The Tech Evolution

Author Kevin Kelly thinks our evolutionary process isn't so different from technology's. He spoke with frog Executive Creative Director David Merkoski about his observations in his new book, What Technology Wants.

Think technology is just a bunch of devices invented and controlled by humans? Think again, says author Kevin Kelly in his latest book, What Technology Wants. In it, the co-founder of Wired magazine and former publisher and editor of Whole Earth Review argues that technology is a living, breathing organism with its own needs and desires.

He chronicles the history of this ecosystem, which he calls the Technium, and identifies patterns to predict its future development. Kelly recently talked about his observations, from robotics to chicken genes, with frog Executive Creative Director David Merkoski.

In your book, you refer to the Technium having agency, but what does it want?
What it wants is basically what life wants. It wants the same things that evolution has been exhibiting throughout life: increased diversity, complexity, specialization, mutualism, and to accelerate the speed of things. Basically, it wants to increase choices and possibilities and opportunities for everything.

So then biology, life itself, is a kind of a technology?
I would say that technology is actually a kind of life. The systems of evolution and the Technium are very similar. We have greater influence over these things, but what I’m suggesting is that we no longer have 100 percent control. The Technium has some autonomy, and that autonomy is growing. Like an infant, it can push back at us even though we’re still the dominant partner.

So, the sort of fast, cheap, and out-of-control nature of the Technium has brought it forward, evolutionarily speaking, to a point where it expresses the agency of its own intentions. That’s what you mean by “technology wants”...
Right. I use “wants” in a personal way and a sort of conscious way, as in the way that a system of a plant would want light.

If technology is made by the hand of a creator, us, then should we be looking at corporate mission statements and value propositions as a guide to what it is that technology wants?
I think the better place to look is the foundation of biology and evolution, and then you get a better long-term view of what technology wants. Richard Dawkins, a famous biologist, did a little trick where he put on magic glasses and he looked at the world through the eyes of genes. He looked at chicken genes and declared them “selfish” genes that were trying to replicate. I’m looking at the world through the eyes of the Technium. The selfish Technium is trying to increase its own presence in the world as a living force.

You give examples of how the Technium provides evidence of increasing specificity, diversity, and choice. Yet, it’s hard for many of us not to look at, for example, Apple’s development of the iPhone, or Google’s collapsing of everything from how we communicate to how we search for information, as exceptions to specialization. Those companies are able to reverse the course toward more homogeneity. At what point does the Technium shift and develop into true multipurpose-ness?
It’s not clear to me that 50 years from now everyone will be carrying around a global multipurpose device. I actually think the highly evolved person won’t carry a device at all. But, I think that it’s really important to remember that there’s a difference between a standard and just mutations. Right now, all our bodies’ cells run the same ATP cycle; they arrived on something that worked and that became the standard that was homogenous. We see the same thing with the alphabet with standardized letters, which actually blossomed great creativity in language and diversity of words. I think the same is happening in technology, where some standardization actually promotes higher diversity later on.

In your book and a lot of your talks, I haven’t seen you use “innovation” as a buzzword. I think President Obama referenced innovation more than 100 times in the State of the Union address, and I’m curious what your view of innovation is in regard to the Technium.
The good news is it does not take that much innovation to be powerful. It’s when these small deltas compound over time that they become very powerful. It’s a way of managing differences, and those things don’t need to be great to have a profound effect. In fact, you don’t really want them to be too great; you want them to be consistent and regular.

That’s an important point, because the general public may not fear technology, but they do fear the trade-offs brought by that technology (fundamentally changing the patterns of the day). What about the social context of how network technologies in particular allow us to communicate?
Well, one of the things that I take as a given is that our human nature is mutable. Every time we make a new robotic or AI invention, we challenge our definitions of who we are, what humans are for. I think a lot of these technologies that put us in instantaneous connection with others are a part of this larger process of really forcing us to redefine ourselves. I think what we can see in the next century is a constant identity crisis at the species level about what it means to be human.

You mentioned that certain technologies are inevitable, so I have to ask: What comes next?
I think things like robotic-driven cars are pretty inevitable and fairly close, at least within my kids’ lifetime. There will be roads where you’re not allowed to go onto unless you surrender to the autopilot. In fact, right now a million people a year are killed in traffic accidents worldwide, so it could save lives. But, what’s going to happen is the car is going to have to decide between protecting a pedestrian or something worse, and people will actually go bananas because a robot killed a human.

I want a trade for that benefit! [Laughs.]
Down with the robots! But, again, we have to look at how is it implanted, who’s moving controls, who’s responsible. I also think genetic engineering will have the human germline. It is inevitable. How we implement that is really crucial.

I think you also would argue, for both of those examples, that people are concerned with the secondary consequences of what happens to culture.
I think the effects come from ubiquity. For example, a couple of human clones walking around is a whole different story than 5 billion of them. It is the same thing with cell phones. At least 10 years ago, people were complaining that everyone didn’t have computers and talked about the digital divide. I said back then, and I still say now, don’t worry about that—it will be solved with the market. Worry about when everybody has them and we’re always on. That’s a much more interesting problem, because we have no experience with that whatsoever, and I think that will really change things.