From Booklist: Verbalizing visceral feelings about technology, whether attraction or repulsion, Kelly explores the “technium,” his term for the globalized, interconnected stage of technological development. Arguing that the processes creating the technium are akin to those of biological evolution, Kelly devotes the opening sections of his exposition to that analogy, maintaining that the technium exhibits a similar tendency toward self-organizing complexity. Having defined the technium, Kelly addresses its discontents, as expressed by the Unabomber (although Kelly admits to trepidation in taking seriously the antitechnology screeds of a murderer) and then as lived by the allegedly technophobic Amish. From his observations and discussions with some Amish people, Kelly extracts some precepts of their attitudes toward gadgets, suggesting folk in the secular world can benefit from the Amish approach of treating tools as servants of self and society rather than as out-of-control masters. Exploring ramifications of technology on human welfare and achievement, Kelly arrives at an optimistic outlook that will interest many, coming, as it does, from the former editor of Wired magazine. –Gilbert Taylor
WHAT TECHNOLOGY WANTS offers a highly readable investigation into the mechanisms by which technology advances over time. The central thesis of the book is that technology grows and evolves in much the same way as an autonomous, living organism.
The book draws many parallels between technical progress and biology, labeling technology as “evolution accelerated.” Kelly goes further and argues that neither evolution nor technological advance result from a random drift but instead have an inherent direction that makes some outcomes virtually inevitable. Examples of this inevitability include the eye, which evolved independently at least six times in different branches of the animal kingdom, and numerous instances of technical innovations or scientific discoveries being made almost simultaneously.
Kelly believes that technological progress has a symbiotic relationship with human population growth: technology makes increased population possible, while also relying on it to create both new minds that can be applied to further innovation and new consumers for those innovations. The book suggests that population is likely to peak and perhaps decline as global living standards rise and women choose to have fewer children, and it offers a number of possible scenarios under which it may be possible to decouple future progress from population growth.
One of the most interesting chapters delves into the possible dystopian side of advancing technology. The book quotes at length from Theodore Kaczynski’s “Unibomber Manifesto.” Kelly is willing to acknowledge the obvious logic of many of Kaczynski’s arguments, even as he bemoans the fact that some of the most “astute analyses” of these issues comes from a mentally unbalanced murderer. Kelly rejects Kaczynski’s pessimistic belief that technology destroys freedom, arguing instead that technology should make it possible for us to make better decisions.
The book offers a list of ten universal tendencies that give technology direction. Interestingly, one item on this list is “sentience.” Kelly believes that some forms of artificial intelligence are inevitable and suggests that AI may be likely to evolve out of the internet.
I found it somewhat surprising that the book does not include more on the broad economic implications of progress. The technologies that Kelly describes — especially artificial intelligence — are certain to have a dramatic impact on employment markets, the concentration of income and wealth, and perhaps the overall structure of the economy. For an in depth look at these issues, I would highly recommend this book:
“What Technology Wants” argues for a broad definition of technology that includes the arts, culture and social institutions. “The Lights in the Tunnel” makes an essentially similar argument that the structure of our economy also needs to be considered technology and will need to evolve as progress continues. Both books offer strong evidence that technology is likely to continue advancing exponentially for the foreseeable future, and both should be read by anyone who wants to gain insight into the likely impact of that incredible degree of progress on society and the economy.