"Companies have got to learn to eat change for breakfast." Tom Peters
Kevin Kelly's new book is What Technology Wants.
Kevin, what's the big idea here?
KK: The big idea is that technology is much bigger than what we normally associate with the word, that it's more than the gadgets in our pockets and the wires in our house and the stuff that we use, the hard materials. It's all that, plus the other things that we have invented with our minds like the intangibles, software, accounting procedures, laws, and even, to some extent, the things that we make like our movies and books. All those things are also part of this larger realm.
But even beyond that, which most people might call culture, all these things are so interconnected, so dependent upon each other, so woven together in their relationships and origins. There's no way that we can make one modern technology without using at least 50 others to create it or support it. What happens with all this interrelated networking of the things that we make is that it begins to act as if it was a large system with some of its own internal biases and internal trends and tendencies. We see that same thing happening any time we have very large systems, including in life. I'm suggesting that the same thing is happening now with the world that we make, that it's complicated enough that it actually is exhibiting the same kind, or similar, behaviors to what we see in life.
Meaning it's gone biological on us? Or is that not the correct way to look at it?
KK: We can say that it has gone biological, but then I need to explain what biological means. I don't mean in the sense that it is suddenly self-replicating and running around on its own. That's because, in a certain sense, I've abstracted some of the mechanics or some of the behaviors of biology to suggest that, in fact, biological doesn't mean that it's made out of wet tissue. Biology is a more abstract set of common properties. Technology has adopted some of those, the common properties of biology, without necessarily adopting all of them.
But evolution plays a big role in your book. There's human evolution, which then seems to run along beside technological developments. Can you talk about evolution a bit, to help explain that?
KK: Yes. I'm going to step back again to put this into context about why these kinds of questions are important. It's very evident to most of us that there's more technology in our world and in our lives. It's not often clear whether this is a good thing because we seem to observe that when these new technologies come along, they often create, it seems, almost as many problems as they're solving. Often the new problems are very vexing, and they cause huge disruptions in our lives.
In fact, I argue that most of the changes that we see throughout our culture and lives are all ultimately coming from the invention of technologies. So we have this source of disruption. We also notice that it's accelerating. The questions I began asking myself, were: What is this? What are its roots? And what is its role in the scale of all things? Is it really something we have to minimize? Is it something we want to maximize? Is it something that we want to control? Is it something we can control? Can we really understand it enough to make sense of it and to do something about it?
In my investigations of the roots of technology, I place it, and I think very, very visibly, in the roots that life has in evolution, in the beginning, and even before that, into the beginning of all the order that we see in the universe.
I think that technology is clearly an extension of the same forces that created life and our minds and now evolution, and that it shares the same kind of roots all the way back. Because of that, if we really want to understand technology and where it's going, we have to understand a little bit more of its cosmic roots. That brings us to these questions about evolution. What is it? What's really going on? So, let's look at evolution, see how it works, and then maybe that can tell us something about technology.
Regarding evolution, you raise some recent theories that suggest that it's not quite as random as we'd all like to believe, and that seems to be an important part of your argument in this book.
KK: Yes. So, one of the surprises in the book is the fact that within the current dogma about how evolution works in the biological world, there's an emerging understanding, which is mostly driven from a lot of computer studies and from some biological field studies, that suggests that there are directions in evolution. We intuitively understand that. But evolutionary biologists have had a little bit more difficulty proving this in the data.
But they've begun to do so. One of the reasons why this is hard to prove, as in all things evolution, is because we have a case study of one. When you want to prove that certain things are inevitable in biology, it's very, very difficult, because we have only one case of it.
What we have seen from these models and from the field work and historical evidence is, in fact, that there are very large-scale trends in evolution. The most obvious trend is the fact that, over time, as evolution has created life, it has become more complex.
A few famous evolutionary biologists say that that is just an illusion. But there's recent work and other work to show that, in fact, it's not an illusion. In fact, over time, life really does have a bias toward increasing complexity. Then I go through some of the evidence in the new biology showing that there are actually some other trends in long-term evolution in life, such as increasing diversity, increasing specialization, and increasing energy density. Those are several really long-term trends that happen in life over billions of years.
It suggests that in the system of life—all these genes and organisms and interrelations that we see in ecological system—there's something about that network of all those connections that would tend to move that life in certain directions, which means, to use a little trope, if you rewound the tape of life, if you start it again on the same planet, the same conditions, and ran it again, that you would get very similar kinds of structures. Not maybe the same species, but maybe animals with four legs that ran or had lungs to breathe or had bilateral symmetry, all those kinds of things, that you would get the same thing again.
Now, that's sort of scary for some people, because whenever you talk about inevitabilities of any sort we get uncomfortable.
Because then, all of a sudden, it looks like there's some great power programming all this, is that it?
KK: Right. There's something bigger than us. Maybe free will is not as rampant as we thought. We are biological things ourselves. But I think people are overcoming some of that resistance. There are plenty of evolutionary biologists these days who concede that there are these inherent constraints and convergences. The phrase that they use in biology is convergent evolution, and convergent evolution means that there are these certain forms, like wings, flapping wings, that occur independently. Obviously, all birds are related, so you can expect those to have wings, but we have bats that have wings, we have insects with flapping wings, we have pterodactyls.
So four different branches of the biological world invented the same exact thing. We can use a bunch of different evidences like that to show that the forms that biology comes up with are going to repeat. And Richard Dawkins, who is a fairly conventional Darwinist, says the eye has been invented 40 different times in evolution and the eyeball itself, I think, has been invented six different times, independently each time, and it's almost as if, Dawkins says, evolution wants to invent eyeballs.
If you start to look at minds, little primitive minds like an ant mind or the minds that we find in all kinds of animals, again and again these things keep erupting and they're phenomenally bright for being as small as they are, which suggests, in a certain sense, that we can say, in a very relaxed way, that evolution wants to make minds of some sort. I think the evidence is emerging that that's happening in life.
What I do is to extend that to say that the same kinds of forces that are happening in evolution are working in the things that we make, in part because we, of course, have evolved, we're part of the evolution, and this technology that we're inventing is actually just an extension of that same process, and that, therefore, technology will want to make more minds everywhere, and it wants to increase diversity, technological diversity. It wants all these other things.
What's an example of that happening in the technology realm?
KK: I looked at as much data as I could find, and I showed that, for instance, the average number of parts, say, in the most complicated things that we are making are increasing over time. Just like in biological evolution, the number of different cell types in an organism increases over time. Humans have heart cells, skeletal cells, muscle cells, liver cells, brain cells, about 200 different cell types, and the average number of cell types in organisms has increased over biological time. We see the same thing in our technological artifacts, which increasingly have more moving parts, more parts inside.
If we look at increasing specialization, which is another hallmark of biological evolution, we see the same thing in technological evolution. That means that the first thing of something that we make is a very general. We make a general kind of camera. Then, over time, we make more specialized cameras, like we make an underwater camera or an infrared camera, or panoramic camera, or digital. Things become more specialized over time just like cells become more specialized. We can go through the whole list of ways in which there are these large-scale trends in evolution toward greater complexity, toward greater mutuality, kind of a social dependency. We see the same thing happening with energy efficiency in the things that we make, we see the same thing in increased options, increased structure.
I argue that, in fact, almost right down the line, if we look at our technological things, they show the same patterns that we see in evolution.
How can we use that knowledge?
KK: That's a good question.
But that's your point, that technology is already anthropomorphized?
A: Yes. So, the question is, what can we do with that, what does that mean? I think what this means is several things. One of the surprises for me was that when I looked at technological discovery—and I was not the first to discover this—most inventions throughout history have been simultaneously invented more than once, independently. Anything you could imagine has been invented basically by more than one person, sometimes three or four or five persons.
Also, in pre-history, where there was less communication between continents, I showed that the sequence of discoveries on these separate continents in pre-history was remarkably similar, suggesting that, in a certain sense, the progression of technology is inevitable. It runs to a form. When a technology is ready to be invented, it will come out—if you don't invent it, somebody else will two minutes later. There are lots of remarkable coincidences, but they're not really coincidences because they happen over and over again, of people inventing the same thing, almost to the same day.
Elisha Gray invented the telephone at the same time Alexander Graham Bell did. They filed patents within hours of each other. There's tons of stories of people discovering things at the same time and, to a remarkable degree, of being the very same invention. I found one case where, during the Second World War and in the secrecy of working on the atom bomb, where they had very separate groups, and all their work was incredibly well documented, we showed that one invention, which was the understanding of the chain reaction, was invented six times independently within a year or two of each other. The groups didn't know what was happening with the other groups, because of the secrecy.
What was interesting about that was that they each had their own notation, each had their own style of doing it, but they all came up with the same idea. That's why we have a patent system. We have a patent system basically because every inventor knows that if somebody invented it, someone else is right there. So what we know about that is that, basically, when inventions are coming, they're going to come. That progression is basically inevitable, which suggests that a lot of the large-scale inventions are inevitable.
We can't stop them. I looked at the history of prohibition, of trying to prohibit or ban technologies, and it doesn't work for very long. Globally, all you can do is delay something in a certain area for a little while.
As long as these underlying conditions exist, something is going to happen, no matter how much somebody tries to hinder it.
KK: The telephone was inevitable.
What do you mean when you say that?
KK: Inevitable means several things. On a conceptual level, it means that if you were to rewind the tape of history and we were to do it again, the telephone would come up. It doesn't matter what regime you're in, whether it's communist or capitalist, the telephone is going to come. It means that if we were to go to other planets and find civilizations, that they would have telephones at some point. Inevitable means that, given all the other things that are happening, all the other technologies that exist, you're going to have telephones.
Which means some of the technologies that we can look forward to, like human cloning, are inevitable. It will happen. We can't stop it. We can't prohibit it. What we have to do with these technologies that are inevitable, is to educate ourselves, to prepare ourselves to get the best benefit and deal with the inevitable problems and to steer that technology into the most convivial form. I can explain what I mean by that.
Yes, please do.
KK: The telephone was inevitable, but it was not inevitable that it run on 12 volts or that it was a government-run institution or that it was AC or DC. Or that it was centrally switched or locally switched. Those parts of it have a huge influence on the tenor and personality of the technology.
The Internet was inevitable. But it was not inevitable whether it was a closed, proprietary type system or whether it was a more open, ad hoc system like we have.
The expression of that technology makes a difference to us. We have a choice in that expression. Human cloning is inevitable, but is it government-regulated or not? Who owns it? That's what we have a choice about. But we don't really have a choice about whether there's human cloning. We have only a choice of how is it done, what's the regulation around it, and all those other things. There's lots of ways to play that out—and some, I say, are more convivial than others.
By convivial, I mean it's how open they are to being hacked or modified by the user. It means how transparent they are. It means how flexible they are. It means how easy it is to opt out. Those qualities are very important.
It wasn't inevitable that cars would be powered by internal combustion and spew poisonous gas into the air, right?
KK: Right. We have choices even though the technologies are inevitable. One of the choices that we have is what I call finding the right friends or the right job for them. As an example, I talk about DDT. DDT, the pesticide, was originally developed to eliminate mosquitoes and the malaria they carry.
It was such an effective pesticide that it started to be sprayed on a huge scale on cotton and agricultural fields. Then it entered into the water cycles and did all kinds of damage to wildlife, and therefore it was banned. But, in fact, it's now come back, because it's really the most effective malaria deterrent that we have when sprayed judiciously around households.
But isn't that an outgrowth of what I would call American exuberance? Technology will solve everything, and so once you discover something you apply it everywhere. It was part of the culture at that time.
KK: I am writing about the exuberance. I believe that the solution to any technological problem is another technology. I believe in the exuberance. I'm suggesting that what we want is like what happened with DDT, a constant re-evaluation of technologies, that when they aren't working in one place, we move them to another. We don't ban them outright. That we engage with technology constantly, that we actually, unlike the FDA, which I think will be proved short-sighted in the long run, we don't just test something once and then say it's approved. We actually want to have constant vigilance, constant testing of things.
We want to be engaged with it from the very beginning, knowing that there are going to be things that are not good about it, steering away from those, finding the right place for it through constant testing and changing. That's a very different attitude than saying, "Oh, no, we can't do that because it has bad things in it." Well, everything has bad things in it, including the things that already exist. Organic food has bad stuff in it. We don't test for that because we think that we don't have to test natural things, that only new things are bad. But that's the wrong idea, as well.
I'm proposing an exuberance for finding technological solutions to technological problems, constant testing and steering and training. It's like treating technology as if it were a child, preparing it for its place in the ecosphere.
Speaking of which, you just had an article in a recent Sunday New York Times Magazine called "Achieving Techno-literacy: Computers are a tool, not a solution," which was about home-schooling your son for a year. How does that tie into this?
KK: First of all, of course, I don't write the headlines, as you know. The whole premise of this was that we were going to try and make a wonderful, maybe in a sense an ideal, custom-made learning environment for our son. Mostly, we made stuff. We made a lot of stuff, cool stuff, experiments, it was a very, very active year. We still had textbook work, but that was not the core of what we were up to.
My point in this article was that, as much as this may surprise some people, because, being associated with Wired magazine, they might have expected that it was all happening online and sitting behind a computer. But what I was saying was that the high-tech aspect of it was not central, that K-12 education is much closer to child-rearing than it is to career-training. In child-rearing, technology has a role but it's not the major role.
For me, the way technology worked was that it was this ever-present force in our lives. What I was trying to encourage was the acquisition of techno-literacy, which means understanding how technology as a whole, this technium that I've been talking about, how it works. There are several lessons, which I wanted my son to understand, that had nothing to do with just current-day technology, because that's all going to change next year. He certainly used the computer, but it was just part of many things that we used.
He had to understand that whatever hot technologies he was studying today, by the time he went into the workforce they were not going to be hot. There was going to be something else, and he'd have to re-learn or learn entirely new things all over again. The computer language that he learned is not really going to be useful, I think, in five years.
There was this basic understanding of how technology works, that there's a cost for everything that you get, that it's just not the purchase price of a piece of technology. Equal to the purchase price is probably just the cost of maintaining whatever it is that you get, that whatever you buy is going to be obsolete before you even finish buying it.
The article starts off with you and your son trying to make fire.
KK: One of the first technologies, and, believe me, it's a lot harder than you think, but, boy, is that empowering.
Brought me right back to my Boy Scout days. One of the questions raised here is what do we consider technology and what don't we. In this day and age, technology is computers and it's cars and planes and it's glossy, and metal most of the time, or plastic.
KK: I'm trying to get people to shift away from that. There's a quote that I use from Alan Kay, the computer guru who worked at Xerox PARC and a lot of places, and he said people have this idea that technology is anything that was invented after you were born.
KK: But it's not true. Danny Hillis, who worked with him, said, "Technology is anything that doesn't quite work yet."
And, obviously, it's not. Automobiles, refrigeration, antibiotics, these are far more important technologies than the BlackBerry is, in terms of how it affects our lives. What we have to understand is that technology permeates our lives to such an extent that we're not even aware of things that we think of as just there. They are as technological as lasers and the latest super-computer.
I think there's a great focus right now on the mediated technologies, the technologies of communication. I think it's fair to put some of that emphasis on, because, if you think about it, communications is a foundation of our culture. We are messing with and amplifying and enhancing and ramping up and supersizing communication to an enormous degree. So it's really, really bending our culture. We're very aware of it.
We are headed toward a place where the rate of technological change is going to continue to increase, the complexities of things that we're going to make is going to increase. Technology is not going to get simpler. Everything is going to get more complicated.
We're going to become more dependent upon it, right? Humans are dependent on technology to an enormous degree. If a laser beam came down from space and removed every bit of technology from the earth, including our hand tools, we would die in six weeks. We physically cannot live without technology.
I think this presents us an opportunity, because there are several things we can do with this knowledge. One is we can look at the trends and say, "Where is it going? What's going to come?" To that I would say, all things being equal, it's going to get more complex, there's going to be more diversity in that, it's going to become more specialized, it's going to become more mutualistic, meaning that it's going to rely on more technologies, and it's also going to make humans more socially related. It's going to become more energy dense. And generally, openness will prevail over closed.
You mentioned that language is the first great technology, and that's what really led to humans propagating themselves, because they could share information all of a sudden. Somehow that puts me in mind of something that you wrote, that "you've got 5,000 friends on Facebook, but there's only room for 50 in your heart."
Given the advances in communication that you mentioned, this does create some uneasiness. Can we really handle this? Or who are we really communicating with? Why be so connected if we're not really capable of managing it? Some folks respond by withdrawing, going back in time, as it were. But once again, your point is, you can only go forward.
KK: Yes. This book began as a quest for me to figure out what the role of technology in my own life was, because it wasn't until I was fairly old, almost 35, before I really owned anything beyond a bicycle. I skipped college, was a dropout, went to Asia, hitchhiked and I lived very simply in really remote areas of Asia where there was very little advanced technology. I became very comfortable with it. I had great admiration for the Amish when I rode my bicycle across the country.
At the same time, I'm obviously completely plugged into the Wired world and Cool Tools and the Whole Earth Catalog and all this other stuff. I was trying to figure out, in my own life, how to not be overwhelmed by 5,000 friends, to remain myself, when you have all these other technologies impinging upon you.
Here is the personal advice that I think comes out of this. What every new technology brings us, again, in this sort of cosmic sense, is a bunch of new problems—new solutions and new problems at the same time. Some people say, "Well, that's just going to be a wash." Therefore, technology is neutral, because there are problems and there are solutions, and is this neutral?
I say no, because I believe that even the choice that we have with the technology to have a problem or to have a solution, that choice itself is good. So there's a meta-choice that you get when a new technology comes along. Even though it's bringing just as many problems as solutions, the fact that we have that choice now, that meta-choice, is now an additional extra good. If you create one percent more than you destroy every year, and you compound that over centuries, you have a civilization. The fact that we have those choices is itself a good. In the end, that's all that technology really does give us, but it's a huge thing—it constantly brings us new choices and possibilities.
And so, I'm going along with David Eagleman, I'm a possibilian. That's my religion, in a certain sense. I believe in possibilities. Possibilities are what we get. Now, here's the problem. The problem, as you're saying, is that we can feel overwhelmed by all these possibilities. It's like in Barry Schwartz's book, The Tyranny of Choice, "Oh, my gosh, how can I decide? It's overwhelming. Five thousand friends, five thousand mustard varieties."
What I have arrived at is that I'm actually trying to minimize the amount of technology in my own life by selecting those technologies which will most enhance my talents and gifts. I think everyone else should do the same. But at the same time I'm trying to increase the amount of technology in the world, because that enables everyone else to also find their gift.
The little story that I like to tell about this is to imagine the world if Beethoven had been born before the invention of the symphony and the piano, what a loss that would be, because that genius would never be realized. Or if Hitchcock or Lucas had been born before the technologies of cinema and Van Gogh before the technologies of cheap oil paint. Whatever it is, you can imagine what a loss that would be.
That means that right now my child or your child or grandchildren, someone is going to be born a genius, and that technology for them maybe has not been invented yet. In a certain sense, we have an obligation, a social obligation, a moral obligation, to increase the varieties and the kinds of technologies in the world in the hopes that we can make the technology that would really, truly liberate and unleash the creative geniuses of all the people born in the world.
That's my goal. I want to do that. We have an obligation to keep enlarging that pool. But we also have another obligation to ourselves: to remain sane, to find those few technologies that work, and disregard everything else.
Email: kk (at) kk (dot) org