What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly: Part 1 of 4

This is the first of a four part series covering Kevin Kelly’s fascinating and mysterious book What Technology Wants. It’s worth spending some time working through this book simply because Kelly treats technology in a radically different way than almost all other contemporary thinkers.

I’ll work though the book chapter by chapter, and then offer some concluding thoughts.

Chapter 1: My Question

In his opening chapter, Kelly offers a brief biographical sketch which serves as the backdrop for how to came to understand technology. He has led a fascinating life, dropping out of college to explore Asia for the better part of a decade, and return to in the US only to ride across it in a motorcycle until he found a place to build his own home out of trees he cut down himself.

When he settled down, he became more interested in computers, leading him to write for Whole Earth Catalog and become a founding member of Wired magazine in 1992. He also reviews the latest and greatest technology at Cool Tools. And yet, he doesn’t a cell phone or a TV, and doesn’t carry a laptop when he travels. Of all this, he writes, “I acknowledge that my relationships with technology is full of contradictions” (5).

These diverse experiences led him to start wondering what technology actually is at its core essence. Like others, he noticed that large technological systems sometimes behave much like a biological organism. This lead him to move beyond a traditional view of technology – that it “is inert stuff wholly dependent on us humans” (12) – to see the whole of technology (what he has dubbed the technium) as “a sustaining network of self-reinforcing processes and parts [which has a measure of] autonomy” (13). He goes on to say that, “The technium wants what we design it to want… but in addition to those drives, the technium has its own wants” (15).

At this point Kelly recognizes the strangeness of what he’s saying. “It seems to anthropomorphize stuff that is clearly not human. How can a toaster want? … But want is not just for humans. Your dog wants to play Frisbee… birds want to mate… Bacteria want food… With the technium, want does not mean thoughtful decisions. I don’t believe the technium is conscious (at this point). Its mechanical wants are not carefully considered deliberations but rather tendencies. Leanings. Urges. Trajectories.” (16)

Kelly is arguing that technology itself seems to be headed somewhere by its very nature, even if that nature is not conscious or thinking about its own future. But it is that directionality that we must discover and understand if we are to respond to technology. Our goal then is to figure out what technology wants.

Chapter 2 – Inventing Ourselves

The next part of the book is a 3 chapter section called “Origins” in which Kelly traces the origin of what he calls the “technium.” He starts with humans (chapter 2), expands out to other forms of life (chapter 3), and then expands again to cover the entire cosmos (chapter 4).

In Chapter 2, “Inventing Ourselves,” Kelly walking us through the last few hundred thousand years arguing that humans and their tools have had a kind of coevolution. The first stage of this coevolution came when our ancestors developed basic cooking skills which made meat easier to digest. This meant that our digestive systems needed less blood and energy to digest food, and that blood was then free to flow to the brain, allowing our ancestors evolve larger more powerful brains.

These bigger brains were then able to invent the most powerful tool ever created. Around 50,000 years ago, “The creation of language was humanity’s first singularity. It changed everything” (26). Suddenly, ideas trapped in minds could be shared, and humans were then able to develop better and better tools. These tools helped people have better diets which in turn allowed them to exceed the prior life expectancy of around 35 years.

This is significant because when people only lived to 35, their parents died before they reached adulthood. These longer life spans make possible a special relationship that had not yet existed: grandparents. Grandparents can teach children traditions, enabling more complex culture and societal structure. These in turn allow more powerful inventions, and even longer life spans.

But these advances have also transformed humanity. Just as we’ve domesticated wild dogs into house pets, “We have domesticated ourselves … We are coevolving with our technology and so we have become deeply dependent on it. If all technology – every last knife and spear – were to be removed from the planet, our species would not last more than a few months. We are not symbiotic with technology” (37).

Kelly goes on to list several technology from the last few thousand years – standard coin minting, the mechanical clock, factories – which have continued to reshape humans and human society. This continues his basic argument that humans and their tools are inextricably linked and have evolved and progressed in an interdependent fashion.

Chapter 3 – The History of Seventh Kingdom

In chapter 3, Kelly expands his understanding of the technium beyond what humans make to include the things that all life forms make and ultimately the ordering of information that happens from DNA to computers.

This ordering is so pervasive and basic that Kelly argues the technuim should be considered a seventh kingdom alongside the six we find in biology textbooks (three kinds of one-celled life, fungi, plants, and animals)

Kelly argues that long before humans invented tools, “many [other] organisms have learned to build structures, and those structures have allowed the creature to extend itself beyond its tissue” (43). They key difference between what humans create and what all other life forms make is that, “[Non-human life] inherits the basic blueprints for what they make [from their genes].” But for humans, technology “is not an extension of our genes but of our minds. Technology is therefore the extended body for ideas.”

But Kelly sees these two kinds of making (from the genes of animals and from the minds of humans) as essentially a kind of information or idea ordering. He sees a unity to the major transitions in biological information complexity (self-replicating molecule -> DNA -> single celled life -> sexual reproduction -> multi-celled life -> organism) and the major transitions in human technological information complexity (primate communication -> language -> writing -> print -> science -> mass production -> global communication). “This escalating stack of increasing order is revealed to be one long story” (49).

The technium is “the organism of idea,” and “life is a self-generating information system” (45). By the end of the chapter, it seems that Kelly is defining the technium both as the things that life creates (which are not strictly a part of that organism’s body) and as a universal information ordering of all things.

Chapter 4 – The Rise of Extropy

In the final chapter of the section on “Origins,” Kelly continues back in time from human technology (Chapter 2), to genetic information ordering (Chapter 3), into the ordering of the universe (Chapter 4).

Isaac Newton’s 2nd Law says that things will tend to come to equilibrium. That is, differences in temperature will eventually equalize, and differences in matter will eventually flatten out until the universe is in complete stasis. This flattening and disordering process is called entropy.

However, Kelly notes that there appears to be an opposite force at work which he calls extropy. This is the tendency towards order that we see in the evolution of biological life and human technological invention. Kelly argues that there is a continuous pattern of increasing energy usage from a singlecelled organism to a multicelled organism to a microchip to a multicore processor. Along this same timeline, Kelly sees an increasing pattern of information ordering, from DNA to data.

At the same time, Kelly sees a basic movement from material to immaterial as we move from matter to information, from production to services. He concludes the argument this way, “Technology’s dominance ultimately stems not from its birth in human minds but from its origin in the same self-organization that brought galaxies, planets, life, and minds into existence. It is part of a great asymmetrical arc that beings at the big bang and extends into ever more abstract and immaterial forms over time. The arc is the slow yet irreversible liberation from the ancient imperative of matter and energy “(69).

Some Thoughts

Interesting stuff, no?

What was perhaps most interesting to me is the posture Kelly takes toward his ideas. He is total awe of this entire process of information ordering and immaterial ascent, yet he never ascribes anything spiritual or transcendent to its origins or its destination.

On the one hand, some Christians (particularly those who have trouble with evolutionary ideas) might have expected a believer like Kelly (c.f. article on Kelly from Christianity Today) to mention God somewhere in these chapters. But although Kelly often uses the term “creation” to describe the origins of the universe, he explicitly avoids supernatural language when he says, “extropy is neither wave nor particle, nor pure energy, nor supernatural miracle. It is an immaterial flow that is very much like information” (63).

Yet while a Christian might expect some mention of God in origins, many who are not Christians might expect Kelly to talk more about glowingly about technology’s destination. But here, Kelly doesn’t follow the technological Zionists like Ray Kurzweil who openly declare that technology will be a savior, giving us eternal life and spiritual ascension of our minds onto hardrives.

In other words, Kelly is not trying to answer questions of “why” or “how” regarding anything he has said. Rather, he attempts to take the stance of an observer trying to give us another accounting of the “what” of the universe using a new metaphor: a move from material to immaterial that we currently see in terms of information ordering.

Yet this metaphor is itself quite spiritual and, for all of Kelly’s restraint compared to people like Kurzweil, it does all seem rather mystical.

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John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

11 thoughts on “What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly: Part 1 of 4”

  1. JOhn, this is very interesting and I appreciate your review and summaries. The idea that technology wants something is very interesting. Perhaps it needs things to keep going…have to think more about it. Hope you are well!

  2. This is indeed a fascinating set of thoughts, and with strong resonances with that of Theilard de Chardin (French Jesuit paleontologist) a generation or so earlier.

    1. I agree in terms of them both seeing a self-organizing of the universe, but it’s worth pointing out that unlike Theilard de Chardin, Kelly doesn’t invoke spiritual language (like “Christogensis”) to describe what’s happening or where it’s going (although I haven’t yet read the final chapters).

  3. The concept of information ordering and the trend toward it has some resonances with the book I’m reading: James Gleick’s The Information. It is an interesting trend toward the immaterial. I’m not sure what compels us in that direction. One thought is that it’s because God is Spirit and we want to be like him. But to say that something is “immaterial” is not the same as calling it “spiritual.” To conflate the two is probably to misunderstand what it means to be spiritual.

    1. Adam, I agree that “immaterial” and “spiritual” can be confused. Elsewhere, Kelly says “information” can be a metaphor for understanding God, but it is only a mere metaphor and just something that may be helpful to today’s culture, not a definitive analogy.

  4. Kelly’s idea of the “seventh kingdom” is very similar to Marshall McLuhan’s idea that technology forms an environment or a “second nature” which we can read and interpret in a manner analogous to the ancient and medieval exegesis of the Books of Scripture and Nature. This is a tradition that stretches back to St. Bonaventure, St. Augustine, and even Quintillian. Kelly seems to be making similar connections as McLuhan, though his focus is much less on technology as language, which was the key thrust of McLuhan’s “second nature” idea. I’m interested to see how Kelly develops this.

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