What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (2010)

technology wants“It [the technium] compounds the good in the world because in addition to the direct good it brings, the arc of the technium keeps increasing choices, possibilities, freedom, and free will in the world, and that is an even greater good.”  263

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Kelly argues that the totality of technology—computers, phones, law, software, hand tools, trains, etc—which he calls the technium, is an outgrowth of biological evolution.  It is not precisely life, but is an extension of the same types of creative forces.  Technology is growing, becoming more complex, and becoming a quasi-living ecosystem that has its own tendencies, drives, and desires.

To a large degree, he argues, the evolution of technology is preordained.  Just as many biological creatures share certain traits (like eyes, bilateral symmetry, and DNA), future technologies will face constraints and follow impulses that will lead them toward certain qualities.  Among other traits, technology will become ever more efficient, ubiquitous, complex, and sentient.

Kelly takes a positive view of the inevitable advance of the technium toward the qualities outlined above.  On balance, the technium has always brought more choice, which he views as good in and of itself.  More choice allows us to have more free will, and makes us more valuable beings.

The book is deeply interesting.  To support his theory of technological inevitability, Kelly draws on evidence from biological convergence and simultaneous discovery/invention in the sciences and engineering.  The factoids he pushes together are all intriguing in their own right, and are masterfully woven together.  His argument for a high degree of inevitability is quite convincing.

His discussion of the characteristics technology will converge on was also interesting, but his arguments for why these traits will necessarily arise wasn’t as satisfying.  That inevitable, determined technologies bring more choice, opportunity, and free will to the universe is an enthralling paradox that he carefully resolves.

Ideas per Page:1 9/10 (high)

Related Books: Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo, Freedom Evolves by Daniel Dennett,

Recommend to Others: Yes, just for the discussion of convergent evolution and simultaneous discovery alone.  Don’t even read the second half if you don’t want to—that section is so captivating.

Reread Personally: No


Note: the word ‘technium’ is a Kelly neologism; it’s “a whole system… [that] encapsulates the grand totality of machines, methods, and engineering processes.  … [it is] a self-reinforcing system of creation.” 12

“Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going.  There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity.  There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels.”  8

“For instance, researchers discovered that DNA—the actual DNA found in the ubiquitous bacteria E. Coli in our own intestines—could be used to compute the answers to difficult mathematical problems, just like a computer.”  9

“…after 10,000 years of slow evolution and 200 years of incredible intricate exfoliation, the technium is maturing into its own thing.”  12

“In a very curious way, foragers live in the ultimate disposable culture.  The best tools, artifacts, and technology are all disposable.  Even elaborate handcrafted shelters are considered temporary.”  30

“With minor differences, the evolution of the technium—the organism of ideas—mimics the evolution of genetic organisms.  The two share many traits: The evolution of both systems moves from the simple to the complex, from the general to the specific, from uniformity to diversity, from individualism to mutualism, from energy waste to efficiency, and from slow change to greater evolvability.”  44

“Ideas fly in flocks.  To hold one idea in mind means to hold a cloud of them.”  45

“It [the computer chip] conducts more energy per second per gram through its tiny corridors than animals, volcanoes, or the sun.”  60

“Everything we find interesting and good in the cosmos—living organisms, civilization, communities, intelligence, evolution itself—somehow maintains a persistent difference in the face of entropy’s empty indifference.”  62

“Rather, everywhere in the world, at all historical periods, in all cultures, people have stampeded by the billions into the future of “slightly more options” as fast as they can.  With their feet they have voted for progress by migrating to cities.”  80-1

“Science is costly for an individual.  Sharing results is of marginal benefit if you are chiefly seeking a better tool for today.  Therefore, the benefits of science are neither apparent nor immediate for individuals.  Science requires a certain density of leisured population willing to share and support failures to thrive.”  91

“Navigation by echolocation has been found [by evolution] four times: in bats, dolphins, and two species of cave-dwelling birds (the South American oilbird and Asian swiftlet).  Bipedality recurs in humans and birds.  Antifreeze compounds were evolved twice in ice fish, once in the Artic and once in the Antarctic.”  106

“…simultaneous, independent invention also seems to be the rule in the technium.”  In both realms, natural evolution and technological evolution, convergence creates inevitabilities.” 107

“But a hundred, or a thousand, cases of isolated significant convergent evolution suggest something else at work.  Some other force pushes the self-organization of evolution toward recurring solutions.  A different dynamic besides the lottery of natural selection steers the course of evolution so that it can reach an unlikely remote destination more than once.  It is not a supernatural force but a fundamental dynamic as simple at its core as evolution itself.  And it is the same force that funnels convergence in technology and culture.”  110

“Yet the dimensions of each species are not arbitrary.  They follow a scale ratio that is astonishingly constant in both plants and animals. The strength of a cell wall is determined by the surface tension of water; that constant in turn mandates the maximum height per width of a body, any possible body.” 111

“Both metabolic rare and heart rate are proportional to their life span and size.”  111

“This is in fact the “job” of minds: to produce types of complexity that evolutionary self-creation cannot.”  116

“Despite life’s magnificent diversity, it is chiefly repeating, billions and billions of times, solutions that worked before.  Compared to all possible arrangements of matter an energy in the universe, life’s solutions are few.”  127

“Every organism (and artifact) is a wholly improbable arrangement of its constituent atoms.  Yet within the long chain of reproducing self-organization and restless evolution, these forms become highly probably, and even inevitable, because there are only a few ways such open-ended ingenuity can actually work in the real world; therefore, evolution must work through them.”  128

Homo sapiens is a tendency, not an entity.” 128

“Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray both applied to patent the telephone on the same day, February 14, 1876.  …  Sunspots were first discovered not by two but four separate observers, including Galileo, in the same year, 1611.  We know of six different inventors of the thermometer, and three of the hypodermic needle.”  132

“Only the conceptual essence of an invention or discovery is inevitable.  The specifics of how this essential core (the “chairness” of a chair) is manifested in practice (in plywood, or with a rounded back) are likely to vary widely depending on the resources available to the inventors at hand.”  143

“1. In all times we find that most inventions and discoveries have been made independently by more than one person.

2.In ancient times we find independent timelines of technology on different continents converging upon a set order.

3. In modern times we find sequences of improvement that are difficult to stop, derail, or alter.” 147

“The path of frozen water is predetermined, but there is great leeway, freedom, and beauty in the individual expression of its predestined state.  The actual pattern of each snowflake is unpredictable, although its archetypal six-sided form is determined.”  152

“More important, the curve [of calculations per second per dollar] (let’s call it Kurzweil’s Law) transects five different technological species of computation: electromechanical, relay, vacuum tube, transistors, and integrated circuits.” 165

“Curiously, this freely chosen aspect of ourselves is that other people remember about us.  How we handle life’s cascade of real choices within the larger cages of our birth and background is what makes us who we are. It’s what people talk about when we are gone.  Not the given, but the choices we made.”  178

“Compared to all possibilities that we can imagine, we have a very narrow range of choices.  But compared to 10,000 years ago, or even 1,000 years ago, or even last year, our possibilities are expanding.  Although restricted in the cosmic sense, we have more choice than we know what to do with.  And via the engine of the technium, these real choices will keep expanding (even though the larger path is preordained).” 181

Quoting Ted Kaczynski (The Unabomber):

“Another reason why technology is such a powerful social force is that, within the context of a given society, technological progress marches in only one direction; it can never be reversed.  One a technical innovation has been introduced, people usually become dependent on it, unless it is replaced by some still more advanced innovation.  Not only do people become dependent as individuals on a new item of technology, but, even more, the system as a whole becomes dependent on it.”  203

“The problem is that Kaczynski’s most basic premise, the first axiom in his argument, is not true.  The Unabomber claims that technology robs people of freedom.  But most people of the world find the opposite.  They gravitate toward technology because they recognize that they have more freedoms when they are empowered with it. They (that is, we) realistically weight the fact that yes, indeed, some options are closed off when adopting new technology, but many others are opened, so that the net gain is an increase in freedom, choices, and possibilities.”  207

“In short, the Amish depend on the outside world for the way they currently live  Their choice of minimal technology adoption is a choice—but a choice enabled by the technium, Their lifestyle is within the technium, not outside of it.”  231

“If you do science, your instruments and field of study have been created by others.  If you are a photographer, or an extreme sports athlete, or a baker, or an auto mechanic, or a nurse—then your potential has been given an opportunity by the work of others.  You are being expanded as others expand themselves.” 237

“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.”  258

“The first movies were straightforward documentary films of theatrical plays.”  245

“However, the proper response to a lousy idea is not to stop thinking.  It is to come up with a better idea.  Indeed, we should prefer a bad idea to no idea at all because bad ideas can at least be reformed, while not thinking offers no hope.”  263

Paraphrase: technology wants an increase of: efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, evolvability 270

“Yet paradoxically, diversity can be unleashed by a type of uniformity.  The uniformity of a standard writing script (like an alphabet of script) unleashes the unexpected diversity of literature.  … The rigidity of an alphabet has done more to enable creativity than any unhinged brainstorming exercise ever invented.”  287

“Often we refuse to adopt technology for the same reason: because of how the avoidance shapes our identity.”  291

“In essence the haves fund the evolution of technology for the have-laters.  Isn’t that how it should be, that the rich fund the development of cheap technology for the poor?”  305

“As evolution rises, “choicefullness” increases.  A bacterium has a few choices—perhaps to slide toward food or to divide.  A plankton, with more complexity, more cellular machinery, has more options.  A starfish can wiggle its arms, flee (fast or slow?) or fight a rival, choose a meal or a mate.  … Complexity expands the number of possible choices.”  309

1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.




2 thoughts on “What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly (2010)

  1. Completely enjoyed reading this post on my laptop, away from home, thanks in part to Gray and Bell who worked like hell with what there was before them, along with the rest of the universe! :O)

    This post made me think and question.

    One big thing it brought up is something I have have grappled with over my lifetime. – decisions made around collective “forward movement” to benefit the group, to the determinate of the individual. To my way of thinking, often, but not always, this has less to do with the determinate to the individual and more to do with the determinate to entire cultures.

    If we embrace the idea that, the job of the mind is to produce over time types of complexities which evolutionary self-creation cannot, I am hopeful that we will come to understand in the fullest way, it is not the physical structure but the unseen compassion housed within structure that allow for sustainability of life.

    Thanks for your blog!



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