Kelly, Kevin. WHAT TECHNOLOGY WANTS. New York: Penguin, 2010. Pp. 406. Hardcover, $27.95.
What is the essence of technology? What can we do to steer it so as to maximize its benefits? We can steer it best by aligning efforts along the “natural” directions that technology wants to go. These directions are to increase efficiency, opportunity, emergence, complexity, diversity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, mutualism, beauty, sentience, structure, evolvability. Understanding the essence of technology begins with human evolution, with an emphasis on technology. We learn that the rate of warfare deaths is about 5 times as great among hunter-gathers than among agricultural based societies, so more technology is not always more lethal. Six major transitions in technology have taken place, of which Kelly believes the creation of language was the most significant. The result of language and writing is that particular technological artifacts never entirely disappear. Parts are still available for the Stanley Steamer. The evolution of technology is a continuation of the organizing of the cosmos from raw electromagnetic energy to mass to information. A striking graph shows an almost linear, on a log scale, decrease in energy gradient (amount of energy flowing through one gram of the system) from a galaxy to a Pentium chip. Evolution of living things and of technology does have a direction, “shaped by the nature of matter and energy.” The complex things we see around us, humans, for example, are improbable but inevitable. The same inevitability guides the evolution of technology. This inevitability is reflected by the near simultaneity of many inventions and also by the observed difficulty in leapfrogging over a basic technology in implementing an advanced one—computers in Ethiopian hospitals will not be useful until electric power is reliable. The data on how technology has changed show a clear pattern. Moore’s Law probably describes the best known pattern. Each year computers get 50% better and 50% smaller and 50% cheaper. The direction of long term trends is inevitable because the direction reflects what a technology is built to do. People would do best to align themselves with this direction. Each new technology creates problems, usually the problems caused by the previous technology—automobiles create more pollution than horses did. The Unabomber recognized the problems brought by new technology and argued for less of it. In fact, people tend to embrace new technologies without doing a cost/benefit calculation. The reason is not clear for this nearly universal but irrational embrace. It is similar to an addiction,. The Amish are one group that does consider carefully whether to adopt a new technology. All of us should evaluate based on the qualities or directions listed in the beginning of this review. Provocative ideas in the book, nearly always supported with compelling examples. Such a grand sweep of the history and character of technology is illuminating. One does not have to agree with all of the ideas to benefit from reading the book.