What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly

Published by: Penguin Books, 2010
Pages: 416 pp
Price: $27.95
Reviewed by Rajiv Joshi

Inefficiency, limited creativity and untapped potential are criticisms that have been left at the door of nonprofit organizations the world over. As we search for solutions and drive for greater impact, we tend to focus our efforts on developing staff, hiring new talent and engineering more efficient processes. Meanwhile, an ever-expanding web of information continues to create new possibilities for producing products and services in all sectors of the economy. Do the answers to our problems lie less in people and process changes, and more in a deeper consideration of technology as the primary route to a high-performing social sector?

Overpowering Chaos and Evolving with the Technicum

Kevin Kelly’s contentious new book, What Technology Wants, presents a bold proposition: that we “co-evolve” with technology, which serves as an “organism of ideas” within an interconnected system that has been a “cosmic force” since the beginning of time. Kelly defines this force as the “technium,” which for him also includes “culture, art, societal institutions, intellectual creations, ideas, laws and science,” everything from “fire, to the Magna Carta to calculus.” The technium is an “evolutionary form of life” a so-called “7th Kingdom,” where species, such as electronic networks, exhibit “near-biological behavior.” The central proposition is that technology, like evolution, is an inevitable force and understanding its tendencies can help us better reap the gains it can bring.

The title of the book is the central question driving Kelly’s search for meaning, as he looks through the eyes of technology in order to determine its main trends and anticipate its future trajectory. Kelly discovers a predictability about technology: if humanity were to evolve on another planet it would likely end up inventing the same things in the same sequence.

Kelly expands on the broader impacts of the technium on how we learn and interact in society. “Social dynamics have shifted dramatically…we want to be plugged in globally, we expect to do most of our talking over the internet…we construct online identities and use technology—from instructional knitting videos to scientific forums—to explore our interests. What technology brings to us individually is the possibility of finding out who we are and, more importantly, who we might be.” For Kelly, the technium offers people a chance to “excel at the unique mixture of talents he or she was born with.” It enlarges the scope of people’s creativity “by developing more technology and more convivial expressions of it.”

Kelly creates the word “extropy,” with the opposite meaning to entropy (the scientific name for chaos and disorder), to describe the nature of the technium as a force that overpowers chaos—a “creative force that flings forward an unbroken sequence of unlikely existences.” The ability of technology to bring organization to processes and create the conditions for the impossible to become reality is a key consideration for strategists undertaking long-term planning.

Kelly further describes why technology develops in a sequential way, where intermediate technologies must be in place before higher-order ones are able to thrive. He provides the example of widespread cell phone adoption in developing countries leading perversely to increased demand for copper phone lines. Instead of skipping the so-called “dirty industrial stage” as might seem natural, cell phones increase demand for higher-bandwidth internet connections, which then follow in copper wires. These lessons apply also on an organizational level: For a strategist planning to invest in new technology solutions to solve organizational challenges, it is critical to understand the importance of sequential development and the challenges of attempting to leapfrog stages of technical development.

The Dynamic Relationship between Choice and Progress

As technological evolution continues, it creates more choice. And choice creates progress. There is a positive feedback loop as more choices create more knowledge and more tools to create more choices—for Kelly, the world needs to stockpile modest gains generation after generation, banking that thin margin. If we create 1-2 percent more positive stuff than we destroy, then we have major progress.

Kelly also discovers patterns in the technium to support his claims that technology has clear “wants” and tendencies. One example cited by Kelly is Moore’s Law, which predicted in 1965 that computing chips would shrink by half in size and cost every 18 to 24 months. For the past 50 years it has been astoundingly correct, and Kelly asserts  that technology will continue to make things better, faster and cheaper.

He disagrees, however, that Moore’s Law is unique to computer technology, claiming to have found similar patterns across the technology spectrum including in transistor production, DNA sequencing, bandwidth and fiber-optic throughput. Rather, Kelly says, these trends result from something “baked deep in the fabric of the technium.” He further explains that technology is inevitable, demonstrating parallel inventions in different parts of the world such as the light bulb, which was invented simultaneously by dozens of people.

Lessons for Organizations

For Kelly, preparing for the inevitable and ensuring we maximize the positive aspects of technology involves a five-step strategy that is of relevance to organizations seeking to make greater technological investments:

1. Anticipation – It is important to weigh technologies using techniques such as scenarios, forecasts, models, simulations and controlled experiments, and identify all best and worst case outcomes.

2. Continual Assessment – Constantly quantifying what technologies are being used, building an experimental culture that draws on communications, tracking tools and other methodologies used in processes such as genetic testing, to test innovations in different user modes, subcultures, gene pools and demographic groups.

3. Prioritization of Risks – Identifying critical risks including threats to people and the environment; those which are known and proven can be mitigated.

4. Rapid Correction of Harm – When things don’t go to plan, remedy negative consequences quickly, compensate appropriately and treat unintended consequences as “software bugs” to be fixed. Do not punish the inventor.

5. Redirection, Not Prohibition – If technologies do not perform as expected or they are miscast, find new jobs for them.

Kelly believes that cities are incubators of technology, and treats them as “inventions that concentrate the flow of energy and minds into computer-chip-like density…that generates a maximum of ideas and inventions.” Cities provide human beings with additional benefits and knowledge, which accelerate technological progress. For nonprofit organizations choosing where to place infrastructure and employees, Kelly’s insights suggest that cities will provide the maximum benefit.

Beyond the Technium

Towards the end of the book Kelly makes some fairly bold statements, claiming, “If there is a God…the arc of the technium is aimed right at him…we can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog.” And while some of these suggestions feel somewhat removed from reality, Kelly’s overall analysis of technology as a force of change and a driver of progress in society is cogent.

However, while Kelly explains that technology is self-perpetuating and that it creates an “infinite game” of spiraling expansions in opportunity, he fails to consider some of the more direct drivers of technology, including economics, advertising, fashion and other imperatives.

He also fails to consider some of the most critical implications of technology for society, in sectors such as education and healthcare. His broad consideration of technology leaves little space for a more detailed analysis of the forces currently shaping our lives, including highly advanced forms of interactive software, the worldwide web, tablet devices and mobile telephony—all of which present infinite possibilities for organizations to grow, expand reach, improve service quality, increase efficiency, communicate more effectively and greatly expand their impact.

Although Kelly provides a picture of what technology might want, he fails to combine it with a deeper understanding of what humanity wants from technology, and how it can help fulfill our most pressing needs.

Rajiv Joshi is Director of Programs at Global Call to Action against Poverty and serves on the boards of Civicus, Oxfam and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy. 

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