Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What Does Technology Want?

Tech enthusiast Kevin Kelly asks "What does technology want?" and discovers that its movement toward ubiquity and complexity is much like the evolution of life.

Kevin Kelly has been publisher of the Whole Earth Review, exec editor at WIRED, founder of visionary nonprofits, and writer on biology and business and "cool tools." He's admired for his new perspectives on technology and its relevance to history, biology and religion.

Perhaps there is no one better to contemplate the meaning of cultural change -- bad? good? too slow? too bold? -- than Kevin Kelly, whose life story reads like a treatise on the value of technology. Whether by renouncing all material things save his bicycle (which he then rode 3,000 miles), founding an organization (the All-Species Foundation) to catalog all life on earth, or by touting new gadgets in WIRED, Kelly hasn't stopped exploring the phenomena of technical and biological creation.

In articles for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, among others, he has celebrated scientific breakthroughs, and at the Long Now Foundation, where he serves on the board, he champions projects that look 10,000 years into the future. Today Kelly is at work on a book that asks what appears to be his life's core question: "How should I think about new technology when it comes along?"

Kelly discusses the 7th Kingdom at length in the July 18, 2007, edition of

This is a very powerful, insightful and important video. It is not a complete theory of technology. But, it is a start. He introduces a number ideas that should be discussed more. I've picked a few out here either for explanation or elaboration.

The question, “What does technology want?” is derived from the thinking of Richard Dawkins' “Selfish Genes”. He asked the same question for genes and that lead him to a radical proposition: that we are primarily the caretaker of our genes. But not just for ourselves but our children, and people who care for and nurture our children, who house our genes. And, depending upon our conception of what constitutes our genes, we care for our extended family, community, nation, world, or the animal kingdom, as we share some genes with them all. Dawkins also introduced the idea of selfish memes, a meme being a concept or an idea. Our memes propagate through society “infecting” other minds, reproducing and diffusing. Our genes might be unrecognizable in a few generations, but some memes live forever. Jefferson's genes are not visible but his meme that all men are created equal with some inalienable rights lives on.

Kelly equates the question, “What do genes want?” with “What does life want?” He asserts that life wants:

* Ubiquity
* Specialization
* Diversity
* Socialization

I personally believe that life also wants beauty.

This has echoes of Margaret Wheatley's incredible book, A Simpler Way. Both dispense with the concept of the survival of the fittest or strongest, which was a misinterpretation of Darwin's work anyway.

Kelly notes that there are six kingdoms of life on earth. He posits that technology is the seventh kingdom. This is close to Dawkin's idea of memes. Technology is the realization of a meme or set of memes. A technology embodies a system of memes.

He then asserts that technology wants the same things as life.

Kelly states that life hacks its way forward. I personally don't like that connotation. The word “hack” came into common use in software development. The original meaning of a hack was someone who made furniture with an ax, according to Wikipedia. I think life progresses in a much more elegant way. According to the authors of A Simpler Way, "Life is creative. It plays itself into existence, seeking new relationships, new capacities, new traits. Life is an experiment to discover what's possible."

Anther point Kelly makes in this video is that old technology never dies. I think that he is correct on this. McLuhan proposed the four laws of technology, which he phrased as questions as well:

* What does it (the medium or technology) extend?
* What does it make obsolete?
* What is retrieved?
* What does the technology reverse into if it is over-extended?

McLuhan viewed these four laws operating in parallel. All four questions are being answered by technology at the same time, not in sequence. Technology is always extending, obsoleting, retrieving and reversing.

Another important idea is that “culture is an accumulation of ideas.' And since technology embeds ideas, or memes, technology becomes an artifact of the culture that produced it.

Another import idea introduced by Kelly is the concept of an infinite game.

Finite games have a definite beginning and ending. They are played with the goal of winning. Infinite games, on the other hand, do not have a knowable beginning or ending. They are played with the goal of continuing play. An infinite game continues play, for sake of play. If the game is approaching resolution because of the rules of play, the rules must be changed to allow continued play. The rules exist to ensure the game is infinite.

He comments that evolution is an infinite game. The game of life is to continue life. Ubiquity, diversity, specialization and socialization taken together continues life. Life is recognized as an infinite game.

Kelly suggests that technology's role is to facilitate life, to aid evolution.

He ends with the comment that we have a moral obligation to give each person the technology to enable them to fulfill their potential of differentness.

Kelly does not talk about the negative side of technology in the video, but he does write about this in an interview in The Edge, The Technium and the 7th Kingdom of Life. Mistakes of technology, really mistakes of humans, are a lot like evolutionary mistakes. If they don't improve life, they die out. He believes that the technium is becoming more aligned with other six kingdom's of life in all areas except species elimination. He does not believe that technology is sensitive to this problem, which he believes is real.

Great thanks to Natalie Shell for suggesting this video to me.

The following video is a reminder of evolutionary time.

No comments:

Post a Comment