What Does Technology Want?

By | November 5, 2010

The question, as raised in a new book by Kevin Kelly, is apparently not just hypothetical.

In What Technology Wants, tech guru Kevin Kelly sees the “technium” as a seamless extension of complex biology, evolving by the same rules…

According to Kelly, technology is an emerging state of cosmic reality. We cannot reject it, so we need to understand it.

As in his earlier book Out of Control, Kelly sees the evolution of technology as a seamless extension of complex biology. Now his “technosphere” becomes the “technium”. Not only do the biosphere and technium overlap in Kelly’s conception, biology and technology evolve according to the same rules.

The review goes on to say Kelly views both biological and technological evolution as having a teleological component, meaning they are driven towards some higher, presumably spiritual, destination. So Kelly is presumably of the mind that what technology “wants” is what’s good for our souls. I won’t argue with this position based on a distillation of a book review — and I do plan to read the book — but I don’t mind taking my own stab at answering the question the title raises.

And, in fact, my answer would be pretty close to Kelly’s (as described.) I think technology “wants” to improve our circumstances. Technology wants to empower individuals and transform society. Technology wants to decrease human suffering and increase human happiness.

In other words, technology wants exactly what we want. And that shouldn’t be all that surprising, because our technology is us. We evolved to top out at a certain running speed, but that wasn’t good enough for us so we decided to build bicycles, trains, cars, and airplanes. We wanted to go faster. What did the technology want? The same thing.

We found that recording and having access to information was extremely helpful in many facets of our lives, and that often we needed more than we could relaibly maintain in our brains or within the brains of all the members of a community. So we invented writing, and then printing, and then all manner of media, and then the Internet. We wanted better information access. That’s what those technologies wanted to provide for us.

Of course, there are many examples where we want to figure out ways to wipe out vast numbers of our fellow humans as efficienty as possible, or where we want to achieve ABC because of the benefits involved, without giving much thought to the XYZ downside for our neighbors or the environment. And in those instances, technology shares (and amplifies) our malevolence or indifference.

But on the whole, technology wants to make things better. The vast majority of technological developments occur because someone is trying to improve something. (Even when in our shortsightedness technology leads to unintended consequential downsides, those downsides become a siuation that someone wants to improve, and new improvements ensue.) Technology is a physical manifestation of our desire for the world to be a better place. It amplifies that desire and makes improvements persist — even after the inventor is gone, the invention remains.

Technology wants people to be happy, and to be better than they are. Technology wants the world to be a better place.

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