Kevin Kelly: What Technology Asks of Us

Kevin Kelly: What Technology Asks of Us
Published: Nov 25, 2014
A new series about people whose daring and determined probing inspire us to reconsider things. Kevin Kelly — founding executive editor of Wired magazine, publisher/editor at the Whole Earth Review, all-species archivist, general polymath and optimist, among other things — has an impassioned story to tell here, from November 2009 in Amsterdam, about the history of technology and the different ways we extend and reinvent ourselves in collaboration with technology. In part II, published this Friday, we'll bring you another of Kevin Kelly's talks, 'The Next 5000 days of the Web.' In December we'll bring you a fascinating and long interview with Kevin by Tim Ferriss, author of The Four-Hour Workweek.

I WANT TO TALK ABOUT MY INVESTIGATIONS into what technology means in our lives — not just our immediate life, but in the cosmic sense, in the kind of long history of the world and our place in the world: What is this stuff? What is the significance? And so, I want to go through my little story of what I found out.

One of the first things that I started to investigate was the history of the name of technology. In the United States there is a State of the Union address given by every president since 1790, and each one of those is really kind of summing up the most important things for the United States at that time. If you search for the word "technology," it was not used until 1952. So, technology was sort of absent from everybody's thinking until 1952, which happened to be the year of my birth. And obviously, technology had existed before then, but we weren't aware of it, and so it was sort of an awakening of this force in our life.

I actually did research to find out the first use of the word "technology." It was in 1829, and it was invented by a guy who was starting a curriculum — a course, bringing together all the kinds of arts and crafts, and industry — and he called it "Technology." And that's the very first use of the word.

So, what is this stuff that we're all consumed by, and bothered by? Alan Kay calls it: "Technology is anything that was invented after you were born." Which is sort of the idea that we normally have about what technology is: It's all that new stuff. It's not roads, or penicillin, or factory tires — it's the new stuff. My friend Danny Hillis says, "Technology is anything that doesn't work yet." Which is, again, a sense that it's all new.

Some anthropologists call the hunter-gatherer tribes the original affluent society. Because they had banker hours basically.      

But we know that it's just not new. It actually goes way back, and what I want to suggest is, it goes a long way back. So, another way to think about technology, what it means, is to imagine a world without technology. If we were to eliminate every single bit of technology in the world today — and I mean everything, from blades to scrapers to cloth — we as a species would not live very long. We would die by the billions, and very quickly. The wolves would get us, we would be defenseless, we would be unable to grow enough food, or find enough food.

Even the hunter-gatherers used some elementary tools. And so, they had minimal technology, but they had some technology. And if we study those hunter-gatherer tribes and the Neanderthal, which are very similar to early man, we find out a very curious thing about this world without technology, and this is a kind of a curve of their average age.

There are no Neanderthal fossils that are older than 40 years old that we've ever found, and the average age of most of these hunter-gatherer tribes is 20 to 30. There are very few young infants because they die — high mortality rate — and there's very few old people. And so the profile is sort of for your average San Francisco neighborhood: a lot of young people. And if you go there, you say, "Hey, everybody's really healthy." Well, that's because they're all young.

And the same thing with the hunter-gatherer tribes and early man is that you didn't live beyond the age of 30. So, it was a world without grandparents. And grandparents are very important, because they are the transmitter of cultural evolution and information. Imagine a world where basically everybody was 20 to 30 years old. How much learning can you do? You can't do very much learning in your own life, it's so short, and there's nobody to pass on what you do learn. So, that's one aspect. It was a very short life.

But at the same time anthropologists know that most hunter-gatherer tribes of the world, with that very little technology, actually did not spend a very long time gathering the food that they needed: three to six hours a day. Some anthropologists call that the original affluent society, because they had banker hours basically. So, it was possible to get enough food. But when the scarcity came when the highs and lows and the droughts came, then people went into starvation. And that's why they didn't live very long.    

So, through the very simple tools, simple stone tools, technology brought the early bands of humans who were actually able to eliminate to extinction about 250 megafauna animals in North America when they first arrived 10,000 years ago. So, long before the industrial age, we've been affecting the planet on a global scale, with just a small amount of technology.

It's not just hammers and gadgets, like laptops. But it's also law.       

The other thing that the early man invented was fire. And fire was used to clear out, and again, it affected the ecology of grass and whole continents, and was used in cooking. It enabled us to actually eat all kinds of things. It was sort of, in a certain sense, in a McLuhan sense, an external stomach, in the sense that it was cooking food that we could not eat otherwise. And if we don't have fire, we actually could not live. Our bodies have adapted to these new diets. Our bodies have changed in the last 10,000 years.

So, with that little bit of technology, humans went from a small band of 10,000 or so — the same number as Neanderthals everywhere — and we suddenly exploded. With the invention of language around 50,000 years ago, the number of humans exploded, and very quickly became the dominant species on the planet. And they migrated into the rest of the world at two kilometers per year until, within several tens of thousands of years, we occupied every single watershed on the planet and became the most dominant species, with a very small amount of technology.

And even at that time, with the introduction of agriculture — 8,000 to 10,000 years ago — we started to see climate change. So, climate change is not a new thing. What's new is just the degree of it. Even during the agricultural age there was climate change. And so, already small amounts of technology were transforming the world. And what this means, and where I'm going, is that technology has become the most powerful force in the world. All the things that we see today that are changing our lives, we can always trace back to the introduction of some new technology.

So, it's a force that is the most powerful force that has been unleashed on this planet, and to such a degree that I think that it's become our "who we are." In fact, our humanity, and everything that we think about ourselves is something that we've invented. So, we've invented ourselves. Of all the animals that we have domesticated, the most important animal that we've domesticated has been us. Okay? So, humanity is our greatest invention.

But of course we're not done yet. We're still inventing, and this is what technology is allowing us to do — it's continually [allowing us] to reinvent ourselves. It's a very, very strong force. I call this entire thing — us humans as our technology, everything that we've made, gadgets in our lives — the technium. That's this world. My working definition of technology is "anything useful that a human mind makes." It's not just hammers and gadgets, like laptops. But it's also law. And of course cities are ways to make things more useful to us. While this is something that comes from our mind, it also has its roots deeply into the cosmos.

It goes back. The origins and roots of technology go back to the Big Bang in this way in that they are part of this self-organizing thread that starts at the Big Bang and goes through galaxies and stars, into life, into us. And the three major phases of the early universe was energy, when the dominant force was energy; then the dominant force, as it cooled, became matter; and then, with the invention of life, four billion years ago, the dominant force in our neighborhood became information. That's what life is — it's an information process that was restructuring and making new order.

So those, energy and matter, Einstein showed were equivalent. And now, new sciences of quantum computing show that entropy and information and matter and energy are all interrelated, so it's one long continuum. You put energy into the right kind of system and out comes wasted heat, entropy and extropy, which is order. It's the increased order.

A bacterium, which has no consciousness at all, wants to move towards light. It has an urge, and technology has an urge.            

Where does this order come from? Its roots go way back. We actually don't know. But we do know that the self-organization trend throughout the universe is long, and it began with things like galaxies; they maintained their order for billions of years. Stars are basically nuclear fusion machines that self-organize and self-sustain themselves for billions of years: this order against the entropy of the world. And flowers and plants are the same thing, extended, and technology is basically an extension of life.

One trend that we notice in all those things is that the amount of energy — per gram per second that flows through this — is actually increasing. The amount of energy is increasing through this little sequence. And that the amount of energy per gram per second that flows through life is actually greater than a star; because of the star's long lifespan, the energy density in life is actually higher than a star. And the energy density that we see in the greatest of anywhere in the universe is actually in a PC chip. There is more energy flowing through, per gram per second, than anything that we have any other experience with.

What I would suggest is that if we want to see where technology is going, we continue that trajectory, and we say, "Well, what is going to become more energy-dense — that's where it's going." And so what I've done is, I've taken the same kinds of things and looked at other aspects of evolutionary life and say, "What are the general trends in evolutionary life?" And there are things moving towards greater complexity, moving towards greater diversity, moving towards greater specialization, sentience, ubiquity and most important, evolvability. Those very same things are also present in technology. That's where technology is going.

In fact, technology is accelerating all the aspects of life, and we can see that happening — just as there's diversity in life, there's more diversity in things we make. Things in life start out being a general cell, and they become specialized: You have tissue cells, you have muscle cells, brain cells. And the same thing happens with say, a hammer, which is general at first and becomes more specific. So, I would like to say that while there are six kingdoms of life, we can think of technology basically as a seventh kingdom of life. It's a branching off from the human form.

But technology has its own agenda — like anything, like life itself. For instance, right now, three-quarters of the energy that we use is actually used to feed the technium itself. In transportation, it's not to move us, it's to move the stuff that we make or buy. I use the word "want." Technology wants. This is a robot that wants to plug itself in to get more power. Your cat wants more food. A bacterium, which has no consciousness at all, wants to move towards light. It has an urge, and technology has an urge.

At the same time, it wants to give us things, and what it gives us is basically progress. You can take all kinds of curves, and they're all pointing up. There's really no dispute about progress, if we discount the cost of that. And that's the thing that bothers most people, is that progress is really real, but we wonder and question: What are the environmental costs of it?

I did a survey of a number of species of artifacts in my house, and there's 6,000. Other people have come up with 10,000. When King Henry of England died, he had 18,000 things in his house, but that was the entire wealth of England. And with that entire wealth of England, King Henry could not buy any antibiotics, he could not buy refrigeration, he could not buy a trip of a thousand miles. Whereas this rickshaw wale in India could save up and buy antibiotics, and he could buy refrigeration, he could buy things that King Henry, in all his wealth, could never buy. That's what progress is about.

So, technology is selfish; technology is generous. That conflict, that tension, will be with us forever — that sometimes it wants to do what it wants to do, and sometimes it's going to do things for us. We have confusion about what we should think about a new technology. Right now the default position when a new technology comes along is we, people, talk about the precautionary principle (which is very common in Europe), which says, basically, "Don't do anything. When you meet a new technology, stop, until it can be proven that there's no harm." I think that really leads nowhere.

There are no bad technologies, just as there are no bad children.        

But a better way — what I call proactionary principle — is to engage with technology. You try it out. You obviously do what the precautionary principle suggests, you try to anticipate it; but after anticipating it, you constantly assess it, not just once, but eternally. And when it diverts from what you want, we prioritize risk, we evaluate not just the new stuff, but the old stuff. We fix it, but most importantly, we relocate it. And what I mean by that is that we find a new job for it.

Nuclear energy, fission, is really a bad idea for bombs. But it may be a pretty good idea relocated into sustainable nuclear energy for electricity, instead of burning coal. When we have a bad idea, the response to a bad idea is not [to have] no ideas, it's not to stop thinking. The response to a bad idea — like, say, a tungsten light bulb — is a better idea. OK? So, better ideas is really always the response to technology that we don't like. And actually, in a certain sense, technology is a kind of a method for generating better ideas, if you can think about it that way.

So, maybe spraying DDT on crops is a really bad idea. But DDT sprayed on local homes, there's nothing better to eliminate malaria, besides insect DDT-impregnated mosquito nets. But that's a really good idea; that's a good job for technology.

So, our job as humans is to parent our mind children, to find them good friends, to find them a good job. And so, every technology is sort of a creative force looking for the right job. There are no bad technologies, just as there are no bad children. We don't say children are neutral, children are positive. We just have to find them the right place.

Photo by Whitney Smith.

And so, what technology gives us, over the long term, over the sort of extended evolution — from the beginning of time, through the invention of the plants and animals, and the evolution of life, the evolution of brains — what that is constantly giving us is increasing differences. It's increasing diversity, it's increasing options, it's increasing choices, opportunities, possibilities and freedoms. That's what we get from technology all the time. That's why people leave villages and go into cities, is because they are always gravitating towards increased choices and possibilities. And we are aware of the price. We pay a price for that, but we are aware of it, and generally we will pay the price for increased freedoms, choices and opportunities.

Even technology wants clean water. Is technology diametrically opposed to nature? Because technology is an extension of life, it's in parallel and aligned with the same things that life wants. So that I think technology loves biology, if we allow it to. Great movement that is starting billions of years ago is moving through us and continues to. And our choice, so to speak, in technology, is really to align ourselves with this force much greater than ourselves.

So, technology is more than just the stuff in your pocket. It's more than just gadgets. It's more than just things that people invent. It's actually part of a very long story, a great story. And it's moving through us, this self-organization, and we're extending and accelerating it, and we can be part of it by aligning the technology that we make with it.


With thanks to TED Talks.

All photos by Tom Medwell, ©Wild Culture, except where noted.

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