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  • Technology:Friend or Foe?
  • Eric Bain-Selbo (bio)
Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants (New York: Penguin Books, 2010)
Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011)

If we judged these books by their covers, or at least their titles, we would guess that they represent strictly opposed positions on the role of technology in our lives. Kevin Kelly, cofounder of Wired magazine, seems to anthropomorphize technology and suggests that the focus of the book is on technology and not humanity. Sherry Turkle, a psychologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, clearly expresses her suspicion about technology in both the primary title and the subtitle of her work. Her focus seems to be on humanity rather than technology. In this case, there is some truth to judging these books by their covers. For Kelly, technology is the big Other to which (or whom?) we must make peace. For Turkle, technology is a tool on the way to becoming an Other, and this transition has serious consequences for who we are as human beings. Together, their works demonstrate well the complexity of our relationship with technology (in particular, computers, artificial intelligence, social media, etc.). Together, their works serve as invaluable resources as we grapple with the import and consequences of technological advances. [End Page 450]

Kelly coins the term technium to describe the object of his investigation. The technium “extends beyond shiny hardware to include culture, art, social institutions, and intellectual creations of all types. It includes intangibles like software, law, and philosophical concepts. And most important, it includes the generative impulses of our inventions to encourage more tool making, more technology invention, and more self-enhancing connections” (11–12).

The technium is not just a set of tools for use by humans. The technium is a species like others on the planet, seeking to grow and extend itself. The technium “wants to sort itself out, to self-assemble into hierarchical levels, just as most large, deeply interconnected systems do. The technium also wants what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself, to keep itself going. And as it grows, those inherent wants are gaining in complexity and force” (15). In sum, the technium wants increasing efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability (270). As Kelly notes, the technium “has its own agenda. It is selfish” (198).

Describing the technium as an organism may strike us as a bit odd or simply wrong. At best we might see the comparison as only a weak analogy. But talking about the technium as a living organism is not simply analogical for Kelly—a clever heuristic device to make his case. He turns to the biological sciences to argue that life can be understood primarily as “the intangible organization of the energy and information” of any particular organism (10). We also understand life as an evolutionary process. On both counts (organization of energy and information as well as evolution), Kelly concludes that the “technium can really only be understood as a type of evolutionary life” (45). But evolving towards what? Evolution, it turns out, is an end in itself. The point of evolution is evolution. Thus, the “technium is a continuation of a four-billion-year-old force that pursues more ability to evolve” (342). In fact, the technium results in an exponential leap forward for evolution. It accelerates evolution—both for itself and for us. Kelly concludes that “the evolution of evolution is the most powerful force in the universe” (344).

Toward the end of his book, Kelly explains what he was trying to figure out all along: “What I was really searching for was a way to reconcile the technium’s selfish nature, which wants more of itself, with its generous nature, which wants to help us to find more of ourselves [i.e., to evolve]” (352). So the [End Page 451] technium is both selfish and generous. It has been so generous to us that we cannot possibly live without it.

As an evolving organism (or, at least, like one), Kelly argues, the technium is not a tool at our disposal...


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pp. 450-458
Launched on MUSE
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