Technology Builds Humans – Notes and Review of “What Technology Wants”
Despite the fact that humans have been developing technology since the dawn of time, technology is still completely misunderstood.
Despite the fact that humans have been developing technology since the dawn of time, technology is still completely misunderstood.
When we hear the word technology, our first inclination is to think of our iPhones or computers interacting with the internet. If you’re a little more technically inclined, you may think about writing code or working with certain tools. And maybe if you’re a little bit more cognizant of your lives and culture (or are a parent), you may think about the effects of technology as it applies to areas of child development, social interactions, or otherwise.
But when viewed from an even larger perspective, we find that technology is so much more than all of that. Kevin Kelly does a phenomenal job at exploring technology and what he coins as the “technium” in his book What Technology Wants. This blog post is basically a compilation of my thoughts and lessons gleaned from reading the book, I am not taking credit for any of the thinking.
Essentially, the technium describes a kingdom of species, much like the other six kingdoms of living things. It is the entire network and collection of all the tools that have ever been created and utilized, including culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creation of all types.
At first glance, it might seem a little strange to consider technology as a kingdom of life, but when considered as such, it becomes easier to recognize different trends and understand where technology came from and where it is going.
The Power of a Meme
The most significant transitions in human history have all centered around a revolution in the ways that we communicate. Communication, the fundamental method in which people share thoughts, is the building block on top of which humans have been able to build and accomplish the things that we have. In the same way that a gene is the building block for biological life, memes are the building blocks for technology.
The first revolution in communication happened when humans began vocally transmitting ideas to each other. By creating language, people are able to quickly and easy share thoughts from one person to another. Having a common language changed everything, and can be considered the first singularity for humans.
“Language is a trick that allows the mind to question itself; a magic mirror that reveals to the mind what the mind thinks; a handle that turns a mind into a tool.” – Kevin Kelly
The next revolution in communication happened when spoken language became written language. All of a sudden, humans developed a way not only to physically transmit thoughts to someone who was in the range of your vocal chords, we developed a way to share thoughts at a distance of both time and space.
Having a written language was powerful, but still limited by how much a single person could write. With the invention of the printing press, books could now be made for a fraction of the cost, and suddenly one person could speak to a massive number of people.
Not too long after came the radio, broadcast television, and other media, causing yet another shift in the way that technology enable humans to communicate with each other.
And finally, the most recent innovation that is completely changing the way that people communicate has been the digitization of content and the network of computers that have permeated the 21st century.
The implications of going from a non linguistic culture to a linguistic culture to a digital culture are huge. It’s not just that the technological landscape is different, it’s that humans operate in a fundamentally different way. Language is an inseparable aspect of the human experience.
However, there are many attributes of the technium that make it drastically different than any biological kingdom. While biology undergoes a natural linear process of evolution, technology evolves at an exponential rate, causing a vastly different trajectory.
Moore’s law explains that every 18 months, for the same price point, the power of the technology that you can buy doubles. We see this trend in processing power, disk space, etc. It wasn’t that long ago that 128MB microSD cards were considered large.
Because technology advances at an exponential rate, the evolution and development increases at a rate that most people have an extremely difficult time wrapping their minds around. Humans are naturally local and linear thinkers, because humans evolved in a world in which the things that mattered to an individual happened right next to them. Additionally, there was minimal change from generation to generation, establishing cultures that by nature, do not adapt well to change.
I recommend reading Abundance by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler for more on this.
Kelly describes exotropy as negative entropy. In other words, the reversal of disorder. Everything, including technology, follows an exotropic progression, bringing more diversity into the world with each step of evolution. From the first few moments of the existence of the universe where there existed only particles of very basic elements, the universe has self organized into galaxies, planets, and different forms of life.
“Exotropy is neither wave nor particle, nor pure energy, nor supernatural miracle. It is an immaterial flow that is very much like information. Since exotropy is defined as negative entropy – the reversal of disorder – it is, by definition, an increase in order.” – Kevin Kelly
As a result of Moore’s law and the nature of technological progress, technology increases the rate of exotropy in the universe. While biological systems can only evolve incrementally with a couple genetic changes every generation, technology is only restricted by mankind’s ability to innovate.
Technological exotropy can be seen in the enormous diversity of different technological species that exist in the world today. Technology allowed us to accomplish a more diverse set of tasks that nature has not been able to achieve, such as space travel, supersonic flight, seamless ubiquitous communication, etc.
The phenomena produces a powerful cycle of scaffolding, in which the tools that we build help us build better tools in an endless cycle of exponential improvement. Where as biological systems can only make improvements at a marginal rate, technology enables at a much more exponential pace.
On one side of global progress is the development of technology, but there is a whole other side, the development of humans, that is not as frequently talked about nor thought about. The very tools that humans spend their lives developing and building, the tools also deeply change the way that we do life. It’s impossible to imagine life without language, because language is a technology that has reached ubiquity in the human race, being integrated deep into everything that we do.
As humans simultaneously develop with technology, there is a whole body of literature that argues the convergence of humanity and technology known as the singularity. Popularized by inventor Ray Kurzweil, the singularity refers to a point in time in which man and machine are indistinguishable from each other. According to Kurzweil, the singularity will take place by 2045.
Regardless of whether you believe the singularity will happen in the next 30 years, getting to the singularity implies a great deal of change that depends on how quickly humans are able to adapt. The problem isn’t that technologies aren’t being invented fast enough, the problem is that humans aren’t learning how to use technologies fast enough.
One of the clearest examples of coevolution is the development of cities, Kelly calls cities “technological artifacts, the largest technology we make”. With cities, humans literally build and evolve the world around them. We create modes of transportation, urban environments, and all sorts of experiences ranging from museums to academic institutions to restaurants and more. As our space around us changes, so does the way that we live our lives. In fact, most city dwellers would not survive a couple days in the wilderness.
Multiple evolution is a concept that is rarely articulated, but a phenomena that deeply affects the progress and discoveries of life. Multiple evolution is the idea that multiple innovations evolve in a simultaneously independent manner. This happens in every field from art, literature, research, technology, biology and more.
For example, the infamous story of Harry Potter was not the only book written about boy wizards in magical schools with pet owls who enter other worlds through railway station platforms. In fact, there are arguably a few authors who have written books of the same nature at the same time without any knowledge of each other’s existence.
It becomes interesting when you realize that not only works of literature, but many scientific and technological discoveries and innovations, although not implemented in an identical manner, were developed simultaneously. Calculus was developed by Newton and Liebniz, Darwin was not the sole fabricator of evolution, etc etc.
This supports the idea that technological evolution inevitably progresses in a certain direction, because if one innovator didn’t invent a particular technology, chances are someone else would have. This also supports the concept that technology has it’s own evolutionary tendencies independent of the input of any single human being.
One explanation for this phenomenon is that the development of technologies follow a sequence in which all innovation depends on a previous innovation, and it comes down to nothing but a matter of time. You can’t do calculus unless you know how to count. In the same way, television and radio would never have been developed without the printing press, and the development of computers means that a network of computers would inevitably happen.
Social and Political Implications
Of course, it would be irresponsible to talk about the evolution of technology without talking about the social and political implications that technology creates. The elephant in the room is that the affluent individuals with access to technology create an extremely large opportunity gap between them and people who may not have enough resources to be on the cutting edge.
As a result of technology, the disparity between modern societies and traditional societies are enormous. The disparity caused by such an inequality between people with access to technology and people without has implications in economics, health, and the overall standard of living.
However, because of the exponential nature of technology, individuals who are behind on the technological curve do not remain in the dark forever. Like the inevitability of developments, it is only a matter of time before a technology reaches ubiquity among the entire human population.
In the case of the internet, conservative estimates are that the majority of the world will be on the internet in the next few years. This is significant, because the internet will soon become flooded with billions of people coming online in the next few years.
Thus, the question when it comes to social and political implications is not what to do with the disparity, but how to increase the speed that a technology reaches ubiquity.
New Platforms for Art and Expression
One observation that I’ve made is that as technology advances, it creates more mediums for human expression, which can also be considered a form of technology. In many ways, function and form, especially when it comes to our technology, are becoming increasingly inseparable.
New technologies are constantly disrupting old ones and changing the way that we express ourselves. By lowering the barrier of entry to traditionally hard to enter industries, technology allows anyone to share thoughts, connect with people, create media, etc etc.
Seth Godin famously calls this the era of the “connection economy”, in which value no longer resides in having knowledge, but in being able to synthesize and connect different things in order to creatively innovate new products, services, and ideas.
Applying New Technologies
As new technology is applied, a couple things happen. Firstly, most technology is never applied exactly how the inventor imagined it, oftentimes being applied in completely different ways to achieve completely different results. Thus, it is impossible for an inventor of a technology to fully understand the implications of his creation let alone what it will be used for.
For instance, when television first came out, television programs were nothing more than recorded broadway shows being aired, leaving the full potential of television completely untapped. The inventor of the television did not foresee the application of such a technology to all the different uses that it is being used for today.
Secondly, the implications of any piece of technology upon culture is extremely hard to foresee. For example, the inventor of the car probably would not have imagined the whole infrastructure of roads, streetlights, gas stations, car dealers, traffic jams, insurance, etc that exist today.
This leads to a very interesting situation, in which it is difficult to predict exactly how revolutionary a certain new technology will be until we are literally on the verge of implementing the technology in a way that changes everything. And any technology that can be used to completely revolutionize the world can also be abused, meaning that it is inherently impossible to have full control over the technium.
A Value System Applied to Technology
Even though technology has an inevitable progression, it is very possible to apply a value system to steer technology in a way that is favorable to improving the human condition. The amish, a group of people who live with very little technology, exemplify how it is possible to live in a modern day world while having a very specific value system guiding their technology use.
With the understanding that any technology that is revolutionary can also have immense consequences, the amish are very cautious to introduce a new technology that might detract from their emphasis on community. However, despite the fact that they do not adapt most technologies, the amish are quite knowledgable about the technology that is going on in the world.
There’s a whole system in place in order to maintain the integrity of their social and religious values, in which community members are allowed to petition to test new technologies in their personal lives while being observed by the rest of the community to see how the particular technology impacts the community as a whole.
The amish do not live outside of technology, the live inside the technium in such a way where they slow it down, not stopping it entirely. Through this experience of elective poverty and minimalism, they are able to maximize their ultimate goals of valuing community.
“To maximize our own contentment, we seek the minimum amount of technology in our lives. Yet to maximize the contentment of others, we must maximize the amount of technology in the world.” – Kevin Kelly
Thus, just because a technology has the potential to be harmful, that doesn’t mean that we should avoid it altogether. Every technology has benefits as well as drawbacks, but as long there is slightly more upside than downside, we shouldn’t completely ignore new innovations.
What Technology Wants has been one of the books that have introduced many new concepts in a way that got me thinking a lot about the world that we live in. It is truly a book with very convincing insights about technology and more importantly the human experience and human condition.