What technology Wants

by Kevin Kelly                             


The scope of this book by Kevin Kelly is enormous as he covers the development of technology back from the big band at the start of the universe. His theory being that all of what constitutes our technology flows from the nature of energy and matter and how we have evolved. Therefore this book is not for the faint hearted but if you are really interested in how technology affects our world, our thinking, and how it may evolve and change and you are prepared to spend the time and effort then you will be richly rewarded.

Kelly is referring to more than what we generally think of as technology in this book. He prefers the term technium which which he views as being all of man's embodied knowledge including dance, literature, painting, etc. For instance he says : "if a thousand lines of letters in Unix qualifies as technology (the computer code for a web page) then a thousand lines in English (Hamlet) must qualify as well".

He begins the book well by his introduction being a definition of his question in pursuing the writing of the book. I much prefer this sort of introduction to the ones that explain the book or how to read it. All books of this kind should be guided by a great question.

He then moves on in the first section to the history of mankind and delves into the history of the universe on the basis that the nature of energy and matter are what are driving both life and the technium. I found this to be a strong basis for his overall thinking and explained in a way that makes the complex simple. In section 2 - Imperatives he goes on to describe the nature of change and how the concept of change in any real sense is a modern concept. For most of the lives of humankind change was either non existent or very slow. He also illustrates the positive forward movement of technology by comparing how much better the life and assets of modern people are to those of King Henry VIII when he died in 1547. He also illustrates how the bodies of plants and animals are defined by the simple rules of physics that define a very strong relationship between mass, body length, and life expectancy, in part related to the flow of energy through them.

He uses this as a basis to then move on the a detailed discussion on evolution which moves the reader from a simple understanding of natural selection as survival of the fittest to a a theory where evolution is essentially driven by three factors:

  1. Natural selection as it is generally understood.
  2. Inevitable structural definitions driven by the laws of physics that restrict the paths that evolution can move on.
  3. Contingent factors - essentially the fact that evolution moves in an onward direction and the existing structures and developments are almost impossible to scrap or re-write. For example our brains are developed on top of reptilian and mammalian developments that influence our decisions and technology - those decisions are contingent of historical evolution paths that were taken.


Kelly uses the example of the development of rhodopsin, the light detecting pigment in our eyes which enables us to see. What is amazing about this pigment is that it evolved completely separately twice. if we take an average protein of 100 amino acids there are 1039 possible proteins. For such a protein to have evolved separately twice is almost impossible by chance. Therefore Kelly argues that (using other examples as well) that there are some predetermined generalised paths that evolution moves down. He the moves this on to the idea of technology by illustrating the huge number of examples where people have come up with a similar technology or invention at the same time without contact with each other. He states that this is not a matter of an individual specific technology being predetermined but that the general macro type of it is. For example there were a large number of different iterations of the light bulb invented around the same time with lots of differences between them. Kelly argue that the light bulb was inevitable,although the final form of it was not.

The same arguments that Kelly applies to biological evolution he applies to technological evolution with the laws of physics creating wide paths that evolution of technology can wander on, historical developments influencing changes, and natural selection occurring in the form or billions of individual decisions that we make to use, tinker and interact with technology. The arguments are sophisticated enough that he does not argue that you can forecast technology changes and in fact he uses the complexity of our interactions with technology to argue the opposite - that while we can predict the general form, the detail is impossible to forecast. He then goes on to detail the driving forces that he believes are moving technology so we can get a better understanding of what that general form and detail might look like, in part to protect ourselves as much as we can from unintended consequences while accepting that we can only do so in part:

  • The drive for complexity.
  • The drive for diversity.
  • The drive for specialisation.
  • The drive for ubiquity (and how the effects of technology are different once they are ubiquitous and we interact with them in different ways).
  • The drive for freedom
  • The drive for mutualism (or collaboration/symbiosis)
  • The drive for beauty (or elegance)
  • The drive for sentience (intelligence)
  • The drive for structure.
  • The drive for evolvability

Kelly finishes in a chapter called Playing the Infinite Game that the value of technology is to open up choices and opportunities for us - the infinite game

Overall Kevin Kelly says that we should use the minimum technology that maximises our individual choices and that is different for everybody. Gaining a better understanding of how this all works can only be of value to us. This book provides a great framework for doing that although in the end it probably does so in too much detail on some points on evolution, The Amish process on technology and the unabomber's attitude to technology which end up over laboured as a result.

Read it if you are interested in how all the technium drives our world forward and you want a better and deeper understanding of the subject but if you do not like lots of detail and complicated theory then this book is not for you.


Paul Higgins

Feb 28th 2011