“What Technology Wants”

Buckminster Fuller with one of his geodesic domes.

In the December/January 2011 issue of Bookforum, I published a review of Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants (Viking).


How is it that the Internet was inevitable but the iPhone was not? Both are part of what tech guru Kevin Kelly calls the “technium: the ecosystem of our technologies, an extension of biological evolution, a force that crystallized ten thousand years ago when “our ability to modify the biosphere exceeded the planet’s ability to modify us.” The Internet is a product of the same cosmic intelligence that birthed single-celled organisms and later the human mind (which put all the wires together). The iPhone is where agency comes into play: We optimize technology, design its containers, invent tools that fit our lives. This may seem like a degraded arena for exercising free will, and the profusion of neat gadgets may fail to allay the concern that we are becoming vassals of technology. But as Kelly tells us in What Technology Wants, resistance is not only futile but counterproductive. “Yes, technology is acquiring its own autonomy and will increasingly maximize its own agenda,” he writes. Have no fear, though: “This agenda includes—as its foremost consequence—maximizing possibilities for us.”

That libertarian promise is cold comfort for those of us who worry that the technological advances of the past few centuries (and our regular failure to make responsible decisions in applying them) threaten to turn the planet into an overheated, underfed disaster-film set. But to Kelly, the complaint that technology exerts too much control over people discounts the fact that technology is people—”an outgrowth of life, and by extension . . . an outgrowth of the physical and chemical self-organization that first led to life.” Free will has always been constrained by natural systems, and the technium is the best such system we’ve seen: It presents us with a great supply of “open-ended choices,” the proliferation of which turns life into an “infinite game” whose complexity and beauty multiply with each move. Improvement, not utopia, is Kelly’s mantra.

Though occasionally ponderous and frustratingly abstract, What Technology Wants is notable for situating the Internet in deep time; it is clearly the work of someone who has spent his life thinking about the role of technology in human history. This is to be expected from a founder of Wired magazine and the author of the 1994 cult classic Out of Control, an early account of “network culture,” which he described as emerging from an evolutionary feedback loop between human beings and their tools (and which was required reading for the cast of The Matrix).

If Out of Control was theoretical, What Technology Wants is theological. Kelly has come to believe that the development of the cosmos is preordained, from the first stirrings of quarks through the emergence, across species, of improbably complex eyes to the advent of the Web. Life wants to manifest particular patterns and forms at particular times, Kelly tells us. The question of the book’s title, then, is not rhetorical: Though technology may not have conscious desires (yet), we can see that it wants to perpetuate itself, that it is “maturing into its own thing.”

Kelly is not a zealot or a proselytizer—he doesn’t hail the coming singularity or claim that technology is a better-designed savior. And yet his enthusiasm for what he deems “the seventh kingdom of life” is animated by a faint religiosity. The preordained path of the technium seems to relieve us of political responsibility. We are relegated to steering and nudging technology, perfecting our iPhones. Ironically, the technium’s never-ending stream of open-ended choices—the infinite game—comes at the cost of diminishing the realm of choices by which societies (if not online communities) are made and remade. It may be true, as Kelly writes, that the arc of the technium “is the slow yet irreversible liberation from the ancient imperative of matter and energy.” The question then becomes what liberation wants.