What Technology Wants: growing order v. the great silence

The first two chapters of What Technology Wants observed the phenomenal recent growth of technology and proposed that it signifies technology’s will, its impulse to autonomy. In chapters three and four, Kelly elaborates this burgeoning “technium,: painting a vision of technology as life’s seventh kingdom and the universe’s way of checking the spread of entropy and forestalling its own heat death. These science-fictional suggestions, which are as fascinating as they are unhinged, leave me pondering the Fermi Paradox and North Korea’s nuclear program. I’m fairly suspicious of the path by which we travel get to Pyongyang from the Precambrian, but I can’t deny that the ride is fascinating.

Kelly’s tour of technology travels through a series of encircling domains. We began with tools as extensions of bodies and minds; now we move on to technology as a kind of freeing of the biosphere from certain constraints; finally, we arrive at a conception of the technium as the bodying forth of the universe’s very own will to survive. Kelly, our Virgil guiding us through these concentric rings, explains that we’re also moving backward in time, finding ever deeper origins for technology itself. First we reach back to the critical period of the Neolithic age; next we dive deeper, down through time to the primordial soup at the dawn of life on Earth; finally, we zoom back to the moment after the Big Bang, with the birth of atoms in the infant universe and the hearts of the stars. What these atoms seem to want, Kelly evocatively argues, is a kind of apotheosis in technology. “The root of the technium can be traced back to the life of an atom,” Kelly writes in chapter 4. “An atom’s brief journey through an everyday technological artifact, such as a flashlight battery, is unlike anything else in its long life.” The force of technology’s will takes a form that Kelly calls “exotropy:” the struggle to resist entropy, the will of things to keep from falling apart, which causes them instead to build themselves into ever-more complex and ramified forms.

Here’s a question to test the technium hypothesis: does it help us to better explain anything about technology? Given a situation in which technology is implicated either as a problem or a solution, does considering technology’s nascent autonomy offer a better description than any other? And that’s where I think of the North Koreans and their nuclear program—and for that matter nuclear weapons in general. As North Korea strives against its own best interests and those of life on Earth to acquire nuclear weapons, we see the specter of technology’s threat to life. Some thinkers have wondered if technology’s increasing ability to leverage violence explains the Fermi Paradox, the “great silence” that confronts us when we seek evidence of technologically-advanced civilizations in the universe at large. Could it be that every time technology reaches a certain level of complexity, it kills off the lifeforms that created it?

And yet the technology does proliferate as if it has a will, some purpose to reveal. The ancients believed in telos—the final cause, the end or purpose of a thing, bound up in the other causes (material, formal, and efficient), a cluster of causes as fixed—and perhaps as arbitrary in its origin—as the physical forces that frame the universe. With telos comes a sense of purpose, of plan, perhaps of a guide; in an age that eschews divinity, teleology remains a tough sell. Some Darwinists use the word “teleonomy” to describe the resulting, and uncanny, idea of a bodying-forth that looks like cause, like will, and yet has no author or center.

The specter of technology as an expression of will has been encountered before—perhaps most evocatively by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, whose “Question Concerning Technology” has long been a touchstone for those thinking about the nature of material progress. Heidegger came up against something like the same urgent autonomy Kelly keeps detecting: the uncanny force that turns nature, and humankind, into mere resource, framing all things in terms of their actual or potential use-value.

Mash all this up—Kelly’s questing technium, the Fermi Paradox, the techno-bellicose fantasies of Kim Jong Il—and a bizarre question, nearly as useless as it is disturbing, pops out: is “the great silence” the answer to the question, “what does technology want?” This troubling perspective on Heidegger’s question concerning technology, and where it might take Kelly’s questions, I’ll consider in the next installment of this review.

Third in a series of posts about Kevin Kelly’s new book, What Technology Wants.

One comment

  1. The black-robed, relentless avatars of teleology and technophilia have sentenced Kevin Kelly’s corpus to a dungeon, where it will suffer the inevitable, finely-bladed analysis of Occam’s Razor, swinging ever lower on its intractable chain of reason.

    I haven’t seen any evidence, or heard any really convincing logical argument, for the reification of technology as an independent entity (or even a passably-intelligent symbiont), never mind one that “wants.” Proliferation notwithstanding — there’s a lot of something because we made a lot of them? I am intrigued by your conception of Fermi’s Paradox as perhaps explained by the premise that any society that develops sufficiently-advanced technology for space travel, or just about, has also developed the technology to blow itself up, and then can’t resist doing so. Which rules out space travel, or even the emission of space traces, to be captured by our arrays. But of course that’s not necessarily what *technology wants. That’s us, acting out through our fancy toys, just as we do *without our fancy toys. It’s just that the fancy toys allow us to augment our effects by orders of magnitude. The fact that technologically-enhanced self-destruction can be easily imagined (and perhaps achieved) without positing awareness or agency to technology would seem to be another reason not to bother with thinking that our things, or our networks that run them, actually think.

    And what about *wanting them to think, which is of course what motivates Kelly’s belief (and his writing, and a fair amount of his career)? I have a more dystopian view of that particular thought-experiment, one that lacks a certain rosy tint to its lens. Although believers in and advocates for the idea of the Singularity are of course in Kelly’s camp, and quite insistent in its inevitability, which is either Coming Right Up, Now, or Already Happened, depending. Which makes a close reading of this book, and these types of arguments, important. Just because our metaphors have lives of their own, does not mean we have to endow them with real lives of their own.

    However, your close reading and concurrent analysis also reminds us that when metaphors are spun out to their logical conclusions and beyond, fascinating seahorse-tails of speculation can emerge, and spark other compelling lines of inquiry. I do share a sense of wonder at all the semi-autonomous machines and seductively fluid connections of our world. But this can be experienced and valued without reviving old gods, or inventing new ones. Perhaps the proliferation of technology has presented us with so many new and varied tools to think with in such a short time, that we’re a little overwhelmed and we fall back on assigning agency to forces that seem larger than us, even if we are their primary cause. I think this also happens with any sufficiently-large spaces, not just with forces or energies. Even if it’s one we’ve built, like cyberspace, the minute we can’t see all of it from one spot we start projecting and assigning and, as it were, “playing” with the environment and its inert or imagined inhabitants, much like children absorbed for hours in the backyard which is really the schoolroom, or the undersea world of Aquaman, or Mars. But at the end of the day it’s just us out there. For example.

    Ultimately, the question of “what technology wants” should probably be reformulated as the less-catchy but more urgent “what a technologically-advanced society needs,” and what it needs is someone to think very very clearly about all these tangled webs, so we not only know where we’re going, but have some choice in the destination. Thank you for doing so, and please, carry on!

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