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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

"A power so great, it can only be used for Good or Evil"

As I knew would happen, my earlier unfair review of Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants obligated me to read the thing and give it a real one. I have to say I wanted to pick a fight with this book, for reasons that are unclear to me. Partly it's because it is in some ways very close to my own point of view, yet so different in important respects, and I'm a People's-Front-Of-Judea type of guy. Partly it's that Kelly is selling grand visions, but he seems to be unable or unwilling to also adopt the equally important critical stance. But I was disappointed in my search for an argument, because this turns out to me an essentially religious book, and in my experience there's no point arguing with religion. Either you buy into the vision or you don't. So the subject of this book is not actually technology, but the nature of existence itself and where it is supposed to be going.

You'd think the story of technology would be a large enough subject in its own right, but Kelly's scope is so all-encompassingly vast that he has to devote the a good chunk of the book to a discussion of biological life. This is necessary because a key part of his argument is that life and technology are just different aspects of the same process. Evolution (or whatever you want to call it) may have started with chemistry and nucleic acids but is now working with electronics and silicon. In support of this argument, he compares the evolution of various technological forms with biological evolution (eg, the way variant forms of military helmets or trumpets can be arranged in phylogentic trees), and then elides the differences between them, in order to paint them as just different phases of some grander tendency of the universe to evolve towards complexity/goodness/whatever. Progress, in other words. The technium (Kelly's term for the whole sphere of technological development) is simply an extension of the biosphere, or both are manifestations of some underlying, more abstract tendency.

That's the first part of Kelly's thesis. The second is that the evolution of both life and technology is a strongly convergent process, meaning roughly that while evolution obviously involves large amounts of randomness and contingency, its general tendencies and ultimate destination is in some sense foreordained. It was inevitable that we'd evolve multicellularity, muscles, eyes, and computation, although the exact form may vary across the possible universes. Kelly labels this "ordained becoming" and I believe most of these ideas have their roots in the work of Simon Conway Morris, an evolutionist who (not coincidentally) also has a "theology of evolution" at the core of his thought.

Inventions and discoveries are crystals inherent in the technium, waiting to be manifested. There is nothing magical about these patters, nothing mystical about technology having a direction. All complex, adaptive systems...will exhibit emergent forms and inherent directions. (p 186)
Given the above points, the story becomes not so much "what technology wants" as where technology (and everything else) is inevitably heading. This may be a difference which may make no difference, just as it doesn't matter in some sense whether a sunflower follows the sun because it "wants" to or it has an innate tropism-generating mechanism. Calling the trajectory of technology a "want" suggests, though, that it might want something different, or that it can be induced to go somewhere else. The arguments Kelly advances suggest otherwise.

The third part of the book is devoted to those who think they can escape from technology (such as the Amish) or put a halt to its onslaught (such as the Unabomber). It's a bold choice to make Ted Kaczinsky the focus of a chapter, I thought. Kelly does a credible and fair job of presenting his viewpoint. But the (perhaps unintended) thrust of this is to paint anybody who hopes to argue with or resist the advancement of an autonomous, self-willed technium as a madman. There are many level-headed and sane critics of technology that could have been used as foils. In some ways Kaszinscky is Kelly's mirror-image: both are equally eager to totalize technology, to paint it as a unified and nearly unstoppable force.

The urge for self-preservation, self-extension, and self-growth is the state of any living thing...there comes a moment in the childhood of our biological offspring when their childish selfish nature confronts us, and we have ot acknowledge that they have their own agenda (sic)... Collectively we are at one of these moments with the technium...At a macroscale, the technium is following its inevitable progression. Yet at the microscale, volition rules. Our choice is to align ourselves with this direction, to expand choice and possibilities for everyone and everything, and to play out the details with grace and beauty. Or we can choose (unwisely, I believe) to resist (p187)

It's odd that more reasonable efforts to redirect technology are given short shrift, given that Kelly was an editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, which advanced the idea that you could repurpose and redirect technology for alternative purposes. I guess his later career at Wired has overridden that...but he does run a site called Cool Tools which is very close in spirit to the old WEC, so he hasn't abandoned that ethos (in fairness, Kelly does discuss his personal transition from low to high tech).

The fourth part of the book is an effort to characterize the nature of the inevitable progress of technology. "Technology wants what life wants" which is "increasing efficiency, increasing opportunity, increasing emergence, increasing complexity...increasing freedom, increasing mutualism increasing beauty... " (p 270). This is the point where things skidded off the road and into the gauzy, light-filled realm of heaven for me. I've been a technologist all my life, and while I certainly believe in the wonderful things it can do and the beauty it embody, I can't take such a rosy view. Technology is not just your iPhone and Facebook, it's hydrogen bombs, ecological disaster, and the constant radical undermining of human values. It's not just those either, of course, but to consider one side without the other can't be done if you are trying to get an honest picture of the technosphere. It's the same as with biological life, which for all its beauty has no particular interest in your personal well-being and contains many "wanters" that treat humans as so much raw material, from mountain lions to malaria parasites.

Kelly is not oblivious to the possible downsides of technology, of course. But when it comes time to tot up the good vs the bad, it comes down to this:

The message of the technium is that any choice is way better then no choice. That's why technology tends to tip the scales slightly toward the good, even though it produces so many compounds the good in the world because in addition to the direct good it brings, the arc of the technium keeps increasing choices, possibilities, freedom, and free will in the world, and that is an even greater good.
Argh, this is libertarian rot. A greater availability of choice is not always "good". Would we be better off if anyone could have the choice of obtaining RPGs or nuclear weapons at the local 7-11? More choices can make people overwhelmed and unhappy. And if we are being propelled irresistibly forward into some foreordained attractor, do we really have any choice at all?

Kelly is constantly revisiting the issue of whether technology makes us better people or not. I find this a ridiculous question, and it undercuts his own premise. We do not have the option of doing without technology, with all due respect to Amish refuseniks. As a civilization, a species, we've built ourselves a technological layer that we now live in and can't get rid of (unless we are prepared for an order-of-magnitude dieoff). The question of "is technology good or evil" is a stupid question, frankly. You can talk about a particular bit of technology and what its effects are and what human interests it serves or subverts, but to try to put a moral valence on technology as a whole is like a fish giving a lecture on "water: threat or savior"?

As before, I can't help but compare Kelly to Latour. Both start with what should be a fairly straightforward task of describing the processes of science and technology, but end up going off on wild metaphysical joyrides. The difference is that Latour has a political/sociological view, while Kelly's is primarily religious (not that Latour doesn't get into that now and then). Both are trying to locate agency somewhere other than in its traditional home of individual humans, but while Latour distributes it throughout the material world, Kelly seems to locate it in some transcendent heavenly omega point. That's why ultimately Latour seems to be more of a humanist -- the desires he talks about are human-scaled, even if they inhabit odd objects.

To summarize: this book is the product of a particular kind of vision, of a world that is hurtling despite itself towards a transcendently positive future of increasing complexity and capability. "Technology" is not the real subject, that just happens to be the current edge of the curve. It's an attractive vision, and certainly it's possible to see some of this in the world when approached from the right angle. Evolution and related processes do have a ratchet effect; the world is learning to do what it does better. That's great, but either this happens with human guidance or without it. If technology in truth can't be managed, then we don't really need to think about it, we can just play with our gadgets. If, on the other hand, technology can be shaped and guided by humans, then we need better ways to do just that. Dealing with climate change is the most obvious area where we need more control, not less. Getting transported into ecstasies by the technical sublime doesn't help. The reality of our technological world -- its glories and its disasters, its potentials and ptifalls -- has to be faced squarely. Trying to paint a moral valence on technology as a whole is a mistake; like the humans who propel it forward, it contains multitudes.

[[title courtesy of The Giant Rat of Sumatra by The Firesign Theater]]


David Chapman said...

This idea that "Evolution" is inevitably taking us to an Omega Point of utter wonderfulness that Changes Everything Forever appears to be another of the "Bad Ideas from Dead Germans" I've been writing about. It seems to come from the German Romantic Idealists—probably Schelling particularly.

Partly what those guys were doing was trying to rescue the emotionally important themes of Christianity in the face of the skeptical assault from the European Enlightenment.

So even if we cannot, as individuals, be guaranteed of a wonderful outcome after death, at least the human race is guaranteed of one, by Evolution. This Evolution replaces Christian salvation and the Kingdom of God with some sort of Cosmic Ultimately Perfect Future that is conceived naturalistically.

The de facto answer to "why should I believe that" is "because otherwise reality would just be too bleak". Which seems to persuade many.

mtraven said...

I have some attraction / sympathy for romanticism, although not those particular aspects of it -- their doomed resistance against the onslaught of modernism and materialism and their efforts to preserve, if not Christianity, then something. Coleridge is a particularly appealing figure to me -- when he wasn't writing opium-influenced poetry or planning utopian communes, he was trying to reconcile religion and the biology of his day.

And some of the sympathy I have for what Kelly's book is trying to do comes from that same framework -- he's trying to rescue some sense of meaning out of the modern world, even if I don't like his approach that much.

Everyone needs value and meaning; but there seems to be a big split between those who need to seek it as a built-in property of the universe (Kelly, Christianity) and those who realize you need to construct it yourself (existentialists, maybe Buddhists?).

David Chapman said...

Yes, I thought I was basically anti-romantic, until I started reading about it more systematically a year ago, and have come to admire some aspects. (Mostly, everything is a mixed bag, because that's how people are, I guess...)

I had no idea about that work of Coleridge's. I've always loved his poetry.

I am pursuing the line that meaningness is neither objective nor subjective; that it is neither inherent in the world, nor something we can impose on it. Rather, it's an improvisational dance and lives in interactional dynamics.

This is efficient, because I can recycle some diagrams I used in my PhD thesis.

mtraven said...

Amen to your approach to meaningness.

There's a book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science which I haven't gotten around to reading yet but is reputed to be very good, which goes into some detail about the intersection of romanticism and science.

Coleridge was apparently good friends with Humphrey Davy and (I just discovered) introduced the term "substrate" to chemistry!

I thought recycling your thesis was only the fate of those who stayed in academia...but apparently there's no escape. Now that I find myself in an AI lab again, sort of, I may end up doing it myself.

Jeff Lindsay said...

Have you talked to him about this? As you know, there are plenty opportunities this month. I read the book thoroughly and saw him and we all had a long chat after. Ignoring some of the philosophical differences you have with Kelly, it seems like you missed certain points that could easily be cleared up with some questioning.

mtraven said...

Hi I wasn't able to make the event at the Hacker Dojo, maybe I'll try for another one.