Saul Kaplan: What Technology Wants

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It’s rare that a book so enhances your world-view that you think the author has taken up residence in your head.  Henceforth What Technology Wants shall be known as my new playbook for understanding technology.  It’s a must read for innovation junkies trying to sort the infinite possibilities of the 21stcentury.  Many have tried to help us understand the meaning of technology.  Few get below the buzzwords.

What Technology Wants captures the essence of our technological revolution and provides a lens to understand its origins. It provides a unique view from technology’s perspective shedding light on what technology wants and where it can take us.  It’s a call to action reminding us of the opportunity and responsibility to remake our world in a way that deeply honors technologic potential around us. I expected the book to be great. Kevin Kelly has been an innovation hero of mine dating back to his days as the founding editor of WIRED. Every story during Kevin’s tenure at the magazine was a voice from the future that seemed to be speaking directly to me.  It was a thrill to spend an entire day with Kevin when he came to the Business Innovation Factory recently to discuss What Technology Wants.  Talk about being a kid in a candy store.  My head is still spinning.

Kevin Kelly’s visit and book discussion stretched my thinking in both comfortable and uncomfortable ways.  Let’s start with the comfortable leap.  Kelly clearly asserts that humans are the evolutionary conduit connecting the cosmos, bios, and technos.  He paints a compelling narrative arc asserting that the concentric creation stories of the universe, life, and the man-made world all share the same inexorable evolutionary path.  I now know what Stephen Johnson meant by taking a long zoom view. Kelly traces the four billion year history of life through transitions marked by ever-increasing complexity of information flows. From molecules to single-cell organisms to language based societies to writing and printing to agriculture to scientific method, to mass production to ubiquitous global communication.  It’s all one grand evolutionary arc and we are center stage.

Saul KaplanI have always been fascinated by biomimicry, a design discipline that emulates or takes inspiration from nature to solve human problems.  In What Technology Wants, Kelly helps us make the connections and intellectual leap necessary to see evolution as a connecting process, seamlessly working its magic across both the natural and man-made world.  Technology doesn’t just mimic nature it’s a natural evolutionary extension of the human mind, which in turn is a direct extension of our cosmic beginnings.  Kelly invites us to become one with technology.  It’s a far easier invitation to accept knowing we share a common evolutionary process and limitless opportunities to explore the adjacent possible together.

The leap I am less comfortable with and still trying to process is Kelly’s assertion that there is an inherent direction to the evolutionary process. He claims evolution is a predictable process with predetermined tendencies. His argument isn’t theological but science based.  It’s enough to make your head explode.  Kelly claims there is an aspect of structural inevitability or predetermined outcomes built into the evolutionary process.  He suggests that if somehow we could replay four billion years of evolutionary process over again we would see roughly the same outcomes.  How can that be? The notion goes against everything I am wired to believe.  I grew up incessantly arguing with my mom, who must have said a million times, if it is meant to be it will be.  To which I always countered in full-throated argument, the only things meant to be are things we make happen.  I never bought into mom’s fatalistic life view preferring the self-deterministic outlook that has shaped my life.

And yet What Technology Wants advances a compelling argument that complex adaptive systems will converge into recurring solutions given enough time.  Kelly is claiming that evolution is reproducible.  He sites the convergent evolution of eyesight as evidence. Evolutionary biologists have determined that a camera like eye evolved not just once but independently six times over the course of life on Earth.  It seems that eyesight is an inevitable evolutionary outcome not a random event. Many other examples are highlighted in the book pointing to similar evolutionary convergence across the natural world including flapping wings which evolved independently three times in birds, bats, and pterodactyls.

Kelly adeptly suggests evolutionary emergence also applies to the man-made world.  Light bulbs, Kelly argues, were inevitable as are ubiquitous computing and personalized genomes.  There are certain inevitable evolutionary forces that given enough time will produce predictable outcomes.  Technology like life wants increasing efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, and evolvability.  While these tendencies shape evolution over the long haul our choices determine the path and pace technological advances make in the short term.  It is up to us to make good choices.  I don’t know if I’m prepared to make a complete leap to a world-view shaped by determinism but Kelly’s argument has sure got me thinking.

When and if I grow up I want to be an evolutionary technologist. I don’t know if there is such a thing but what could be more interesting and rewarding than shedding light on the pathways of possibilities created by technology’s evolutionary patterns?  We are fortunate to live in a time with infinite opportunity enabled by accelerating technological evolution.  With these opportunities come equally awesome responsibilities.  It is up to us to make choices to sustain and improve the world we have inherited.  We will make many mistakes along the way.  What technology wants is for us to be positive stewards of the planet.  I know we will not let technology down.

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