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I’m a technium-futuro-optimist

I’m totally loving Kevin Kelly’s new book, What Technology Wants.  I saw him speak a while back and got very inspired by his ideas, re-igniting my own future-optimism, but it wasn’t until today that I sat down and started the book.

It begins by basically making an argument about the direction that technology has been taking, since pretty much the beginning of the universe.  Of course, it starts a little slow.  The first signs of technology really don’t show up until animals start building shelters for themselves, and then tools, and then culture itself (which he calls a technology), and now we’re in this current tizzy if technology where everything is changing faster than it ever has before.

He calls the collective thrust of technology the technium.  It includes all the tools we’ve built, all the systems and processes that help us live, all the gadgets, networks, cities, companies, ideas, philosophies, and even art.  Everything that assists us in our living, physical or immaterial.  The technium is awesome.

As a side note, did you know that the Internet currently uses 5% of the world’s energy?  Could that be true?  And could the number of connected computers, servers, etc on the network be approaching the number of neurons in a human brain?  That’s what he says… I’d be curious to know if that can be substantiated.

One of my favorite parts of the book so far is where he summarizes the history of life on Earth by noting the major landmarks where information became increasingly organized.

  1. One replicating molecule -> Interacting population of replicating molecules
  2. Replicating molecules -> Replicating molecules strung into chromosomes
  3. Chromosome of RNA enzymes -> DNA proteins
  4. Cell without nucleus -> Cell with nucleus
  5. Asexual reproduction (cloning) -> Sexual reproduction
  6. Single-cell organism -> Multicell organism
  7. Solitary individual -> Colonies  and superorganisms
  8. Primate societies -> Language-based societies
  9. Oral lore -> Writing/mathematical notation
  10. Scripts -> Printing
  11. Book knowledge -> Scientific method
  12. Artisan production -> Mass production
  13. Industrial culture -> Ubiquitous global communication

I’ve had a version of this in my head for a while now. I’ve always been fascinated by how systems emerge, then start working together, and then act as a whole.  A system, like a single cell works with other cells in a colony, and eventually becomes a multicellular organism.  And it seems like technology (by making us dependent on one another, linking us together in ever-tighter loops of feedback and communication) is currently attempting to turn us individuals into a collective that begins to exist as a collective organism on a whole different level.  The collective brings benefits to the individuals, and the individuals gain both short and long-term benefit from giving over some of their time to the collective will.  I’m sure cults have been formed around this idea many times before.

The other trend is that we are moving from physical goods, to services, to information.  People with more money end up buying fewer products, and more services.  Same with countries with more money.  We need physical atoms less and less, in proportion to to the total number of things we need.

I see the current state of the web as being in a state of information gluttony.  Like the first few years after tobacco was discovered, for instance.  Or guns.  We are enthusiastic, and out of control.  Over time, we’ll learn how to better control this new world of choices, opportunities, and dangers.

And this is where I think I’m most passionate about contributing to the world.  How to use this glut of information responsibly?  How to balance the world of possibilities available at our fingertips with the desire to also manage our own mental states, be productive, creative, full of energy, and with balanced relationships with ourselves and others around us?  Health, I believe, is central to our evolution with technology in this next cycle.

If technology is essentially an extension of ourselves, we need to make sure that that extension continues to help us (our minds, our bodies, and our spirits) as it continues to accelerate at increasingly dizzying speeds.  When we innovate our way through that problem, we’ll be even healthier than we’ve ever been before, we’ll know more about ourselves, and we’ll have a larger capacity to express ourselves during this short time on Earth that we have.  Sounds a bit foofy I know, but this is how I see things at the moment.  We are evolving with the technium, and it’s a great thing.

13 Responses to “I’m a technium-futuro-optimist”

  1. I see too many invariants to get excited and believe we’re making progress; the way people treat each other, making a living, power structures. But there are some real and awesome things to get excited about; perhaps less poverty in the world overall, steady improvements in medicine that impacts the whole world.

    It’s our perception of the world that determines how we sit with world. Your hope, is an example. Out perceptions are usually short-term and very local. It’s the common experience of centuries, not technology give us the skills adjust our perceptions of the world.

    You do mention that the technium incudes philosophy. But the basis of the world shows it bias. My thoughts are fairly ironic considering I’m a programmer who makes augmented reality games, but more and more I feel the draw of Basho more then Kelly.

    Chasing technology is often unthinking. Our minds love the feeling of thoughts snapping into place, figuring things out and making new things. It’s a very important part of who we are. But, I think it’s a fundamental mistake to believe this is progress.

    I haven’t actually read Kelly’s book yet, so please excuse my off the cuff comments. :)

  2. People who think abstractly about the technology and it’s implications for the future of the world are rarely people who have traveled in third world countries — or if so, only to the youth hostel world of the “in” countries. Yes, technology is pervasive even in many poor countries. But first there are truly millions of people starving, uneducated and without health care. This is not a problem to be solved with technology; it is a problem to be solved by a concern for the health of the world. It’s very nice to live beautiful places like Seattle or Cape Cod [where I live] where people are prosperous [although we, like Seattle, like everywhere] have our homeless, jobless, ill, criminal and insane] and the majority are aware of both technology and ecology. While those of us who wish to understand what is happening in the world want, and probably need, to read Kelly’s book — and a good many others. But above all we need the breadth of outlook to understand that our way of life is so to speak the outer rim — a very, very thin outer rim — of an enormous bowl of humanity with many down on the bottom, out of sight, crushed and hopeless and ignored by those looking to the future and shouting, “oh brave new world!”

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