Kevin Kelly on the Technium

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We created the technium, so we tend to assign ourselves exclusive influence over it. But we have been slow to learn that systems—all systems—generate their own momentum. Because the technium is an outgrowth of the human mind, it is also an outgrowth of life, and by extension it is also an outgrowth of the physical and chemical self-organization that first led to life. The technium shares a deep common root not only with the human mind, but with ancient life and other self-organized systems as well. And just as a mind must obey not only the principles guiding cognition but also the laws governing life and self-organization, so the technium must obey laws of mind, life, and self-organization—as well as our human minds. Thus out of all the spheres of influence upon the technium, the human mind is only one. And this influence may even be the weakest one.

 

The technium wants what we design it to want and what we try to direct it to do. But in addition to those drives, the technium has its own wants. It 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.

 

I know this claim sounds strange. It seems to anthropomorphize stuff that is clearly not human. How can a toaster want? Aren’t I assigning way too much consciousness to inanimate objects, and by doing so giving them more power over us than they have, or should have?

 

It’s a fair question. But ‘want’ is not just for humans. Your dog wants to play Frisbee. Your cat wants to be scratched. Birds want mates. Worms want moisture. Bacteria want food. The wants of a microscopic, single-celled organism are less complex, less demanding, and fewer in number than the wants of you or me, but all organisms share a few fundamental desires: to survive, to grow. All are driven by these ‘wants’. The wants of a protozoan are unconscious, unarticulated—more like an urge or a tendency. A bacterium tends to drift toward nutrients with no awareness of its needs. In a dim way it chooses to satisfy its wants by heading one way and not another.

 

Kevin Kelly, What Technology Wants: Technology is a living force that can expand our individual potential–if we listen to what it wants (Penguin Group, 2010), 15.

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