What Technology Wants, Part I

Back in 1995 one of my closest friends, Stevie Zimmerman, introduced me to “Out of Control” by Kevin Kelly.  The book was a revelation.  Kelly opened my eyes to what felt like an almost entirely new and very exciting world, even though I had been working in the field of information technology for nearly a decade by then and was also familiar with the newish field of Complexity Theory.  So about 8 years later when I heard that he had posed himself the rather interesting question “what does technology want?” I felt sure that the answer was going to set me off in all sorts on new and exciting directions once again. I guessed it was going to have something to do with the future of what we consider “living” and that it might reveal something deep and unexpected about what it means to be human.

Since I knew I was going to have to wait for a few years until he published his answer, I decided to have a stab at the question myself.  I fairly quickly formed a view by contemplating our earliest stone age technologies that we have always developed technologies by observing and then imitating natural phenomena and that we have then used those technologies to mediate our relationship with nature. I then sensed that we actually use technology not just to mediate but to change our relationship with nature, and that we use the knowledge that comes from that changed relationship to further advance and improve our technologies.  In other words, our relationship with nature and the evolution of our technologies contains a continuous, mutual feedback loop.  I further imagined that this mutual feedback loop will culminate in the complete embedding of technology within nature and vice versa, and that this eventual integration will mark our maturity as a species.

Needless to say, when “What Technology Wants” was published last year, I had wildly inflated expectations of it. And inevitably perhaps it couldn’t live up to them. Kelly begins by expressing the tension he feels between his love of technology and his respect for those that live a simpler life close to nature, and that tension made for uneasy reading. It seemed to me that he desperately wanted to declare that technology is already alive and that it really does have wants and desires, desires of survival and reproduction and maybe even of pleasure.  But he stopped short. For someone who had 16 years previously written an ode to the marriage of the Born and the Made it was as if he had witnessed a Hollywood-style divorce between the two (“work got in the way”, “we separated with deep love and respect for one another”, “we’ll always be friends”). He conjured up the Technium but then didn’t quite know what to do with it except remind us endlessly of its billions of connections.

And though I like the fact that he invented a new word, as you should when you’re imagining something new, his word has a musty Victorian feeling to it. The Technium sounds old, the kind of word you might imagine that his beloved Amish would have coined for this unwelcome and nagging intrusion in their lives. The word is, I think, precisely a reflection of his tension. It’s the pidgin English of the first generation immigrant, not the language of the next generation, the native. And so Kelly, even as he has surfed the frontiers of technology for longer than the vast majority of us, in his later years has found a cognitive threshold, or a border, that he cannot cross.  This is the territory of a younger generation, a generation that was born here. And it will be this generation, or the next, that will give us the appropriate language. It’s unlikely that Kelly, or the baby boomer generation in general, or I for that matter, will ever become entirely fluent.