Of the 39 books I’ve read in the last 12 months, this one ranks in the top 3, alongside The Power of Habit and So Good They Can’t Ignore You. These books have added depth and clarity to topics which I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about (Power of Habit == a meaningful life; So Good == career success; What Technology Wants == technology’s influence on our lives).
Kevin Kelly is awesome. His Cool Tools book is great, his blog is great (some of my favorite posts: 1 2 3), he’s a deep and open-minded thinker. In What Technology Wants, Kevin examines technology’s role in history (going far before, and beyond, computers and the internets), and explains its dual role as humanity’s best friend and worst enemy.
There’s no way one page would suffice, as the book has many tangents and the arguments are nuanced and I wouldn’t properly capture his conclusions. So instead I’m sharing a selection of excerpts that convey the book’s spirit, and include my brief analyses. Hope you find it useful, and I highly encourage you to read the book!
Technology builds on itself, in usually unpredictable ways:
When Sapiens gained control of fire, this powerful technology further modified the natural terrain on a massive scale. Such a tiny trick—burning grasslands, controlling it with backfires, and summoning flames to cook grains—disrupted vast regions of the continents.
Double-entry accounting unleashed the banking industry in Venice and launched a global economy. The invention of moveable-type printing in Europe encouraged Christians to read their religion’s founding text themselves and make their own interpretations, and that launched the very idea of “protest” within and against religion.
Science-fiction guru Isaac Asimov made the astute observation that in the age of horses many ordinary people eagerly and easily imagined a horseless carriage. The automobile was an obvious anticipation since it was an extension of the first-order dynamics of a cart—a vehicle that goes forward by itself. An automobile would do everything a horse-pulled carriage did but without the horse. But Asimov went on to remark how difficult it was to imagine the second-order consequences of a horseless carriage, such as drive-in movie theaters, paralyzing traffic jams, and road rage.
We are literally and figuratively transformed through technology
The extended human is the technium. Marshall McLuhan, among others, noted that clothes are people’s extended skin, wheels extended feet, camera and telescopes extended eyes.
Technology doesn’t disappear
I was challenged on this conclusion by a highly regarded historian of technology who told me without thinking, “Look, they don’t make steam-powered automobiles anymore.” Well, within a few clicks on Google I very quickly located folks who are making brand-new parts for Stanley steam-powered cars. Nice shiny copper valves, pistons, whatever you need. With enough money you could put together an entirely new steam-powered car. And of course, thousand of hobbyists are still bolting together steam-powered vehicles, and hundreds more are keeping old ones running.
Today, in the United States alone, there are 5,000 amateurs who knap fresh arrowhead points by hand. They meet on weekends, exchange tips in flint-knapping clubs, and sell their points to souvenir brokers. John Whittaker, a professional archaeologist and flint knapper himself, has studied these amateurs and estimates that they produce over one million brand-new spear and arrow points per year. These new points are indistinguishable, even to experts like Whittaker, from authentic ancient ones.
Human evolution with technology has been, for the most part, a trend of improvement
In ancient times when a bearded prophet forecast what was to come, the news was generally bad. The idea that the future brought improvement was never very popular until recently.
As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi once said, “There is more good than evil in the world—but not by much.” Unexpectedly, “not much” is all that’s needed when you have the leverage of compound interest at work
Over time our laws, mores, and ethics have slowly expanded the sphere of human empathy. Generally, humans originally identified themselves primarily via their families. We are currently in an unfinished expansion beyond nation and maybe even race and may soon be crossing the species boundary. Other primates are, more and more, deemed worthy of humanlike rights. If the golden rule of morality and ethics is to “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” then we are constantly expanding our notion of “others.” This is evidence for moral progress.
All the promises, paradoxes, and trade-offs carried by Progress, with a capital P, are represented in a city. In fact, we can inspect the notion and veracity of technological progress at large by examining the nature of cities. Cities may be engines of innovation, but not everyone thinks they are beautiful, particularly the megalopolises of today, with their sprawling, rapacious appetites for energy, materials, and attention. They seem like machines eating the wilderness, and many people wonder if they are eating us as well.
The immense satisfactions of seasonal toil, abundant leisure, strong family ties, reassuring conformity, and rewarding physical labor will always pull our hearts. If everything were equal, who would want to leave a Greek island, or a Himalayan village, or the lush gardens of southern China?
Each year 1.2 million people die in automobile accidents. The dominant technological transportation system kills more people than cancer.
In his sprawling, infamous 35,000-word manifesto, the Unabomber wrote: “The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to guide the technological system. It is the fault of technology, because the system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity.” […] I have read almost every book on the philosophy and theory of technology and interviewed many of the wisest people pondering the nature of this force. So I was utterly dismayed to discover that one of the most astute analyses of the technium was written by a mentally ill mass murderer and terrorist.
Technology has its own needs and in some ways we are but shepherds
Biologist Richard Dawkins estimates that “the eye has evolved independently between 40 and 60 times around the animal kingdom,” leading him to claim, “it seems that life, at least as we know it on this planet, is almost indecently eager to evolve eyes.”
Navigation by echolocation has been found four times: in bats, dolphins, and two species of cave-dwelling birds
Weirdly, both Wallace and Darwin found the theory of natural selection after reading the same book on population growth by Thomas Malthus.
Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray both applied to patent the telephone on the same day
After Rowling launched Harry Potter in 1997 to great success, she successfully rebuffed a lawsuit by an American author who published a series of children’s books 13 years earlier about Larry Potter, an orphaned boy wizard wearing glasses and surrounded by Muggles. In 1990 Neil Gaiman wrote a comic book about a dark-haired English boy who finds out on his 12th birthday that he is a wizard and is given an owl by a magical visitor.
Large-scale prohibitions against technologies are rare. They are hard to enforce. The gun was outlawed in Shogun Japan for three centuries, exploration ships in Ming China for three centuries, and silk spinning in Italy for two centuries.
We are more dependent on it than vice-versa (?)
I asked him, “Do you think technology is making the world better or worse?” Lucas’s answer: If you watch the curve of science and everything we know, it shoots up like a rocket. We’re on this rocket and we’re going perfectly vertical into the stars. But the emotional intelligence of humankind is equally if not more important than our intellectual intelligence.
About 10,000 years ago, humans passed a tipping point where our ability to modify the biosphere exceeded the planet’s ability to modify us. That threshold was the beginning of the technium. We are at a second tipping point where the technium’s ability to alter us exceeds our ability to alter the technium.
What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines decisions. […] Autopilots fly our very complex flying machines. Algorithms control our very complex communications and electrical grids. And for better or worse, computers control our very complex economy.
But we adopt it willingly, because it increases choice and freedom
The young are not under some kind of technological spell that warps their minds into believing civilization is better. Sitting in the mountains, they are under no spell but poverty’s. They clearly know what they give up when they leave. They understand the comfort and support of family, the priceless value of community acquired in a small village, the blessings of clean air, and the soothing wholeness of the natural world. They feel the loss of immediate access to these, but they leave their shacks anyway because in the end, the tally favors the freedoms created by civilization. They can (and will) return to the hills to be rejuvenated.
There is much to learn from the Amish and how they handle technology
…their minimal lifestyle is prospering (Amish population grows at 4 percent annually) while middle-class white-collar and factory workers are increasingly unemployed and withering. […] Yet Amish lives are anything but antitechnological. In fact, on my several visits with them, I have found them to be ingenious hackers and tinkerers, the ultimate makers and do-it-yourselfers.
They don’t adopt everything new, but when they do embrace it, it’s half a century after everyone else does. By that time, the benefits and costs are clear, the technology stable, and it is cheap. […] They are slow geeks.
The Amish practice a remarkable tradition called rumspringa, wherein their teenagers are allowed to ditch their homemade uniforms—suspenders and hats for boys, long dresses and bonnets for girls—and don baggy pants and short skirts, buy a car, listen to music, and party for a few years before they decide to forever give up these modern amenities and join the Old Order church.
This sums it up:
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.