly more on firmer ground, while the world around us spins ever faster.

Or maybe, I'm just getting older. ;)

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