Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Kevin Kelly on What Technology Wants

What Technology Wants, Kevin KellyWhen asked at the Carnegie Council why he doesn't use social media such as Twitter, author Kevin Kelly said he is in a phase where he prefers getting to the bottom of things to staying on top of them. Fair enough. After hearing him preview his new tome What Technology Wants, I think he's on to something.

The title is intentionally provocative, though Kelly does not imply that machines are conscious. He more seeks to discover how technology is situated in the universe, how it functions like an organism, with its own tendencies and urges, and thus its ability to exert influence.

Technology, or the "technium" as he dubs our interconnected system of hardware and culture, "wants" something in the way a plant wants sunlight.

These desires are grounded, he believes, in pure physics and are exemplified in a number of trends. While evolution may not be teleological, it does have directionality. So far the indications are that technology wants what life wants (p. 270, emphasis mine):

Increasing efficiency
Increasing opportunity
Increasing emergence
Increasing complexity
Increasing diversity
Increasing specialization
Increasing ubiquity
Increasing freedom
Increasing mutualism
Increasing beauty
Increasing sentience
Increasing structure
Increasing evolvability

Kelly calls these traits "exotropic" because they all tend toward greater organization, as opposed to entropy, which dissipates energy and disorganizes systems.

Does this directionality also have an ethical arrow? Kelly seems to think yes. The key for him is that these processes continuously unlock new possibilities, new choices. If there is a net increase in creation versus destruction of choice, then the world is on balance improving. The ethical obligation is thus to increase technology to unlock global genius so that everybody can express their special mix of talents. The social corollary is that technology exerts a development imperative, albeit a slim one. "The dark side of technology cannot be avoided," writes Kelly. "It may even be nearly half the technium" (p. 79).

The dark side downside can be seen in the persistent, almost tyrannical, wastefulness of technologies such as the automobile. Kelly calculates, for example, that three-fourths of our energy use is to service the technologies themselves. Larry Burns made a similar point at our recent Sustainable Societies panel when he cited the minuscule fraction of gasoline energy that actually moves the passenger to her destination—most of the energy moves the car itself and much is lost as heat. Kelly estimates that cars are about 1 percent effective when seen in this light.

Kelly also touches on the privacy question and thus tangentially on government 2.0—the movement to use data and technology to encourage more efficient and accountable public systems. Clearly there is a trend toward personalization of our media consumption and our devices. Yet total personalization of technology requires symmetrical and reciprocal transparency on the part of the technology providers, or else an imbalance of power results. You could even say that technology wants WikiLeaks, to balance the opacity of national governments and secretive corporations.

Given this taste of his arguments, it seems What Technology Wants will make for a quite interesting read.

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