Ode to Endorsers (1/2) – The Doctors

My book, From the Garden to the City comes out on August 1, 2011, so I’ll be posting about it a few times in the coming weeks. If you’re interested you can see some sample chapters on http://fromthegardenttothecity.com/, and you can get more sample chapters if you help me publicize it through social media.

Endorsements

After the hard work of writing it was done, I came to the even tougher part of sending it off to people I deeply admire to ask them if they’d consider endorsing it. I’d like to offer a small thank you to them by telling you a little bit about each of them and what they mean to me.

Darrell Bock

Every scholar studying Luke/Acts knows Dr. Bock’s work, but those of us who’ve been around him know that his true power comes from his laugh which, on an open Texas plain, can be heard for almost a mile. He is an esteemed scholar, but he is also a clear, concise, and helpful communicator which has led to him appearing on just about every TV special that with a title along the lines of “Who was Jesus, really?” Dr. Bock is currently in Germany studying something awesome, but he took time from his sabbatical to read my manuscript and give me a very kind endorsement.

David T. Gordon

I first encountered Dr. Gordon when I came across his book Why Johnny Can’t Preach. I hadn’t yet found many Christians writing from the perspective of media ecology and it was only 112 pages so I figured it would be interesting and not too challenging. I was right on the first part, but quite mistaken on the second. Dr. Gordon provides searing insight into the ways media can shape our thinking and communication, and I think young preachers would do well to weigh his words. I sent him my manuscript to see what he thought and in the midst of writing several new books himself, he offered not only to endorse it, but to write a generous forward.

Albert Borgmann

We’ve been warned not to meet our heroes, but I’m so glad I had the chance to meet Dr. Borgmann. It’s exceedingly rare to find someone who is thoroughly Christian in his writing and thinking, and yet whose philosophical work is so groundbreaking that scholars are already writing about him and his work. Wired magazine reviews his books, he has his own Wikipedia page covering his ideas, and several chapters devoted to him in Blackwell’s Philosophy of Technology. In his opening talk at a small gathering this spring, he talked about how it was “the arrogance of youth” that led him to first start writing abouttechnology. The next day at breakfast, I told him I think I might be doing the same. Still, he was kind enough to read by book and offer his thoughts.

Jack Swearengen

The previous men are scholars of the biblical and theological kind, but Dr. Swearengen is more like a real like “rocket scientist.” During the Cold War, he actually built nuclear weapons, and afterward he helped create the technology to dismantle them. Today he’s a professor of engineering, and he combines his technical experience with his Christian perspective on technology to the classroom and in gatherings like like Veritas Forum and his book Beyond Paradise. After I wrote an article for Christianity Today, he took the time out of his busy schedule to reach out to me and we quickly became email friends. We were finally able to meet this spring, and he helped me hammer out a few rough spots in my manuscript.

Andy McQuitty

Dr. McQuitty has been my pastor for about 10 years, and each year I grow to respect him more and more deeply appreciate his fiery Irish heritage. He loves to pepper his sermons with fun words like “hoosegow” (which I think means “jail” in American-Irish) and “indefatigable” (which probably means the opposite of what you think). His honorable battle with cancer in 2009 and 2010 even found its way into my book. When I wanted a pastor’s perspective on whether or not what I had written was help, he was the first person to whom I turned.

You can read the actual endorsements at From the Garden to the City.

New Books on Technology, Faith, and Philosophy

There is little doubt in my mind that you’re all anxiously awaiting the publication of my book on technology From the Garden to the City due out in August, but in the mean time 2011 has already shaped up to be quite the year for books on technology and faith.

Several of them are being released in the coming months, and I’ll be reading all of them and reviewing several here and in other publications.

God and Gadgets: Following Jesus in a Technological Age
Brad Kallenberg

Kallenberg is a theology professor at the University of Dayton with a background in engineering and the philosophy of Wittegenstein both of which he has brought to bear in his previous works on Christianity in the postmodern era.

While openly critical of technology’s bewitching, Kallenberg is also quite positive about technology, seeing a redemptive place for it in the Christian community through what he calls a “gift economy.”

 

Digital Disciple: Real Christianity in a Virtual World
Adam Thomas

Adam describes himself, “As one of the first Millennials to be ordained to the Episcopal priesthood, I hope my emerging perspectives on God, Christianity, the Bible, and the mission of God’s people will add a new voice to the ongoing conversation.”

His book came out in May 2011, and I have yet to get a copy, but from all accounts Thomas is a fun engaging writer who balances warnings about technology with a hopefulness that God is still present even in a virtual world.

Facebook and Philosophy
ed. D.E. Wittkower

A collection of short essays from more than twenty philosophy professors, divided into five sections: (1) Facebook itself, (2) The Profile and the Self, (3) Facebook friends, (4) Social Networking, (5) Activity and Passivity

Although the book’s cover is light-hearted and Facebook style “comments” and “likes” are found throughout, the ideas and concepts in the book are all undergrided by and argued from the thoughts of everyone from Aristotle to Heidegger and from Jeremy Bentham to Walter Benjamin.

 

The Mind and the Machine: What It Means to Be Human and Why It Matters
Matthew Dickerson

Finally, in an era in which science and technology offers us so many competing metaphors for what it means to be human (are we just fleshy computers? biological machines?), computer science professor Matthew Dickerson attempts to offer a vision of what it means to be a physical, spiritual, and creative human being. He draws from classical Christian theology and even one of his favorite literary heroes – J.R.R. Tolkien.

 

If you’ve come across any others I haven’t yet covered here, please leave them in the comments. And if you’ve read or plan to read any of these, do let us know!

Bonhoeffer on What Technology Gives and Takes Away From Relationships

I’ve been reading (or rather listening to) Eric Metaxas‘ biography entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

If you know Bonhoeffer’s story, you know that he and Maria von Wedemeyer became engaged just a few months before Bonhoeffer was sent to prison for his role in the conspiracy against Hitler. He and Maria exchanged dozens of letters in his nearly two year imprisonment and, when it started to become apparent that that he was going to be in jail for longer than they had initially hoped, he reflected on the nature of longing and its relationships to technologically mediated communication.

My dearest Maria,
It always takes so long these days for our letters to reach their destination…

I’ve recently and with great enjoyment, reread the memoirs of Gabriele von Bulow von Humboldt. She was separated from her fiancé for three whole years, short after her engagment! What immense patience and forbearance people had in those days, and what great “tensile strength”! Every letter was over six weeks in transit. They learned to do what technology has deprived us of, namely, to commend each other daily to God and put their trust in him. We are now relearning that, and we should be thankful, however hard it is.

Before his imprisonment Bonhoeffer was able to call Maria, and his letters would take no more than one or two days to reach her. But now, deprived of the speed and ease that technology was able to bring him, he began to see that for all its benefits, technology made it possible for him to overlook the deepening that happens through non-technological means like prayer. Metaxas makes it clear that Bonhoeffer was always able to see his situation in light of how God was using it to shape him, and this technological deprivation was certainly no exception.

Perhaps this concrete experience puts into perspective his seemingly harsh words about technology given in lectures a decade before:

We do not rule; instead we are ruled. The thing, the world, rules humankind; humankind is a prisoner, a slave, of the world, and its dominion is an illusion. Technology is the power with which the earth seizes hold of humankind and masters it. And because we no longer rule, we lose the ground so that the earth no longer remains our earth, and we become estranged from the earth. The reason why we fail to rule, however, is because we do not know the world as God’s creation and do not accept the dominion we have as God-given but seize hold of it for ourselves…There is no dominion without serving God; in losing the one humankind necessarily loses the other. Without God, without their brothers and sisters, human beings lose the earth.
Creation and Fall

When I first read this quotation, I saw Bonhoeffer as decidedly anti-technology. But Bonhoeffer was famous for saying that, “every sermon must contain ‘a bit of heresy'” and I would guess that this is one of those overstatements meant to help us see how we can lose sight of God by allowing technology to become a distraction.

It’s only when we are deprived of technology, as Bonhoeffer was in Cell 92, that we see what we’re missing. If given the opportunity to call Maria in those final months before he was hanged, I’m certain that Bonhoeffer would have gladly jumped at the chance. Yet he still valued what this deprivation taught him, and I think his experience can encourage us to occasionally and intentionally deprive ourselves in order to see more fully.

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.

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly: Part 3 of 4

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

Directions

In the first half of his book, Kelly told a story linking biology, technology, and information into a cosmic whole he calls the technium. But in the section called “Directions,” Kelly returns to technology in our everyday world.

He introduces two well-known cases of technological rejection – the Unabomber and the Amish – and carefully acknowledges the problems they see in technology. However, he argues their conclusion to reject technology is only possible on the basis of other people developing even more technology. This leads Kelly to the seemingly paradoxical recommendation that if carefully and continually evaluate technology, we can limit it in our own lives while maximizing it for others.

Chapter 10 – The Unabomber Was Right

Kelly begins 10 by returning to the problems caused technology. Many inventions of the past 150 years (submarines, dynamite, airplanes, etc.) were supposed to bring peace but instead wrought horrific human destruction. More people die using the dominant technological transportation system (cars at 1.2 million/year) than from cancer. Thousands of species go extinct due to energy abuse, and on and on we could go.

It almost seems as if technology is a system bent on human destruction. And in some ways, Kelly agrees with this assessment. In fact, he says that the best articulation of this view comes not from the books of famous philosophers of technology, but from the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. “The Unabomber is right that technology a holistic, self-perpetuating machine. He is also right that selfish nature of this system cause specific harms. Certain aspects of the technium are detrimental to the human self, because they defuse our identity.” (212).

But Kaczynski’s solution was not to work toward making technology better – instead he wanted to destroy it. So he moved into a cabin in the woods and began sending home-made bombs to people he felt were perpetuating the evil technological system. Yet, even as he tried to reject technology, he was forced to ride his bike to Walmart to get the supplies he was dependent upon to survive. “Despite the reality of technology’s faults, the Unabomber was wrong to want to exterminate it, not the least of which is that the machine of civilization offers us more actual freedoms than the alternative” (212-13).

For all of technology’s problems, Kelly argues that it always offers slightly more freedom than it takes. Even those who want to reject it (like the Unabomber) cannot fully escape their need for it. The problems of technology are real, but what we need is better evaluation of our tools. “We need – I almost hate to say it – more technology” (215) to help us make better decisions about our technology.

Chapter 11 – Lessons of Amish Hackers

Kelly then turns to another famously anti-technology group – the Amish. Kelly himself has living among the Amish and considers many of them friends. He admires their careful, community-based evaluation of new technology and their slow, discerning adoption of it.

Yet he points out that, like the Unabomber, their ability to reject certain technologies is based on other people developing more and more powerful technologies. For example, they reject cars and the electrical grid, but their shovels are made of steel that some high-tech company extracted from the earth and their backup generators run on gasoline refined by a billion dollar petroleum industry.

Kelly argues that one of technology’s most important benefits is that it gives people more choices as to who they will become. Of himself he writes, “I may not tweet, watch TV, or use a laptop, but I certainly benefit from the effect of others who do” (236). Of people like me, he says, “If you are a web designer, it is only because many tens of thousands of other people around you and before you have been expanding the realm of possibilities” (237). The chief good of technology and the reason we should pursue it is that it extends our choices and the choices of others. “Our missions as humans is not only to discover our fullest selves in the technium, and to find full contentment, but to expand the possibilities of others” (237).

For Kelly this isn’t just about an individual’s choice, it’s about the trajectory of humanity. “Our human nature itself is a malleable that we crop planted 50,000 years ago and continue to garden even today. The field of our nature has never been static. We know that genetically our bodies are changing faster now than at any time on the past million years. Our minds are being rewired by culture” (235).

To become who we want to become, we must strike a delicate balance. To be content ourselves we need to minimize the technology we personally use, but to help others be content we need to maximize the total technology available to others globally.

Chapter 12 – Seeking Conviviality

In chapter 12, Kelly attempts to show us how we might direct technology in such a way that it is “convivial” or “compatible with life.”

But first, Kelly addresses two problems that arise when we attempt to control technology.

The first is that it’s almost impossible to predict the impact of a technology. He cites example after example of how an inventor thought his technology would be used one way, but when it took hold in society things were much different. Edison thought his phonograph (sound recorder) would be used for deathbed recordings alone. “With few exceptions technologies don’t know what they want to be when they group up” (244). We tend to think of new technologies as doing old jobs better, which is why cars were initially called “horseless carriages.”

Because technology is so unpredictable, companies pitch products as if they are perfect, while others can only see the negatives and try to limit technology.

This brings us to Kelly’s second problem: when governments or communities attempt to put a complete stop on a technology, it never works. Technology continues to progress and eventually society (particularly the next generation) embraces it. “[H]istory shows that it is very hard for a society as a whole to say no to technology for very long.” (241) “Prohibitions are in effect postponements” (243).

Kelly returns to the argument in the first half of the book: “these technologies are inevitable” (261). The solution, then, is this: “We can only shape technology’s expression by engaging with it, by riding it with both arms around its neck” (262). Rather than try to stop technology, we must have a clear set of principles that shape its development. The rest of the chapter offers examples and models of how this might happen and concludes with these six values: cooperation, transparency, decentralization, flexibility, redundancy, and efficiency.

Followup

It’s hard to escape what Kelly is saying.

Technology will advance, no matter how hard anyone tries to stop it. Our attempts to destroy it (Unabomber) or ignore it (the Amish) won’t work.

The only true solution is to jump in full force and try to shape it toward being more “compatible with life.” The difficulty is, of course, figuring out how to do this in the real world.

This is probably the most practical and least mystical section in the entire book and for my money it’s one of the best and most realistic portrayals of the problems as well as the enormous good technology can bring.

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly: Part 2 of 4

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 [20], bits per second [22]). 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).

Followup

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?

 

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.

What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly: Part 0

Beginning next week, I plan to do a series of post’s on Kevin Kelly‘s book What Technology Wants published last fall.

It’s a fascinating look at history, evolution, technology, humanity, and the future from a very fascinating man. TechCrunch summarized his legacy this way,

The publisher and editor of the Whole Earth Review between 1984 and 1990, the co-founder of the Hacker Conference, one of the founders of the Well in 1985, the co-founder and original executive editor of Wired magazine, Kelly has always been a step or two ahead of everyone else.

Also of interest is this little detail from his webite biography,

1979 – Became a Christian after conversion experience in Jerusalem. Rode bicycle 5,000 miles across continental US. During the crossing completed Bicycle Haiku, a collection of haikus and ink sketches in book form.

For a preview, I thought I’d the videos from an interview he gave with TechCrunch.com (part 1, part 2). Note especially the last question Andrew Keen asks.

Introduction

On Social Revolution

What Does Technology Want?

What Is the Future of Technology?

Is Technology God?

What are you initial impressions of Kelly and his ideas? Have you read the book?

Parenting Resource: God’s Technology DVD

If you have kids, work with kids, or work with their parents, I’d like to point you to a great resource for talking to them about technology and faith.

Dr. David Murray (blog), Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary put together a 40 minute DVD called God’s Technology: Training our Children to use Technology for God’s Glory. It starts out with a nice balanced, biblical view of technology. In the middle, there is a Did You Know? style set of statistics on social media, and in the later part of the video Dr. Murray offers a set of practical steps to  parents on how they can guide their children in how to use technology.

Here’s the trailer

And here are some reasons to like the video

  1. Dr. Murray is very positive about technology – this is not a doom and gloom video
  2. The video is done very well
  3. It’s only 40 minutes so you can use it at almost any event
  4. The steps he gives are very practical and useful
  5. He encourages parents to build trust in their kids overtime
  6. Dr. Murray is Scottish and therefore awesome

Three Free Copies of Tim Challies “The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion”

As the co-author of 13 words in Tim’s new book, I’m very happy that he, with his skill as a writer, his experience as a web designer, and his deeply informed, discerning faith, wrote the other 60,000.

A Brief Review

That’s the tongue-in-cheek endorsement I wrote for Tim Challies‘ new book The Next Story: Life and Faith after the Digital Explosion (amazon | wtsbooks | Tim’s book page). Tim has indeed put together a helpful, balanced book that addresses a wide range of important questions that Christians must grapple with in today’s social media, always-on, hyper-connected world.

But don’t worry. This isn’t a hit-and-run on Facebook, Twitter, or the iPhone, blaming them for every problem we have today. Tim is a careful thinker who runs one of the most heavily trafficked Christian blogs in the world, and he brings this discernment and experience together to guide believers on they can thoughtfully approach technology.

Throughout the book, Tim offers three lens through which we can view technology: theology, theory, and experience. In the category of theology, Tim applies the timeless wisdom of the Scriptures to the unique challenges we face today. But Tim also draws from the varies theories of technology to help us see things about technology that aren’t always obvious. Finally, Tim is not merely a person who writes critically about technology, he actually uses it everyday, and his experience makes the book helpful and sincere.

The book is laid out in two parts. In part 1, Tim gives an introduction to the way he approaches technology and lays out some basic principles and theory about how technology works. Then in part 2, he applies these ideas to specific areas of life such as communication, community, distraction, information overload, truth and authority, and privacy. At the end of each of these chapters, there are reflective questions for individual readers that will also work well for groups.

If you’re interested in a deeply Christian understanding of modern technology, I’d highly recommend you pick up a copy of Tim’s book.

Note: a few people have asked me how Tim’s book differs from my own, and the short answer is that they emphasize different subject matter and are very complimentary. Tim spends the majority of the book doing deep into issues that we face in the Digital/Information Age, whereas I spent a large portion of mine working through the place of technology in the God’s overall plan of redemption and then apply that to modern issues toward the end of the book.

Three Free Copies

I like Tim’s book so much that I’ve purchased three copies from the Westminster Bookstore to give away. To enter to win the book, leave a comment that includes two things (1) a question or area of life you hope the book will help you better understand, [edit: on second thought, don’t worry about doing this second one. Just leave a comment to enter] (2) a post you liked from this blog (which hopefully favors regular readers).

The last day to enter will be Monday, April 4, 2011.