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Review of “What Technology Wants” March 1, 2012

Posted by Christopher Lemery in Uncategorized.
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Review of What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

In this ambitious, thought-provoking, and excellent book, Kelly, a senior editor at Wired magazine, uses the framework of what technology “wants” to explore the history and future of technology. While it initially sounds funny to ask what ostensibly impersonal, created artifacts such as computers and iPhones “want,” it makes sense in the context of the book. Kelly defines “technology” broadly, seeing it as the accumulation of millions of years of human evolution and experience to encompass science, math, manufacturing, and society. Kelly sees our computerized gadgets as an inevitable progression of cosmic evolution, tracing the course of biological evolution to make this argument. Our world of interconnected computerized technology, called the “technium,” is therefore argued to be a living organism in the broadest sense and the technium is both our offspring and an extension of our human selves. In many ways, this sounds plausible to me and is a useful framework to think about how technology is changing us.

The most interesting and useful parts of the book are the examination of how societies have adopted technology and how that adoption has changed them. I found the discussion of the Amish particularly interesting and instructive. Kelly also argues that Unabomber Ted Kazinski has created the most logical and accurate anti-technology manifesto; this argument is provocative yet surprisingly strong. Also useful is Kelly’s forecasting the direction of computerization, arguing it will be increasingly ubiquitous, highly specialized, and develop intelligence as we currently understand it.

Kelly does not get into specifics about where technology is going, which is smart because no one person can really know what technology will look like in even the short term. Since we don’t know where technology is going, Kelly argues that all technologies should be allowed and experimented with. Prohibition of things like human cloning or creation of sentient life is pointless, as past technologies have vitiated prohibitions because they’re just too useful. I think Kelly makes a strong case, but he gives short shrift to the legitimate ethical and political problems presented by a lassie faire attitude towards all technologies.

The concluding part of the book is the weakest and strangest. Kelly argues that technology will be a completely new form of life that will completely change the entire universe in the near future. In fact, the technium will bring about more change than biological evolution has seen in the past 4 billion years, which is a bold statement to say the least. We will, in essence, be God to these new organisms, which will completely upend our conception of religion. While I’ve thought about how our conceptions of religion could be changed by technology and scientific discoveries, our being God does seem farfetched to me. While Kelly has the courage of his convictions and follows his ideas to their natural conclusion, his pan-technium neo-religion is awkwardly placed and simply too “out there” to me.

Despite my criticisms, the book is quite good and I recommend that my library friends in particular pick it up.

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