Kevin Kelly's WHAT TECHNOLOGY WANTS: how technology changes us and vice-versa

Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants is an inspiring, provocative and sweeping account of how our world works and where it's going. Kelly is one of the great technology thinkers, an old Whole Earth editor and co-founder of Wired, an extraordinary photographer, a technology refusenik, and a truly great writer.

Kelly's central thesis is this: technology has its own internal logics and rhythms that are distinct from (and sometimes adverse to) the desires of the humans that create it. Technology creates itself, using humans to do its bidding, and our normal view of inventors creating technology is a kind of romantic fairy tale that ignores the fact that nearly every great invention is invented nearly simultaneously by many people at the same time, all over the world.

Kelly isn't mystical on this subject, however. His self-directing technology isn't powered by haints or spirits. Rather, it unfolds according to a certain inevitability that is dictated by the circumstances of the technology that came before. Just as every river ends up looking river-like (though every river's course is also unique and impossible to predict in advance) because of the inescapable constraints of physics and geology, technologies follow courses that humans can influence and see the gross forms of, but humans cannot direct or prevent technology's course, at least not in the long run. Like water contained behind a dam, relentlessly seeking escape, technology will eventually find its way into our hands.

Neither is Kelly entirely happy about this. There are plenty of technologies that he doesn't use (including laptops!), and he is very bullish on individuals and communities making thoughtful and concerted efforts to choose the tools that work best for them. His chapter on Amish hackers -- the early-adopter Amish technologists who experiment with new gadgets and report back to their communities on how they effect the rhythms of their lives -- is an inspiring call to arms. Kelly wants you to make choices about technology, but he also wants you to understand that technology is also making choices about you.

What Technology Wants ranges very wide, connecting technology's "exotropian" character (this being a variant on the more familiar "extropy" -- the property of making things more orderly, as when a human embryo temporarily reassembles simple molecules into extremely complex ones) to the long sweep of time starting with the Big Bang and the subsequent creation of a series of ever-more-complex elements, conditions and circumstances. I've seen Ray Kurzweil make this argument before, but not so well as Kelly does -- Kelly tells this story in a more grounded way, connected to the stories of modern conscientious objectors to technology from the Amish to the Unabomber.

I had many quibbles with Kelly's argument. I think he understates the power of monopolies and regulatory capture to twist technological progress; I think he glosses over the privacy implications without examining them; I think he fails to do justice to the special equivalence of computing machines that distinguishes them from the gadgets that came before them. But I think it would be impossible not to quibble with a book as grand and grandiose as What Technology Wants. Anyone who attempts to assemble a coherent narrative that starts with the Big Bang and ends in the infinite future is bound to say some things I disagree with.

And I agree with much more than I disagree with. I read my first issue of the Whole Earth Review in 1989 -- the special "Is the Body Obsolete?" issue. It was the first reading material I'd found that made a connection between the philosophical elements in the science fiction I enjoyed with the world I inhabited. Four years later, I found issue 1.1 of Wired on a news-stand near the Toronto Greyhound station as I was heading to the University of Waterloo. Within days, I had a Unix account at the University of Toronto, had found Bruce Sterling's 1992 Game Developers Conference keynote, and had dropped out of school to become a computer programmer.

Something in that whirl of ideas and tools and communities poleaxed me, filled me with excitement until I split open like a hot chestnut. It was the idea that whirlwind technology had taken a turn that was about to truly transform the world, and that anyone could jump into the eye of the storm and ride it up and up.

That's the feeling I got from What Technology Wants: a rekindling of that adolescent delight and excitement and sense of potential that made me drop everything to chase this dream. It is an extraordinary book and I commend it highly to you.

What Technology Wants


  1. As someone who is currently writing a book on the failure of educational technology to improve learning outcomes, I’m seriously looking forward to What Technology Wants. I welcome any message that promotes the idea that we have lost our ability to think critically about technology.

    However the idea that technology has its own agenda is hardly new. Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innes were writing about this extensively in the 1960s.

    1. Do you mean the failure of all education technology? Like Kahn Academy? Or the failure of some education technology? Like webcams in laptops?

      1. Yes, and yes. Educational technology is not about accessibility (in fact it privileges some forms of access at the expense of others) but rather how technology is applied to leverage or improve instruction. This includes both the mediated and the media (e.g. instructional design as a technology).

        What we do not want to acknowledge that technology fails to improve learning outcomes to any significant degree (we would all have university degrees at age 18 if it did). Instead we invoke ad-hoc explanations such as human factors, the school system, lack of funding, etc. when really it is telling us that our assumptions about how people learn are at fault.

        In this sense technology only amplifies what is fundamentally wrong with the education system, and at the same time permits this sorry state to continue under the false assumption that better technology = better learning.

  2. I’m not sure that I’m interested in what one of the creators of Wired has to say. Wired used to seem like it had some relevancy…but in hindsight, it spent far more time trying to seem clever and stylish than actually insightful. Now it’s just kind of silly (Will Ferrel as your go-to guy for an article about technology that never arrived?)

    I also find the idea of the Amish ‘hackers’ both logical and odd. The Amish, at least in Lancaster, PA (which, btw, is far from the only cluster of Amish in the US, despite pop culture belief to the contrary) aren’t as committed to the non-tech lifestyle as many folks might think. Yes, they reject having tech in their houses…GENERALLY. But they willingly ride the electric train along Philly’s main line; they work in modern facilities using modern tools (my vinyl siding was just installed by an Amish roofer); they are willing to use non-tech products that were produced by high-tech processes. The Amish relation to technology is more subtle and nuanced than is often portrayed. And that doesn’t even count (as the Simpsons called them) ‘those Godless Mennonnites’. ;)

  3. The idea is not so new & fresh. Please see Jacques Ellul’s La technique ou l’enjeu du siècle. Paris: Armand Colin, 1954. Paris: Économica, 1990.

    and short film/interview

    Ellul’s commitment to scrutinize technological development is expressed as such:

    “What is at issue here is evaluating the danger of what might happen to our humanity in the present half-century, and distinguishing between what we want to keep and what we are ready to lose, between what we can welcome as legitimate human development and what we should reject with our last ounce of strength as dehumanization. I cannot think that choices of this kind are unimportant.”

    1. Why the necessity of knocking this author in order to praise (deservedly so, by the way) Ellul? Cultural theory is hardly a zero-sum game.

  4. A really interesting book – but definitely needs to be read critically. The philosopher Langdon Winner, who is a bit of technological determinist himself, has posted a thoughtful takedown of Kelly and the other “cyberlibertarians” that is an interesting counterpoint:

  5. Tee-hee! Old WIREDs! I’ve got as far back as 1.2. The Cypher-Punks on the front cover wearing scary “Halloween” masks and Electronic Frontier Foundation t-shirts! The ads for bleeding edge technology like SeaGate’s 200 MB drive (what could you possibly do with all that space anyway?) and SONY’s MiniDiscs which would allow you to record your music digitally on an erasable MO disc! General Magic proclaiming that soon you would be able to send text messages between handheld devices! (Always thought that that last was a pretty dubious idea.)

    Then there’s the article about the Feds losing the infamous Steve Jackson Games case. Plaintiff counsel Pete Kennedy sees the case as “a significant step towards affording people who use computers the same rights as people who use telephones; law enforcement shouldn’t assume that someone with a computer is necessarily a criminal.” That’ll show’em!

    I read that thing and was amazed to find that there were other people who thought that technology just might have some political implications. I also immediately downloaded my first copy of PGP from the new-fangled version of ARPAnet that was coming into vogue (not as advanced as the old IPSAnet but I could see that it had promise). The reputation I got as an early adapter from doing that later got me a job at a cryptological dot bomb company.

    I’ve still got a copy, along with far too-many other old WIREDs. Too bad the things have about a zero collectors’ value except for 1.1.

  6. What does the following mean: “I think he fails to do justice to the special equivalence of computing machines that distinguishes them from the gadgets that came before them.”

    1. Maybe he meant “special ambivalence of computing machines”. That at least would make some sense within the context.

  7. A lot of these thinkers listed here, Kelly, McLuhan, Innis, Heidegger, and Ellul, have been countered by a surge of writers who argue just the opposite. Our view of technology has changed dramatically since the 1960s, but it doesn’t appear that Kelly’s has. Recent technological theory points out that technologies are created by humans, whether they are individuals, or in collaboration, therefore it is steered in very human directions. Politics, economics, social relations, serendipity, method of consumption, all play a role in the finalization of a technology. If you are interested in the perspectives on technology after 1970, then check out writers like Bruno Latour, Pinch & Bijker, Andrew Feenberg, Donna Haraway, or Patrick Feng. They use empirical methods of investigation to overturn a lot of the unfounded theorization of their predecessors. Technological development is much more complex than the critics of the sixties thought.

  8. I agree with Kelly. Look at all the people who relentlessly download apps who otherwise would not be such slaves to the machine had the technology never existed. Technology does control us, making us do things we otherwise would never do.

  9. Sounds like more of the same from Mr. Kelly. Will it DRM when it’s DRM-time or will the Great Firewall China-style appear when it’s Great-Firewall-of-China-time? Buzzkill technologies like these must be inevitable, because they’re certainly here. It’s definitely surveillance-camera- and data-mining-time.

    Sure, some technologies are more *likely* to arise and develop than others, at least if you factor out wild cards, but they’ve all come down to choices made, tides taken at the flood or omitted, or market niches appearing at the right or wrong moments. And, let’s face it, some actors have a greater say in the above than others.

    If the leaders of a certain Greek city-state had shown more interest in that steam-spurty thingy or a pre-Revolutionary French gentleman-inventor hadn’t run his steam car into a wall, then microchip-punk would be the fad of today.

    VHS beat the superior Betamax and cars powered by gasoline or diesel beat steam-powered or electrical ones, at least for 100 years. The ever-overflowing graveyard of technology is full of “inevitable” media. Some became part of the landscape, for while, but others were stillborn.

    Secondly, technological determinism carries a whiff of historical inevitability. That sounds a bit Marxist and risks getting dropped from certain free-market think-tank guest lists, but not to worry because Herbert Spencer similarly used Darwin to flatter and justify the rising industrialists and robber barons. If you ever wanted to convince smart people, those most likely to vote, not to get involved in political choices concerning technology, citing inevitability is a great way to do it. If you like where it’s going, then just go with the flow. If you don’t, well, you can’t fight the flow.

    It’s ironic that Kelly gets a good rating here, because a lot of people here are fighting hard (and writing their elected representatives) to have a say in how technologies are developed, even apparently inevitable–or at least recurring-ones like censorship.

    Both objections to Kelly’s themes are covered, more coherently than I can hope to, in the Californian Ideology (1995)

    It’s a bit long, but it also accidentally points out how the smart Silicon Valley geeks could be so comfortable in a Tea Party Movement that also contains selfish, homophobic, Jesus-shouting, anti-evolution cranks.

  10. ‎Kevin Kelly hates Germans: “We’re sorry…The publisher has restricted sales of this title(s) to residents of U.S. and U.S. territories. They are being removed from your cart and subtotal. We apologize for the inconvenience.”

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