Saturday, June 23, 2012

What Technology Wants?

(The last few posts have been inspired by Kelly's book.  This is a proper review of the main argument.)

Thinking about technology is hard. The problems begin with the very word 'technology.' The Greek word techne, from which our term derives, meant 'craftmanship' or 'art', as opposed to episteme, which meant something like scientific knowledge. Broadly speaking, the difference is between knowledge which is used and knowledge which is contemplated in its logical beauty.

Most people don't share the Ancient Greek view of science as mere contemplation. Almost every field involves knowledge about how to do something and has an element that can only come from experience. Consider law, music, plumbing, politics, or, of course, scientific research. These are all ways of remaking the world and are thus 'technologies', not systems of pure reason.

Kevin Kelly embraces this broad understanding of technology and tries to make some prescriptions based upon it. Even though apps are very different from laws or chords, technologies are enablers. They create options for us. Think how many fewer options there were for people to lead fulfilling lives 100 or more years ago. More technologies mean more opportunities for self-actualization. The system of music of the medieval period, for instance, sounds as constrained to our ears as the kinds of work available actually were.

Kelly's purpose is to outline some of the traits of technologies that we should seek to foster, such as complexity, ubiquity, diversity, specialization, and evolvability. Such technologies would create more options for more people. They would also help continue the incredible rate of progress of options-creation we've seen in the last few centuries.

Though he provides a number of interesting ideas along the way, I find Kelly's analysis very unsatisfying. The main difficulty is the all-encompassing nature of what he seeks to understand and proscribe. You can see this in the way he wants to talk about technology in broad terms like art and law, while his proscriptions seem most applicable to the gadgets we're most familiar with calling 'technology.'

Furthermore, Kelly is interested in arguing that there is an inevitable march of progress to technology. He describes the 'ratcheting effect' of science which builds upon itself as an example. We can't stand in the way of progress. All we can hope to do is ally ourselves with it. Any impediments to this progress, or everyday fluctuations in this march are, as he says, 'random noise' which do not figure into the total.

I would argue, however, that such 'random noise' is exactly what we need to pay attention to. Even if it is true that all human creation is technology, and all technology can be understood in terms of the options they provide for us, there is still no reason to believe that even 51% of options are good--which is what Kelly suggests--so that, on the whole, we are better off. This is so vague as to be almost meaningless.

I applaud the effort to find criteria for judging technology, as there are few people even thinking in these terms. However, I find it very hard to accept that all technology can be judged on the same bases, even if we're only talking about gadgets. Just because a few people want the option to do something doesn't mean that this is good.

Rather than taking Kelly's book at face value, perhaps what's most inspiring is the personal example of adoption Kelly outlines when talking about himself. Though he helped found Wired magazine, he is no technophile. He doesn't own a TV or buy every new gadget that comes out, but rather tries to evaluate all technologies within the value system he and his family have developed. This is a model that we could all learn from.

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