Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Your laptop is the culmination of billions of years of evolution

What Technology WantsWhat Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kelly is a distinguished tech journalist (former executive editor of Wired magazine) and knows everyone who’s ever been anyone in Silicon Valley. Like all the best techies of a certain age, his roots are in hippydom, as a leading light of the Whole Earth Catalogue in the 1970s. He still rates technology in terms of its contribution to life as a whole.

Amish communities fascinate him because of their conscious, selective attitude to technology, echoing his own restrictive rules for himself (no laptop or smartphone).

But for all the thoughtful reservations about its subject, What Technology Wants is hugely positive. Kelly’s years of research for the book, and decades of knowledge and experience before that, are used to brilliant effect, to construct an ambitious intellectual framework through which to view the patterns and forces that shape technological change, together with the bigger scientific picture into which, Kelly argues, technology fits.

To make his case, he goes back to biological evolution to demonstrate, controversially, that it is going somewhere: it’s not just the slave to the cumulative advantages created by random variations in an unpredictable environment. No, since the Big Bang the universe has been diversifying into smaller and more specialised units – whether atoms, molecules, organisms, social structures, or now, structures created by technology.

It’s not the view of most evolutionists but it’s a beguiling, unifying theory that seems to answer every question. Now we can see how chemical molecules came from individual atoms, why life evolved from the simplest structures and why human life is getting more and more complicated. Moore’s Law, which triumphantly describes and predicts the exponential growth in microchip processing power, is here applied to a much wider canvas.

And to give us a handle on his particular interests, Kelly has come up with a word to describe the inter-relationship of all human and animal creations: he calls it "the technium" (a reluctantly minted neologism, because “I dislike inventing words that no one else uses, but in this case all known alternatives fail to convey the required scope.”)

The technium isn’t just gadgets: it includes things like literature, laws, money, bird’s nests - anything that extends biological life into new dimensions and gives it power over its environment by other means.

Kelly’s point is that the diversification and specialisation we see in technology, such as how cameras have developed from one idea – to create a record what the eye can see - into multiple shapes, sizes and functions, is an exact parallel with how biological evolution creates increasingly specialised varieties from a single point of origin. Indeed, he argues that technological development is just a continuation of that process.

Although it’s a broadly optimistic view, Kelly claims only that the positives slightly outweigh the negatives, both in biological and technical evolution. But with the huge numbers involved that’s all that’s needed to keep things getting better.

God doesn’t get a mention, but I was reminded of the theories of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and geologist who was quoted with approval at my Catholic school. Indeed, a quick flick through some Teilhard websites confirms my suspicion of the echoes with Kelly – the common ground being ideas of universal progress to a better state (morally, in Teilhard's view) and a certain hippy sensibility. “We only have to look around us,” wrote Teilhard, “to see how complexity and psychic temperature are still rising: and rising no longer on the scale of the individual but now on that of the planet.”

I don’t suppose Kelly would want to be lumped in with Teilhard, and for all his scientific credentials, Teilhard’s thinking was probably more informed by the writings of his spiritual masters than scientific papers. Kelly, on the other hand, bases his argument on a series of upward trending graphs and detailed accounts of what he calls technology’s unstoppable "trajectories" – things like efficiency, complexity, diversity, ubiquity, mutualism and sentience.

Everything seems to fit. But can we allow ourselves the comfort – and I think it is that – of a theory which puts humanity and all its works at the forefront of universal progress as the culmination of billions of years of physical and biological evolution?

Is this today’s equivalent of believing the earth to be at the centre of the universe? By definition, our limited perspective makes that an impossible question to answer.

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