WIRED magazine co-founder infuses technology debate with optimism
If you’re a technophile, you probably feel like the punching bag at the community kickboxing class lately. Tony Schwartz of the Harvard Business Review recently railed against the seductive, addictive nature of technology and it’s effect on the attention span. The November 21, 2010 cover story of The New York Times decried the negative effects of technological “distractions and time-wasters” on students. And books like Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains have become bestsellers.
Isn’t there anyone who is optimistic about technology and its contributions to society? Enter Kevin Kelly and his heady tome, What Technology Wants.
Kelly, a bestselling author and co-founder of WIRED magazine, embarked on a seven-year quest to probe the nature of technology and sort out his admittedly “conflicted relationship with it.” What he discovered what that technology can have a positive effect on life and culture when it’s properly characterized, contextualized, and utilized.
Unfortunately, Kelly says, humans haven’t even effectively defined “the vast accumulation of invention and creation.” He considers the term “culture” and the term “technology,” but in the end, he argues, both are too small. So while he admittedly despises coining words that no one else uses, Kelly reluctantly introduces the appellation, “technium.”
The technium is the “global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us,” extending “beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions and intellectual creations of all types.” It’s semi-autonomous, complex, interdependent and functions as a life-like system. As such, Kelly argues, the technium expresses certain wants—unconscious urges, trajectories, compulsions toward something.
This is where he shifts from descriptively philosophizing to prescriptively guiding readers through the murky waters of techno-human relations. (No one will accuse Kelly of being unambitious.) In order to optimize technology’s blessings and minimize its costs, Kelly says we must listen to what technology wants and respond to it. By aligning ourselves with the wants of technology, we are able to fully harness the gifts buried within the bosom of the vast technium. When these gifts are released, technology can give life greater meaning.
This doesn’t mean that we must consume all technology or refuse to acknowledge that some inventions aren’t positive. But we shouldn’t condemn all technology outright just because some of it is contemptible. “The proper response to a lousy technology is not to stop technology or to produce no technology,” Kelly argues. “It is to develop a better, more convivial technology.”
Strangely, Kelly anchors his understanding of technological development to biological evolution. Like many disciplines today, he sees his theory of technology as an extension of scientific theories about the origins of life. But he believes that both biological evolution and technological advancement are propelled by external forces in pursuit of certain goals. Such ideas may comfort his faithful brethren—Kelly is a self-described devout Christians—but they promise to beget controversy from the ever-critical science community. Indeed, Jerry Coyne, professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago has already critiqued this point in The New York Times saying, “Sadly, evolution doesn’t work this way.”
A hefty book with extensive source notes and intelligent prose, Kelly’s volume will undoubtedly challenge some. But the abundance of groundbreaking insights and surprising accessibility will likely push readers through to the end. What Technology Wants is a significant contribution to the conversation about the nature of innovation and will doubtlessly encourage those weary of the recent onslaught of techno-pessimism.
Jonathan Merritt is author of Green Like God: Unlocking the Divine Plan for Our Planet and faith and culture writer who has published widely in such outlets as USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Beliefnet.