Kevin Kelly's "What Technology Wants," reviewed by William Rosen

Friday, November 12, 2010; 10:27 AM


By Kevin Kelly

Viking. 406 pp. $27.95

In 1802, the British philosopher and Christian apologist William Paley published a book entitled "Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature." In it, he famously propounded the notion that, just as a watch whose "several parts are framed and put together for a purpose" presupposes the existence of a watchmaker, so too does the existence of life on earth, far more complicated than any timepiece, presuppose the existence of a creator. Paley's metaphor is one in a long line of attempts to explain the organic world in the language of technology, from Plato's contention that the four primal elements were constructed from solid geometrical figures - particles of fire were tetrahedrons; particles of earth, cubes - to the idea, beloved of artificial intelligence researchers, that the human brain can be understood as a sort of digital computer.

In "What Technology Wants," Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired magazine and author of half-a-dozen previous books, inverts the tradition, in a brave attempt to demonstrate that the same forces that have shaped life through the 4 billion years of its existence on earth also drive the course and substance of technology. His central argument - that the "technium" (his word for the world of technology) deserves to be regarded as the seventh kingdom of life, along with plants, protists and animals - is an ambitious one, but one thing that Kelly does not lack is ambition. So vast is his technium that it includes almost anything "produced by a mind," which means it includes not only steam turbines and semiconductors, but also paintings, literature, music and dance. (Actually, since his definition of mind is even vaster, he describes coral reefs, termite colonies and bird nests as "animal technology.")

One of Kelly's formative experiences was working on Stewart Brand's original "Whole Earth Catalog," and "What Technology Wants" delivers many of the pleasures of a wonderful catalog, with page after page of entries, each one more appealing than the last, assembled by someone with an insatiable curiosity: the origins of multicellular life, the nature of language acquisition and development, the geometry of protein-folding, patterns of invention in the ancient world, free will as exhibited by subatomic particles, finite versus infinite games, and the aesthetic and moral dimensions of technology. As with a catalog, the lack of a narrative structure (or even an obvious destination) is beside the point and, in any case, is more than balanced by some truly fascinating detours: from the surface of a computer chip that processes more ergs per gram per second than the sun; to the heart of an Amish community, whose relationship to technology turns out to be far more complex and revealing than generally understood; to the interior of the cabin - and the mind - of Ted Kaczynski, the "Unabomber," whose manifesto seems to Kelly one of the most acute analyses of technology ever written.

This approach isn't without some weaknesses. A catalog is, after all, written to sell you something, and the book tends, therefore, to cherry-pick those scientists - frequently a controversial minority in their own disciplines - who support Kelly's positions. And - this is not really a criticism - he is far better at describing the technium than at prescribing any policies for managing or improving it.

Nonetheless, for most readers, Kelly's polymath erudition and infectious confidence - he is to garden-variety technological optimists what Olympic champion Usain Bolt is to the best runner in the seventh grade - will prove more than sufficient. Though "What Technology Wants" spends a lot of time arguing that technology has become almost independent of humanity, it doesn't really depend on the idea that a bird's wing and a semiconductor are both inevitable results of the same process. In fact, as with Paley's watch, the existence of such an exuberant book is the best possible argument for the existence of an equally exuberant creator.

William Rosen is the author of "The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention."

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