Last week I read Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants (Viking, 2010/Affiliate link). Drawing from the fields of psychology, art, and science, What Technology Wants offers a dense but thought provoking look at the way technology advances.
The book centers around the expansion of what Kelly calls the technium. This is a term he has coined to describe “the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us.” It’s the grand totality of machines, methods and engineering processes – a system that feeds off the accumulation of information and knowledge. Critical to Kelly’s technium is the idea that it is a self-reinforcing system of creation. This last point is critical to the book’s central theme which is technology evolves just like an organism.
“With minor differences, the evolution of the technium—the organism of ideas—mimics the evolution of genetic organisms. The two share many traits: The evolution of both systems moves from the simple to the complex, from the general to the specific, from uniformity to diversity, from individualism to mutualism, from energy waste to efficiency, and from slow change to greater evolvability. The way that a species of technology changes over time fits a pattern similar to a genealogical tree of species evolution. But instead of expressing the work of genes, technology expresses ideas.”
Kelly offers ten universal tendencies that drive technology. One of them is mutualism:
“The technium is moving toward increased symbiosis between humans and machines. This is the subject of thrilling Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters, but it also plays out in a million small ways in real life. It is very clear that we are creating a symbiotic memory with the web and Google-like technologies. When Google (or one of its descendants) is able to understand ordinary spoken questions and is living in a layer of our clothing, we will quickly absorb this tool into our minds. We will depend on it, and it will depend on us—both to continue to exist and to continue getting smarter, because the more people use it the smarter it gets ….We are just starting our journey of increasing mutualism between the technium and ourselves. Mastering this commensalism, like adding with pen and paper, will take some education. The most visible aspect of the exotropic trend toward mutualism is the way in which the technium increases the sociability between humans …. For the next 10 to 20 years, the socializing aspects of the technium will be one of its major traits and a major event for our culture.”
More and more I’m interested in the bigger picture of social media, technology and medicine – this book resonates with me. What Technology Wants brings the long view to technology. But unless you’re really interested in putting technology into the cosmic perspective, this won’t be a good read for you. What Technology Wants is heavy, orginal thinking.