Technophiles, Technophobes and the Rest of Us

I’ve seldom been as ambivalent about a book as I am Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants. On one hand, it’s a compelling and recommended read for someone who is fascinated by big ideas, trends, technology, human evolution and futures thinking. It’s impossible for me to resist such a pastiche of reasoning, woven together like a shiny bower bird’s shrine using all sorts of concepts and factoids, histories and anecdotes, invented words and alarming expostulations.

Still, something in it grates. I couldn’t shake the sense that Kelly is, in the end, an honorable ideologue, a person who sees a sort of divine plan where others may only see a sometimes creepy and even insidious encroachment. It’s not that he’s oblivious to the technophobe’s point of view. Indeed, he goes out of his way to provide the alternative points of view of everyone from the Amish and Wendell Berry to the Unabomber himself.

Toyota Partner Robot

I think Kelly’s main argument is that technological growth is an integral part of an evolutionary scheme that is somehow embedded into the fabric and nature of the universe. Perhaps he’s right, but it lands us in some strange territory. “[W]e can see more of God in a cell phone than in a tree frog,” he writes, giving even me – a lover of cool technologies – the willies.

So, what does technology want?

I’m not sure it wants anything at all – at least not yet – but Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, thinks that technology “wants what life wants” and that it has an impulse toward greater ubiquity, complexity, freedom and even sentience. He concludes the book on an almost rhapsodic note, saying that if we continue to help technology along its way, we wind up in a world of greater opportunities that ultimately “add up to more good.” He seems to believe in a future transcendence that is less specific but, in some ways, even more idealistic than Ray Kurzweil‘s notion of “spiritual machines.”

The problem – and perhaps it’s just my problem – is that Kelly’s technophilia (techno-optimism?) feels oddly abstract, as if he’s aspiring to Darwin or Comte. But our positive and negative reactions to technologies are often visceral. We shrink from the stories of the victims of Hiroshima and feel a kind of species-wide pride in the creation of live-saving technologies such as the polio vaccine. Technology is simultaneously aggravating, terrifying, spooky, fascinating, compelling, and alluring. It’s both too personal to see in some wholly abstract way and far too impersonal to see as divine.

I don’t think most of us are either technophiles or technophobes. We’re willing to embrace technologies that allow us to be better people and we’re repelled by the ones that threaten to erode our humanity. For me, at least, the question isn’t, “What does technology want?” but, rather, “What will technology ultimately want of us?”

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