This continues a four part series on Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants.
Chapter 5 – Deep Progress
In chapter 5, Kelly steps away from the cosmic discussion of the section on “Origins” to introduce the idea of “progress” (i.e. things are getting better) and make a case that, on the whole, we are experiencing it.
This is a actually a fairly difficult argument to make since one must take into account both the obviously good things that have come of science and technology (decreased infant mortality, increased standards of living, access to information and democracy, etc.) as well as all of the negatives it brings (clear-cutting forests, nuclear waste, city slums, etc.).
Kelly is well aware of this, and he’s careful not to present a rosy picture of progress as if everything is better all the time. He begins the chapter with this tenuous assertion, “I don’t know the actual percentage, but I think the balance settles out at higher than 50 percent positive, even it if is only slightly higher” (74). He covers a multitude of good and bad things that have come in the last few centuries, but ultimately argues that progress is visible when we observe that even, “the lowest-paid burger flipper working at McDonald’s is in many respects better off than … any of the richest people living not too long ago” (77).
That said, what’s good for the McDonald’s worker brings with it lots of negative trade-offs, but Kelly puts these problems in perspective quoting Matt Ridley as saying, “If we’d gone on as we were, as hunter-gatherers, we’d have needed about 85 Earths to feed 6 billion people… If we’d gone on as 1950 organic farmers without a lot of fertilizer, we’d have needed 82 percent of the world’s land area for cultivation, as opposed to the 38 percent we farm at the moment” (101).
This leads Kelly talk about progress very carefully in this way, “There will be problems because progress is not utopia… The future as an unsoiled technological destination is unattainable; the future as a territory of continuously expanding possibilities is not only attainable but also exactly the road we are on now” (101).
Chapter 6 – Ordained Becoming
Kelly now takes a step back to tell us how this progress came to be so we can see where it’s going. In this and the coming chapters he continues to argue that there are deep similarities between biological and technological evolution
He offers his thesis up front, “I make the case in this chapter that the course of biological evolution is not a random drift in the cosmos, which is the claim of current textbook orthodoxy” (103). Here’s what he means: in a typical evolution class, you’ll learn that organisms have DNA and that over time that DNA randomly mutates. This in turn produces new traits, some good, some bad. “Natural selection” means the good changes stay and the bad changes die out.
In this view, all mutations are 100% random and therefore all evolution is 100% random. If you were to “roll back the tape” and start evolution again then all of life would be different. As Stephen Jay Gould says, “Homo Sapeins is an entity, not a tendency.” In other words, our species was a totally random roll of the dice.
But Kelly argues the exact opposite.
He offers dozens of examples of biological traits that independently evolved in different strands of life on different continents. For example, there are at least six different species which evolved eyes. The interesting thing is, it is statistically improbable for the eye to evolve even once. So Kelly is proposing (along with some other biologists) that “if we acknowledge no supernatural force working outside evolution, then all these structures – and more – must in some sense be contained within the structure of DNA” (114).
In other words, God isn’t jumping in and fudging the evolutionary pathway of the eye. Rather, the very nature of matter itself lends itself toward certain inevitable structures – like the eye. “It seems as if evolution wanted to create certain design” (124) and “life is an inevitable probability” (128). Moreover, human life with a mind capable of generating new ideas was inevitably built into the very structure of matter and energy.
Chapter 7 – Convergence
Kelly continues his argument about the inevitabilities built into the universe by arguing that this isn’t true just in biology; it happens in technology as well. He cites dozens of inventions and tool which people have arrived upon independently. For example, though Edison gets the credit, there were dozens of other people working on various kinds of artificial light all of whom came up with a design including glass surrounding a filament. The same goes for the telephone as well as scientific discoveries like the isolation of adrenaline.
Going far back into human history, Kelly references several cases in which cultures separated by a continent come up with similar ideas like pottery, metal work, and so on in the same order around the same time.
The chapter ends with this idea: “The progression of inventions is in many ways the march toward forms dictated by physics and chemistry in a sequence determined by the roles of complexity. We might call this technology’s imperative” (155).
Chapter 8 – Listen to the Technology
Moving from biological examples (chapter 6) to technological inventions (chapter 7), Kelly now furthers his case arguing from consistent patterns of technological advance seen in the digital age.
For example, most of us have heard of Moore’s Law, the trend that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months. Moore himself believes this trend is driven purely be economic factors (i.e. people believe the trend and want the trend and so they make the trend happen), but Kelly counters that this doesn’t hold true for other technologies like gasoline efficiency or solar power even though people want a trend there.
Countering Moore, Kelly continues to argue that these trends are built into matter and the universe. He lists many technologies which have consistently increasing at a particular fixed rate in the last few decades (Megapixels per dollar [every 12 months], gigabytes per dollar , bits per second ). When one trend like number of transistors on a chip slows, it is replaced by another trend like number of cores in a processor. All of this suggests “that the nature of these ratios is baked deep into the fabric of the technium” (165).
So how should we respond to this? Kelly’s suggestion is that we should be looking for these trajectories and then make decisions around them. “If … in 1965 … we just believed that single trajectory of Moore’s, and none other, we would have educated differently, invested differently, prepared more wisely to grasp the amazing powers it would sprout.” (173).
Chapter 9 – Choosing the Inevitable
So is everything technological invention simply inevitable? Do we have any say? In the final chapter of “Imperatives,” Kelly says that the answer is no and yes.
To understand technological evolution, Kelly offers a three-part model he calls, “A Triad of Technological Evolution” (183). Two of these poles are fixed, and one is not. The first fixed pole is the structural/inevitable side of technology which comes from the laws of matter and energy and defines what is possible. For example, it’s impossible to invent a perpetual motion machine, but the invention of pots to hold water is inevitable in a universe with friction and gravity.
The second fixed pole is the current historical/contingent position which determines which technologies are possible. It’s impossible to do metal work without hot fires, and it’s impossible to have an internet without electricity and computers.
Within these two fixed poles, there is an intentional/open pole of human choice and ingenuity in creating technology. “Telephones were inevitable, but the iPhone wasn’t” (181) because between the structural and historical poles, the specific implementation is up to inventors like Steve Jobs.
He ends the chapter this way: “At the macroscale, the technium is following its inevitable progress. Yet at the microscale, volition rules. Our choice is to align ourselves with this direction, to expand choice and possibilities for everyone and everything, and to play out the details with grace and beauty. Or we can choose (unwisely, I believe) to resist our second self… The truth is that we are continuous with the machines we create. We are self made humans, our own best inventions. When we reject technology as a whole, it is a brand of self-hatred” (187-188).
Kelly is saying that the universe is progressing in a direction that is anything but random; rather its direction is built into its own structure, right down to the shape of atoms. There is a certain inevitability, then, in the evolution and progression of biology and technology. The more carefully we observe this directionality the better we can respond to it and live within it.
So what are we to make of this?
If you’re not comfortable with a concept of evolution, it’s going to be very hard to buy Kelly’s argument. But even for me, someone who doesn’t see an automatic conflict between Christian theology and evolutionary ideas, I found it distracting that at least once per chapter Kelly would include something like “if we exclude any possibility of supernatural direction.”
Yet Kelly regularly speaks at Christian conferences like Q in Portland and last week’s Biola Media Conference and in a 2002 interview in Christianity Today he described the book which he was then writing this way: “A major theme is that technology is not some lesser evil that we just have to put up with, nor is it a neutral tool that can be used for good or bad. Instead, I suggest that technology is actually a divine phenomenon that is a reflection of God.” So perhaps Kelly is assuaging his larger audience by saying that evolutionary pathways are not caused by supernatural impositions of God into creation. Rather, those of us who believe in God can understand them as the very way that God programmed the universe.
Even if one doesn’t accept Kelly’s ideas about biological evolution, it’s difficult to ignore the evidence that human tools appear to have followed certain trajectories, and that digital technology is certainly doing so. For example, http://buyersguide.macrumors.com/ does a good job of tracking how Macs follow their own kind of Moore’s Law, and this information can help you know when to buy and when to wait.
But what about the idea that humanity and technology are symbiotic and that we are “continuous with the machines we create”? When I read those words, I find them very strange indeed. Yet, when I think about the Biblical story – of God giving humans the charge to create, of God making clothes for Adam and Eve as they left the Garden, of him using an Ark to save humanity, of Jesus dying on a Roman torture technology, of the story ending with Jesus coming down not with a new Garden but with a new City – it is hard to escape the idea that humans and human creations are inextricably linked. Perhaps this was part of God’s design all along.
So we’re half way through the book. What do you think so far?