What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly: Part 4 of 4

This continues a four part series on Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants.

In the fourth and final section called “Directions,” Kelly continues his basic line of reasoning that the trajectories in technological development can help us know what technology we should pursue in the future. But more importantly, he finally lays his cards on the table and offers a theological interpretation of what he has been calling the technium.

Chapter  13: Technology’s Trajectories

Kelly answers the question, “What does technology want?” with ten attributes: complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability.

He devotes 5-10 pages to each trait and continues his pattern of drawing parallels between biology and technology. For example, under complexity he writes, “The arc of complexity flows from the dawn of the cosmos to life. But the arc continues through biology and now extends itself forward through technology” (278). Under specialization, “At the same time, just as in organic life, tools tend to start out being useful for many things and then evolve towards specific tasks” (294). Under evolvability,  “The web holds about a trillion pages. The human brain holds about a hundred billion neurons. (331). “technology is simply the further evolution of evolution” (342).

I found many of the examples and ideas in this chapter absolutely fascinating, yet the more I read the more I found that the conclusions were starting to unravel into a strange kind of spirituality.

Chapter 14: Playing the Infinite Game

The final chapter of Kelly’s book is really two completely different arguments.

In the first few pages, Kelly says that technology is fundamentally about giving people choices. Everyone has a special skill and sometimes technology is needed to unlock it. For example, what if Steve Jobs had been born in the 1200 – could he have released his full potential? What if Beethoven had been born before wind and stringed instruments? If the things we invent help other people become all that they can be, then Kelly says we are morally obligated to keep making more technology.

Then in the second half, Kelly offers a theological assessment of what he has been saying.  Earlier in the book he resisted any movement toward the spiritual saying, “It may seem like I am painting a picture of supernatural force, akin to a pantheistic spirit roaming the universe. But what I am outline is almost the opposite” (273). But here he writes, “There is even a modern theology that postulates that God, too, changes. Without splitting too many theological hairs, this theory, called Process Theology, describes God as a process, a perfect process, if you will. In this theology, God is less a remote, monumental, gray-bearded hacker genius and more of an ever-present flux, a movement, a process, a primary self-made becoming. The ongoing self-organizing mutuality of life, evolution, mind, and the technium is a reflection of God’s becoming.” (355).

Evaluation

And therein lays the difficulty with What Technology Wants.

When he concerns himself with technological history, carefully weighing both the amazing possibilities and horrific problems it brings, Kelly is fantastic. His research goes deep into our past and well into our future and often his cultural analysis is incredibly insightful and fresh.

Yet, all of it is permeated with a view of life that seems at odds with classical (and Christian) ideas of human personhood. These views show up near the beginning of the book when he attributes sentience to the technium saying “[it has a] vital spirit” (41) and “a noticeable measure of autonomy” (13) and again in the final chapter (see above).

Then, sprinkled throughout the book, Kelly argues that there really is no such thing as “human nature” because humans are in a state of constant change. “It is only possible to optimize human satisfaction if you believe human nature is fixed” (233-34). But it’s not just human nature that Kelly sees as malleable; even our understanding of “life” and “love” is in a constant state of change: “if you can honestly love a cat, which can’t give you directions to a stranger’s house, why can’t you love the web?” (323) Kelly believes that one day we’ll robots capable of true sentience and, when we do, it will be no more strange to love those robots than it is to love a cat. “If you believe humans are created in the image of God, the autocreator, then we have done well, because we have just birthed our own creation: the technium” (356).

If there is no human nature or and no fixed conception of life, then the only standards we can count on are those that emerge from the evolution of biology and technology: complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability.

This, I think, is the problem with allowing technology to dictate the rules of life. Kelly talks of seeing the world through the technium, and this is precisely what I think we ought not do. In a sense, every commercial on television and every banner ad on the Internet is trying to get us to live according to what technology wants. Screens want our eyes, headphones want our ears, computers want efficiency, and so on.

Rather, we must again and again return to the Scriptures to ask the question, What Does God Want, and then use technology in service of his wants.

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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/.

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

  1. I really appreciate that Kelly acknowledges explicitly his foundation in Process Theology. I think this helps his readers get the full picture of where he’s coming from; we don’t have to speculate. This openness seems rare today, so it’s nice.

    I think this allows, now, for a reinterpretation of Kelly’s observations from a more classical anthropology and theology.

  2. Thanks for a really fine series. I have not read the book, at present I have not time to read the book. But I know I want to ;)

    When you write: every commercial on television and every banner ad on the Internet is trying to get us to live according to what technology wants. Screens want our eyes, headphones want our ears, computers want efficiency, and so on. It seems to me you are imputing to technology a very human action. It is humans who have paid for the advertisements, chosen them and ordered their placement. It is humans who want me to buy those things… The technology merely makes it possible for those humans to express their desires…

    1. I think you’re right about confusing technological action and human action. And I think that’s the central issue in Kelly’s book. Does technology itself “want” (as Kelly argues) or does technology merely express human “want” (as you suggest), or is it a complex interaction of both?

  3. You could certainly see your enthusiasm in the work
    you write. The arena hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who are
    not afraid to mention how they believe. All the time follow your heart.

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