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A refreshing view of technology as a living force in the world.

This provocative book introduces a brand-new view of technology. It suggests that technology as a whole is not a jumble of wires and metal but a living, evolving organism that has its own unconscious needs and tendencies. Kevin Kelly looks out through the eyes of this global technological system to discover "what it wants." He uses vivid examples from the past to trace technology's long course and then follows a dozen trajectories of technology into the near future to project where technology is headed. This new theory of technology offers three practical lessons: By listening to what technology wants we can better prepare ourselves and our children for the inevitable technologies to come. By adopting the principles of pro-action and engagement, we can steer technologies into their best roles. And by aligning ourselves with the long-term imperatives of this near-living system, we can capture its full gifts. Written in intelligent and accessible language, this is a fascinating, innovative, and optimistic look at how humanity and technology join to produce increasing opportunities in the world and how technology can give our lives greater meaning.
Published: Penguin Group on Oct 14, 2010
ISBN: 9781101444467
List price: $14.99
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in one word disappointing (or to be more fair, i probably expected something better). his argument is suffocated by the excessive amount of examples that he uses. also in my book adding example to example does not automatically lead to a valid theory. i guess that his original insight, that technology (or the technium) has certain characteristics that operate on its own behalf is a fairly important realisation. on the other hand i am not entirely convinced that the technium really operates on itself. to me it seems more like a higher level abstraction of human choices, mixed in with a bit of opaque interaction between algorithms (at least at this moment in time). also i am almost allergic to the cosmic arc pseudo religious undertone that he manages to keep from dominating his book until the completely unbearable last chapter (which should begin with a warning urging people who are allergic to new age hippie reasoning to stop reading)read more
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A lengthy argument that "the technium" ("the 7th kingdom of life") is inevitably evolving towards increased (take a deep breath) efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability. Long digressions into such topics as the Unabomber and the Amish; barely a mention of whether a Singularity looms; intrusion of some annoying religious nattering in the last chapter.read more
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This is a characteristic exercise in factoid-packed mega-optimism by the founding editor of Wired Magazine. The man whose final year of tenure as head of the magazine brought us the famous "Dow 36,000" article here tackles the role of technology in our lives, and how technology has what is, in essence, a life of its own. The future is just as bright, according to What Technology Wants, as it was in "Dow 36,000" -- but, of course, we know what came of that prediction.

I found the opening chapter to be one of the most infuriating things I've read in a long time, so dense is it with anthropomorphic mental hijinks. I highly recommend that if you elect to read this book, you do so by starting with the chapter on how Amish tinkerers are themselves a kind of hacker culture. That chapter provides a sense of grounding to the book, a lens of informed skepticism that is largely lacking elsewhere. It's absolutely fascinating stuff, and of all the books in this book's extensive bibliography, the ones on Amish life are the ones I'm most likely to read next. Not out of some incipient back-to-the-landness on my part, but because if the ideas on Amish-ness seem the most engaging here, then perhaps the source material for them is also engaging.

The book has a lot of interesting ideas, but they're ideas (digital sentience, for example) that I prefer to have filtered through consciously employed science fiction (and I don't mean that as a put-down; if this were all rewritten by Greg Egan, I'd probably love it).

My second biggest issue with the book after its anthropomorphic exuberance is how Kelly shifts his depth-of-field in ways that support his moment-by-moment sense of what he is describing. Toward the end, for example, he criticizes Wendell Berry for being "stuck on the cold, hard, yucky stuff," by which he seems to mean focusing too much on specific technological objects, rather than the broad sweep of technology. But Kelly himself has focuses on specifics himself throughout the book when it serves his rhetorical purpose.read more
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in one word disappointing (or to be more fair, i probably expected something better). his argument is suffocated by the excessive amount of examples that he uses. also in my book adding example to example does not automatically lead to a valid theory. i guess that his original insight, that technology (or the technium) has certain characteristics that operate on its own behalf is a fairly important realisation. on the other hand i am not entirely convinced that the technium really operates on itself. to me it seems more like a higher level abstraction of human choices, mixed in with a bit of opaque interaction between algorithms (at least at this moment in time). also i am almost allergic to the cosmic arc pseudo religious undertone that he manages to keep from dominating his book until the completely unbearable last chapter (which should begin with a warning urging people who are allergic to new age hippie reasoning to stop reading)
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
A lengthy argument that "the technium" ("the 7th kingdom of life") is inevitably evolving towards increased (take a deep breath) efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability. Long digressions into such topics as the Unabomber and the Amish; barely a mention of whether a Singularity looms; intrusion of some annoying religious nattering in the last chapter.
Is this review helpful? Yes | NoThank you for your feedback.
This is a characteristic exercise in factoid-packed mega-optimism by the founding editor of Wired Magazine. The man whose final year of tenure as head of the magazine brought us the famous "Dow 36,000" article here tackles the role of technology in our lives, and how technology has what is, in essence, a life of its own. The future is just as bright, according to What Technology Wants, as it was in "Dow 36,000" -- but, of course, we know what came of that prediction.

I found the opening chapter to be one of the most infuriating things I've read in a long time, so dense is it with anthropomorphic mental hijinks. I highly recommend that if you elect to read this book, you do so by starting with the chapter on how Amish tinkerers are themselves a kind of hacker culture. That chapter provides a sense of grounding to the book, a lens of informed skepticism that is largely lacking elsewhere. It's absolutely fascinating stuff, and of all the books in this book's extensive bibliography, the ones on Amish life are the ones I'm most likely to read next. Not out of some incipient back-to-the-landness on my part, but because if the ideas on Amish-ness seem the most engaging here, then perhaps the source material for them is also engaging.

The book has a lot of interesting ideas, but they're ideas (digital sentience, for example) that I prefer to have filtered through consciously employed science fiction (and I don't mean that as a put-down; if this were all rewritten by Greg Egan, I'd probably love it).

My second biggest issue with the book after its anthropomorphic exuberance is how Kelly shifts his depth-of-field in ways that support his moment-by-moment sense of what he is describing. Toward the end, for example, he criticizes Wendell Berry for being "stuck on the cold, hard, yucky stuff," by which he seems to mean focusing too much on specific technological objects, rather than the broad sweep of technology. But Kelly himself has focuses on specifics himself throughout the book when it serves his rhetorical purpose.
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Kevin Kelly has something very important to say and some people are not going to like it, some people are not going to understand it, and some people are going to change their lives because of it (or at the very least change their minds). He takes the reader on a journey through technology history starting with the definition and the first use of the word. Beginning with this working definition allows Kelly to lay the groundwork for ponderous ideas by bringing evolution, biology, cosmology, autonomy, organization, ingenuity, art, craft, history, systems, and culture to the fore immediately. These are the forces that act to propagate technology and that ultimately create the technium which encompasses not only technology that we can touch, but also intangibles such as art, culture, social institutions, ideas, and the drive to innovate and create (p. 11-12).The technium did not begin with humans. As a matter of fact, the technium did not even begin with what we conceive of as life. According to Kelly, “the root of the technium can be traced back to the life of an atom” (p. 57). All thought, order, systems, and organization are created to restrain entropy, which is waste, chaos, and disorder. The first atom was the first method the universe created to organize itself and thwart entropy. The opposite of entropy is exotropy, or negative entropy. Exotropy is the increase of order and self-organization and therefore resembles information. This slow accumulation of ordered information (or slow ordering of accumulated information) takes billions of years (p. 64). Across these billions of years the universe moved from an entity constrained by physics and chemistry to an entity that transcends physics and chemistry. The larger the universe got, the more potential energy was created, thus eventually creating life and mind. The technium became immaterial, a “liberation from the ancient imperative of matter and energy” (p. 69).This all sounds very complicated and kind of creepy, but really it is not. If the cosmos were the first to experience the technium, then the next outgrowth was biology. Actually, evolution is a form of technology. It is part of the technium because as living beings evolve, they become more complex as they continue to become more organized. There are three forces that shape biological evolution and technological evolution. Two of the forces, preordained development (the inevitable outcome based on the structure constrained by physics and chemistry) and history (accidental contingencies), are at work on both biological systems and the technology. However a third force differs in technology. While biological evolution is an adaptive function that is unconscious (natural selection), technology is very intentional – it is an expression of collective free will, it is a conscious choice. We are part of the technium – it has autonomy and a selfishness that unnerves us because it includes us and our collective minds (p. 187)."The ongoing dilemma of technology, then, will never leave us. It is an ever-elaborate tool that we wield and continually update to improve our world; and it is an ever-ripening superorganism, of which we are but a part, that is following a direction beyond our own making. Humans are both master and slave to the technium, and our fate is to remain in this uncomfortable dual role. Therefore, we will always be conflicted about technology and find making our choices difficult" (p. 187).Many people are unsettled by these thoughts and their inevitable outcomes. Some rail against it and others wreak havoc, destruction and death to try to stop it. However, there is no stopping it because it is inevitable. It is an outgrowth of us, and we have a symbiotic relationship with it. The technium began about 10,000 years ago when humans passed the apex in which the earth was able to modify us more than were able to modify the planet. We are at another crucial point in which the technium is able to alter us more than we are able to alter the technium (p. 197). Because this happened very slowly and each alteration was a small advance, there was no resistance. To resist now is futile and to resist ever is impossible. We rely on technology to manage our complexity, and technology relies on us to continually improve it by creating more ways to combine pieces of it and fold it in on itself. “We willingly choose technology, with its great defects and obvious detriments, because we unconsciously calculate its virtues” (p. 215). We should not be afraid to use technology. If we have shoddy technology, the goal should not be to rid ourselves of it but to improve it.With all of this background, here is how I see this broken down. As each particle in the universe moves away from each other, some of these particles begin to form systems that gradually increase in complexity and self-organization. Eventually we end up with living organisms and then with minds and then with technology. All of these particles are the technium. Every idea in every mind is the technium. We are just beginning to comprehend the technium. The more we comprehend the technium, the more there is to create and then the more there is to comprehend. The cycle never ends; it can only continue to infinity. There is no finite amount of technology or technological innovation – each technology builds upon the previous technology. There is nothing the mind cannot create given enough time. The technium is becoming itself faster and faster as the particles in the universe move further and further apart and as technologies build upon previous technologies more and more. The more technology that has been created, the more technology there is to build upon, and the more there is to create.So what does technology want? The technium wants the same things that life wants. What began in the big bang extended into evolution. The technium is just an extension of these processes. It is all exotropic systems. Humanity’s role is to help technology find its way down a path it already wants to go, and Kelly lists the elements to help us help technology with what it wants and to be deliberate and intentional in predicting where technology can and should go. The elements that technology wants are: increasing efficiency, increasing opportunity, increasing emergence, increasing complexity, increasing diversity, increasing specialization, increasing ubiquity, increasing freedom, increasing mutualism, increasing beauty, increasing sentience, increasing structure, increasing evolvability (p.270).This leaves us with infinite possibilities in discovering who we are and in who we might be. The existence of the technium increases the possible and the possibilities for each individual. We would have no pianist if there was no piano. There are only possibilities. All is within reach … eventually."The journey from nothing to the plentitudes of a materializing universe can be reckoned as the expansion of freedoms, choices, and manifest possibilities. In the beginning there was no choice, no free will, no thing but nothing. From the big bang onward, the possible ways matter and energy could be arranged increased, and eventually, through life, the freedom of possible actions increased. It is almost as if the universe was a choice assembling itself" (p. 351-352).Lastly, where is God? Or a more apt question: where isn’t God? God is the technium, we are the technium, we are God. God is a process, not a thing. We are part of that process. God is autocreation. God is becoming. The technium and all that it contains is a reflection of God self-organizing – creations built upon by previous creations that caused itself. “That prime self-causation, which is not preceded but instead first makes itself before it makes either time or nothingness, is the most logical definition of God” (p. 355).Page by page, this book consistently blew my mind. The deeper I got into Kelly’s theory and the better I began to understand his gist, the more amazing it became. There was a hell of a lot of build-up and a plethora of side points along the way, but it was totally worth it when the pay-off was such engagement with the material and ultimate enlightenment at the end (or as close as my humble mind can come to enlightenment). “A single thread of self-generation ties the cosmos, the bios, and the technos together into one creation. Life is less a miracle than a necessity for matter and energy” (p. 356). We should not be afraid to use technology; to refuse to use technology would be to go against the very laws of nature, hindering our own humanity. Reading this book was profoundly rewarding on myriad levels.
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Not necessarily convinced in the idea of technology having its own needs or trajectory, I am nevertheless taken by the ideas that people who do see this have few choices.
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"What Technology Wants" posits that technology, as a whole, as a complex ecosystem, can be considered the seventh kingdom of life. Kelly manages to back this far-fetched claim with prescient examples from history, biology and social science while making astute observations about technology's continuing evolution.The book reads like a long, well-articulated manifesto, which is also its weak point. I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of the book, the buildup to Kelly's main argument and being exposed to a fresh perspective. However, my interest waned during the second half, partially because I was already sold on the main idea and partially because Kelly launches into a series of abstract forecasts. Despite this ebb in momentum, the book is packed throughout with some of the best observations and insights about the nature of technology I've ever read.Excuse the pun.
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