- The Good: Conscientious adoption of scientific progress
- The Bad: Written by an old hippie with mystical leanings
- The Literary: Surprisingly, some examples from art and literature
Technology is coming for us whether we want it or not, and we can all agree that technology is out of our individual control. In this book, Kevin Kelly argues that technology is not just a more efficient engine or a smaller computer chip, but that technology as a whole, as a concept, will continue to evolve and is outside of humanity’s collective control. Technology wants, and knowing what technology wants will allow us to better prepare ourselves for the future to come.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. The technology that surrounds us today is built upon the successes and failures of our predecessors. On the whole, the advancement of technology is a good thing. Primarily, in the last 300 years, it’s provided better health, longer life, and gives us more choices, like to choice to relocate, educate oneself, or have children. My home is filled with computers and kitchen gadgets that make my life easier, and I can’t even imagine what life would be like without a toilet or washing machine.
But sometimes technology is overwhelming. Kelly investigates two different examples of how people try to fight it’s onslaught. One is the outright antagonistic approach of the Unibomber; one is the ultra-slow adoption of the Amish. Kelly argues that extreme prohibition is ineffective and even the Unibomber’s supposedly off-the-grid shack was filled with items purchased from Walmart. Kelly is fascinated at the off-grid lifestyle and moderated approach towards adoption of the Amish, though he admits it’s too far away from the comforts to which he is accustomed.
I agree that we live in a world of technology that we can’t escape, and that existing technology will only continue to improve, whereas new and often troublesome technologies will continue to be invented. I agree that as individuals we need to first become aware of our relationship with technology, conscious to its pervasiveness, and consider nuanced approaches to how it best serves us as individuals and as a society.
There are so may good questions that this book spurs. When is a technology a basic human right (shelter, clean water, education), and when is it detrimental? Do we have a responsibility to our creations, fellow humans, or our planet? Is the constant access to social media making us at best less creative or at worst inventing new mental disorders? Are the unknown risks of a new technology like GMOs worth it if we can feed more people? What about the unknown risks of a vaccine that protects our society’s weakest members? How will we know when the internet becomes sentient, or that it hasn’t already? If it does, what rights will it have? I really enjoy thinking about these concepts and hope others do as well.
But let’s start on what I didn’t like about this book and why I’m giving it such a low star rating.
Kelly begins with the central argument that technology is inevitable. Similar inventions occurred at the same time, independently, often on opposite continents, whether ancient agriculture or, more recently, light bulbs. As each new technology appears it fuels the next logical step. Generally speaking, I agree, you can’t have cars until you have the combustion engine.
However, Kelly spends a large section of the book comparing the inevitable progress of technology to biological evolution, specifically using convergent evolution as the basis for his argument. Convergent evolution suggests that instead of new mutations arising from random chance, distantly related organisms evolve similar traits to adapt to similar external pressures. Unfortunately, Kelly does not describe or define convergent evolution in those terms. Instead, he uses phrases that include, “Rather, evolution…has an inherent direction, shaped by the nature of matter and energy,” and “Again and again evolution returns to a few solutions that work,”which imply that evolution is leading somewhere on purpose. Kelly’s prose is full of these mystical anthropomorphic interpretations.
Not being a scientist himself, Kelly acknowledges that most scientists find the concept of “inevitable” disagreeable when applied to evolution, but then proceeds to make his own case, using a few studies and quotes from those who disagree with classical Darwinism. I’m not saying some ideas of convergent evolution aren’t possible, but I find it a little backwards that Kelly uses it to prop up his own arguments that technology is also evolving convergently. Why not just just discuss technology on its own by it’s own merits? Surely biology and technology each have individual concerns and constraints int he world?
In fact, Kelly proposes technology to be the 7th kingdom of organisms. It’s a neat and cute idea, and useful for starting conversation, but he takes himself seriously. He concedes that it’s not ideal to anthropomorphize technology, but then proceeds to do just that for the entire book (see the title again). His religious fervor at the beginning and end—at which point he discusses that technology is the next stage in evolution, and that our AI offspring are the closet we’ll ever see to God—all reveal that his goal is one of mysticism and philosophy, not science.
Let me share one specific example. In the following quote, Kelly takes the kernel of a scientific idea, specifically the hypothesis of panspermia, an untestable hypothesis that suggests all life on earth did not originate on Earth, but instead that DNA was carried to Earth by way of a celestial body (ie a comet). He proceeds to dramatically embellish, anthropomorphize, phallicize in one ill-informed sentence: “Perhaps DNA was cleverly crafted by superior intelligences in white lab coats and shotgunned into the universe to naturally seed empty planets over billions of years?”
In addition, Kelly’s persuasive approach is to frenetically throw facts around, leaping between subjects with impressive-sounding bits, shifting his focus and examples, both scientific and historical, to support his current point. The overwhelming repetition of disconnected facts disregards any nuance that would cast uncertainty on his points, including the concept of fitness landscapes in evolution. It’s no surprise then that he coins he own term, the technium, the meaning of which bloats as every chapter progresses so that it eventually encompasses any concept of order, control, or predictability in all of space and time.
Recommended for modern ludites, those looking to limit technology in their daily lives. Skip to the Unibomber and Amish chapters!