Kevin Kelly, guru of Wired magazine, proves himself to be a polymath who is not afraid to have an opinion or two in his book What Technology Wants. His main provocative point is that technology is developing in certain predictable ways.
this by comparing technological change to evolution. That itself is a controversial move because many (most?) scientists believe that evolution has no direction at all. Afraid that such thinking could lead to assertions that there is a mind behind evolution, they assert that it is completely undirected, without a purpose. It just is.
Kelly brushes this concern aside by saying the direction of evolution is embedded in the laws of nature, the way the universe is fundamentally set up. So where has evolution been going along with this new kind of evolution we call technology? To name a few, they are going:
- From simplicity to complexity (atoms to galaxies; wheels to robots)
- From homogeneity to diversity (hydrogen and helium atoms to a hundred elements; a few kinds of cars to hundreds of kinds of cars)
- From inefficiency to efficiency (galaxies use energy less efficiently than animals; a car uses energy less efficiently than a Pentium chip)
Kelly also analyzes ten other directions. Of course there are exceptions to all these, but he amasses enough fascinating examples to make a plausible case.
Speaking of fascinating examples, this book is a trivia lover’s dream covering a wide range of disciplines. Here’s just one about the predictability of technological development. In 1953 the Air Force wanted to plan out their next generation of airplanes. Knowing that the developmental lifecycle is several years, they didn’t want the planes to be out of date the moment they were ready for deployment. So they commissioned a study on airspeed to predict how fast planes would be going in the near future.
The brass couldn’t believe the results–flight would attain orbital speeds within four years! How could they devote huge sums of research money on something that crazy! Yet the study proved to be correct when the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik into orbit in 1957, and the US was far behind having put its research money elsewhere.
when I heard Kelly speak he commented that the world population is expected to top out at ten or eleven billion about the year 2100 and then probably decline. “Was this due to epidemics or wars?” I asked. No, he said. Birth rates will decline worldwide according to multiple studies by the UN and others, a point he develops in the book. That may sound like good news to some, but since there is a direct link between expanding population and expanding economies, an extended worldwide depression is likely between the years 2100 and 2300. That would indeed lead to more wars and disease. But this does not depress Kelly because he thinks technology will help us solve even that problem.
Kelly is clearly a technological optimist. But even for someone like me who believes in fallen human nature, he makes an interesting case. Developing the technology of oil paints made Rembrandt and Andrew Wyeth possible. Without the technology of musical instruments there is no Mozart or John Williams. Without technology, small pox kills millions each year. Technology makes human flourishing possible for more people than was achievable in prehistoric times. He recognizes that technology creates greater potential disaster, but in the past we solved similar problems with more technology. I get what he’s saying, but it is still hard for me to be quite that upbeat.