What Technology Wants

This is the title of a 2010 book by Kevin Kelly , a regular presenter at TED (past editor of Wired) and commentator on the evolution of technology in any case. This book received reviews in various publications I read, and aligns with some of the topics in my OLLI class this fall on Technology and Magic.

Kelly promotes the term "technium" to reflect the entirety of technology (bees building hives, DNA building bodies, etc.) as opposed to the modern  "what engineers build" concept (or Alan Kay's concept of "technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born"). He then proceeds to argue that technology is an evolving thing, somewhat independently of sapiens (as he likes to call the current crop of self-aware, conscious entities of which most of us are instances.) So you can see the book has deep roots (actually back to the big bang) and points towards long term impacts and considerations.

Kelly shares some of Ted Kaczynski's (the Unibomber) perspective on the domination that "the system" (including technology) has over people, but does not share his paranoia or methodologies. Rather, Kelly sees the inevitable progression of technology as increasing the options for people, and as such something that will be marginally better than where things were before. I just returned from Peru where many folks living off the land (farming plus shepherding lamas, guinea pigs, etc.) found their children opting to move to the cities (and live marginally unemployed in the slums.) Kelly's assertion that this is attractive, because it provides more options and greater freedom is a reasonable argument for this trend. It also explains why many of the folks remaining in the country have cell-phones as one of the few technologies. Folks on the floating islands of lake Titicaca have solar panels to charge their TV, with few other technologies evident (in a tourist supported community.)

So the glacier of technology continues to move our way (actually at the speed of Moore's law and it's many corollaries which Kelly outlines as well) -- but un-avoidable. This leaves two questions (at least) ... what do we do about it, and can we predict where it is headed?

What can we do?
 Here I summarize Kelly's perspective:
  1. Anticipate where things are going (I like "predictive fiction" as an option here.)
  2. Maintain eternal vigilance ... we will be surprised, so minimize the response time (and recognize not everything will be good)
  3. Prioritize risks -- basement bio-engineering labs may have some higher risks than Steve Job's (we will miss you Steve) Cupertino garage.
  4. Rapid correction of harm (this one is challenging if the technology is popular, or supported by corporate or governmental interests)
  5. Don't prohibit, rather re-direct -- ban's are not effective, but re-focusing on beneficial applications can work (bombs vs power plants)
These are non-trivial challenges, ones we may not be able to track in any organized way.  The web may help ... is there a site "Incoming"? Those of us in the current technology community may want to establish something along this line.

What does technology want?
 Here's Kelly's ultimate (and admittedly incomplete list) "technology wants what life wants":
  • Efficiency - doing it 'better' tends to have an advantage
  • Opportunity -- which is why we will go along
  • Emergence and Complexity (these tend to go together, and yield unexpected results)
  • Diversity - over time, more and varied things rather than less
  • Specialization - tied to diversity, as each thing becomes more specific(environmental niches)
  • Ubiquity - this is sort of a 'selfish gene' or perhaps 'meme' aspect of things, evolution of replicators (as Susan Blackmore  will point out)  some will surface as 'winners', which rise to the highest level of dissemination they can.
  • Freedom - as in free will. Evolving systems tend to operate with motives more successfully than mandates.
  • Mutualism - things are better together, genes join to form DNA, cells to form bodies, humans to create civilizations, computers to create networks ... and in many cases these reflect diversity, specialization,   and foster symbiotic relationships.
  • Beauty - or perhaps "elegance" in the way it is used in engineering where highly efficient forms often are coupled with a simplicity.
  • Sentience - sensing and using information is an inherent aspect of technology -- from our white-cells that learn how to eliminate bacteria, to Watson as it find's it's way to winning at Jeopardy. 
  • Structure - is technology's response to entropy, while the universe moves towards heat death, technology is constantly increasing the structure of the available materials and information.
  • Evolvability - Blackmore would argue that any replicator in an environment over time will evolve, and Kelly asserts that technology is just such a beast.
Basic message: we can't beat it, so join it ... see if we can't shift the balance towards beneficial and away from "ooops!".

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