|Robert L. Blum, MD, PhD|
What Technology Wants:
A Review of Kevin Kelly's Book
This is my Amazon review of Kevin Kelly’s 2010 book,
WTW is a page-turner! (However, on some key issues I beg to differ.)
Are you simply trying to decide whether to buy this book?
The answer is "buy it. Absolutely, yes!"
It is Kevin Kelly's (KK's) magnum opus.
It is important, clearly and elegantly written, and
thoroughly researched. Also, it's so good,
it was hard to put down.
Nobody is better qualified to write about technology and tools.
This has been KK's lifetime focus, first as an editor of the Whole Earth Catalog
(the bible of the hippie back-to-nature movement), second as
a cofounder of the Well (a prominent early online community),
then as executive editor of Wired, and finally as curator of Cool Tools
(a popular website that reviews favorite tools) -
not to mention his other widely-read books, eg Out of Control.
Other reviewers have summarized the book's major themes,
included key quotations, and told you why the book is important.
Coming late to the party, I will just hit a few crucial points that
other reviewers have neglected.
First, what I absolutely love about the book is KK's personal approach to life.
Reading Wired you might think he would be using every fancy tech gadget
the minute it comes out. Nothing could be further from the truth.
He does not carry a cellphone; does not travel with a laptop;
has no cable connection and does not watch tv. Why?
Because he genuinely cares about his QUALITY of life.
Kevin is a guy who spent years owning nothing but a sleeping bag and a bike,
who admires the Amish, and who is decidely not an early adopter. Like the Amish,
he will thoroughly evaluate a new device before allowing it into his personal world.
Ambivalence and thoughtful examination are the essence of KK's approach to technology.
(I occasionally attend his wonderful Quantified Self seminar,
where that sensitivity to life's nuances shines through.)
KK is not an unabashed flag-waver for technology,
and human values are highly prized in this work.
Now, on to another topic.
The New York Times Sunday Book Review of Nov 5, 2010 recently featured
a critique of What Technology Wants (WTW) written by prominent biologist Jerry Coyne.
Professor Coyne, an expert on evolution, fired a big gun at WTW.
He said that while technology may have a "drive" toward complexity,
albeit a metaphorical one, that is certainly not the case with evolution.
Parallels between "the technium" and evolution figure prominently in WTW.
Coyne rightfully points out that the biosphere (largely comprised of
billion year old simple and unchanged bacterial species) has no mind of its own,
and technology also does not. Coyne accuses Kelly
of being a teleologist in the spirit, say, of Teilhard de Chardin.
(Actually, I think Teilhard was right on the money.)
Coyne is surely right in the sense that humankind was not predestined
to rule Earth (and Kelly is quite aware of the highly contingent nature of evolution).
The misleading part in Coyne's critique is his apparent
neglect of the autocatalytic nature of both technology and biologic evolution,
which WTW so superbly spells out.
Both the technium and biology were propelled forward by building on past
innovations, ie by "standing on the shoulders of giants," as Isaac Newton said. The innovations for technology were language, printing, science, and the internet
(not to mention a ten millennia portfolio of other inventions).
The innovations for biology were protocell formation,
replicating macromolecules, energy storage, protein synthesis,
photosynthesis, motility, parasitism, sexual reproduction, etc.
Since the Cambrian explosion, for us multicellular types,
the patent portfolio has continued to accumulate:
intercellular signaling networks, complex developmental programs,
neural signaling, external and internal skeltons, teleceptors, etc.
WTW shows exactly how the technium is autocatalytic in the
same way that biology is. (Coyne's point that biologic evolution is
fueled by random mutation is almost irrelevant. Nature is so prolific
that the important part of its generate-and-test algorithm is really the test part.)
My most important criticism of WTW stems from my concern
for other species and our biosphere. Humanity and its technology have devasted
the biosphere and are creating the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years.
Technology has been a great boon to the human race (otherwise there would not be
nearly 7 billion of us), but it has been an unmitigated disaster for all other species.
KK devotes a chapter to these problems, but then seems to express equal concern
about the slowing growth of the human population.
He and I completely part company on this one.
Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is a disaster: internicine warfare, famine, AIDS.
Closing your eyes to Malthus may work in California (and even here, not really)
but not in Africa. Nanotechnology may eventually create a bright future
for massive humanity, but before that there is a multidecade valley of death
due to war, resource depletion, pollution, and disease.
The planet does not need more humans.
OK, technology has been great for humans but not for non-humans.
How about the future? Again I disagree with KK, although here I am less vehement.
(The future is profoundly unknowable: no one can see beyond the singularity
which is technology's future event horizon.)
I don't share KK's rosy view of technology's fond embrace of humanity,
although I hope it's true. Yes, technology gives us more options,
which we can always renounce it (as he himself frequently does).
However, in the medium-term (2050), technology
(artificial intelligence, robotics, cognitive science) will rapidly
leave humanity in its dust. See those marginalized gorillas in Africa,
clinging for their lives. That could well be us.
My great hope is that technology will create a Garden of Eden on Planet Earth
just as WTW envisions. On the other hand, I think that outer space,
will not be explored or settled by us but rather by highly advanced technology
just as it currently is by NASA's space probes.
This bifurcation between humanity and the technium will happen before 2050.
I see no reason why a superior technium will inevitably share our values or value us.
Our hands are stained with the blood of the world's species. Why won't we be next? To reiterate, this is an important work, and I urge you to read it, my criticisms not withstanding.
(I am a former Stanford AI researcher and physician who covers cognitive neuroscience
and its overlap with AI on my website: bobblum.com )