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What Technology Wants
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175 of 184 people found the following review helpful
on November 19, 2010
Format: Hardcover
There is much in this book that is thought-provoking and interesting, and there are no regrets for having invested the time and effort in reading it. While the book is not a difficult read - Mr. Kelly's prose is clear and pleasing - it is a challenging read in that it requires an occasional pause to fully consider what exactly is being proposed in the author's seductive writing style. It is hard not to admire the author's deep knowledge of and passion for the subject, but reasonable people will disagree as to the content.

First, the positives. There are excellent overviews of the historical development of science as well as the concept of convergence that recurs in scientific and technological development (and also, as the author points out, in film-making). The case for considering technology as a self-perpetuating organism is forcefully made, and examples of parallels between evolutionary development and technological development are treated in depth.

There is also a helpful discussion about man's relationship to technology, covered in three chapters collectively called Choices. Here Mr. Kelly views the perspective of the Unabomber, the Amish, and a proposed contemporary search for a convivial relationship. As odd as it sounds to use the Unabomber as a lens through which to view technology, it is extremely powerful. The obvious point is that it is quite unthinkable to live without technology (Ted Kaczynski typed his manifesto and rode a bike), so that finding a personal balance with it should be the goal (preferably one that does not include bombs - either mail-bombs or the nuclear variety).

Second, the controversies. If I correctly interpreted what Mr. Kelly has to say about technology, it is something like this: technology (or his word, technium) is the sum total of man's progress, or "8,000 years of embedded human knowledge" and that it includes all the progress man has made (resulting in extended life spans, creation of leisure, etc.). Because this technium is "an outgrowth of the human mind" it is an extension of life itself. Further, this technium has reached such an advanced stage that it has now developed into an independent organism.

From there Mr. Kelly stretches for his ultimate conclusion, "the technium expands life's fundamental traits, and in doing so it expands life's fundamental goodness." What does technology want? Goodness, apparently. Technology is postured as some benevolent god, created by man in man's own image (which is an idea that should be terrifying).

For technology geeks and techie true believers I can understand how this book could rate five stars. Mr. Kelly is a compelling evangelist for technology. But as for the rest of us, while we acknowledge technology's benefits, we probably have already made our peace with technology at less than unqualified love (perhaps a "love-wariness" relationship?). Looking back to the editorial review on the product page, the book is described as a "visceral" expression, and that is absolutely correct. This book contains Mr. Kelly's personal, inward feelings on technology, not, despite the trappings, a consciously scientific study of the subject.

Read this book and enjoy this book, but be prepared to occasionally shake your head and say, "Really? He can't possibly believe that." Technology deserves our ambivalence precisely because it was created by man and is an extension of man, and therefore has all our potential for both good and bad.

Addendum 7/24/12: Excerpts from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's 1993 address to the International Academy of Philosophy - "Time passed, and it turned out that Progress is indeed marching on, and is even stunningly surpassing expectations, but is doing so only in the field of technological civilization ... Progress was understood to be a shining and unswerving vector, but it turned out to be a complex and twisted curve, which has brought us back to the very same eternal questions that loomed in earlier times, except that facing these questions then was easier for a less distracted, less disconnected mankind." Food for thought, perhaps.
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78 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I admire this book, the brilliance of which defies easy summary. It stands out for its courage, honesty, and the depth of its convictions. One of the best books I have read this year.

Roughly, this is a book about where our technology (or technium), if it can be considered autonomous, wants to go. The subtext is an lasting inquiry into whether, roughly, technology makes people happy or not. As such I'd consider it in a dialogue with writers like Thoreau and Edward Abbey, and more recent books like Shop Class as Soulcraft, Into the Wild, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

By profession I read a lot of tech books, from academia to business press and among them Kelly's book truly stands out. There are a few reasons. First, Kelly is just writing at a much deeper level than most authors have the courage to tackle. Most tech writers allow their natural optimism or pessimism to remain unexamined; For Kelly that is the topic itself, and it is refreshing. Compared with Kelly's book, many other books feel unbearably superficial (even perhaps my own!)

Second, Kelly writes from a level or deep personal experience which makes all the difference. This isn't about trite anecdotes or reporting, but rather the experience of a man who has tried living like the Unabomber at least for periods of his life. Basically, he has tried life with lots of tech, with little, and in between. He has, therefore, convictions from that experience that feel deep and genuine.

Third, Kelly has a natural, easy prose and an honesty in his voice which carries through every paragraph. It is extremely hard to write on abstract topics like the existence of a technium without quickly becoming technical or very confusing. For me at least, the book was a page-turner, which you expect from narrative but not from philosophy.

Highly recommended.

Tim Wu
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33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on November 24, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Are you simply trying to decide whether to buy this book?
The answer is "buy it. Absolutely, yes!"
It is Kevin Kelly's (KK's) magnum opus.
It is important, clearly and elegantly written, and
thoroughly researched. Also, it's so good,
it was hard to put down.

Nobody is better qualified to write about technology and tools.
This has been KK's lifetime focus, first as an editor of
the Whole Earth Catalog (the bible of the hippie back-to-nature movement),
second as a cofounder of the Well (a prominent early online community),
then as executive editor of Wired, and finally as curator of Cool Tools
(a popular website that reviews favorite tools) -
not to mention his other widely-read books, eg "Out of Control."

Other reviewers have summarized the book's major themes,
included key quotations, and told you why the book is important.
Coming late to the party, I will just hit a few crucial points that
other reviewers have neglected.

First, what I absolutely love about the book is KK's personal approach to life.
Reading Wired you might think he would be using every fancy tech gadget
the minute it comes out. Nothing could be further from the truth.
He does not carry a cellphone; does not travel with a laptop;
has no cable connection and does not watch tv. Why?
Because he genuinely cares about his QUALITY of life.
Kevin is a guy who spent years owning nothing but a sleeping bag and a bike,
who admires the Amish, and who is decidely not an early adopter.
Like the Amish, he will thoroughly evaluate a new device
before allowing it into his personal world.
Ambivalence and thoughtful examination are the essence of KK's approach to technology.
I occasionally attend his wonderful Quantified Self seminar,
where that sensitivity to life's nuances shines through.
KK is not an unabashed flag-waver for technology,
and human values are highly prized in WTW and in his life.
Now, on to another topic.

The New York Times Sunday Book Review of Nov 5, 2010 recently
featured a critique of What Technology Wants (WTW) written
by prominent biologist Jerry Coyne.
Professor Coyne, an expert on evolution, fired a big gun at WTW.
He said that while technology may have a "drive" toward complexity,
albeit a metaphorical one, that is certainly not the case with evolution.
Parallels between "the technium" and evolution figure prominently in WTW.
Coyne rightfully points out that the biosphere (largely comprised
of billion year old simple and unchanged bacterial species) has no mind of its own,
and technology also does not.

Coyne accuses Kelly of being a teleologist in the spirit, say, of Teilhard de Chardin.
(I personally think Teilhard was right on the money.)
Coyne is surely right in the sense that humankind was not predestined
to rule Earth (and Kelly is quite aware of the highly contingent nature of evolution).
The misleading part in Coyne's critique is his apparent
neglect of the autocatalytic nature of both technology and biologic evolution,
which WTW so superbly spells out. Both the technium and biology
are propelled forward by building on past innovations,
ie by "standing on the shoulders of giants," as Isaac Newton said.
The innovations for technology were language, printing, science, and the internet
(not to mention a ten millennia portfolio of other inventions).
The innovations for biology were protocell formation,
replicating macromolecules, energy storage, protein synthesis,
photosynthesis, motility, sexual reproduction, etc.
Since the Cambrian explosion, for us multicellular types,
the patent portfolio has continued to accumulate:
intercellular signaling networks, complex developmental programs,
neural signaling, internal skeletons, teleceptors, etc.
WTW shows exactly how the technium is autocatalytic in the
same way that biology is. (Coyne's point that biologic evolution is
fueled by random, non-prescient mutation is almost irrelevant. Nature is so prolific
that the important part of its generate-and-test algorithm is really the test part.)
Now, on to my major disagreements.

My most important criticism of WTW stems from my concern
for other species and our biosphere. Humanity and its technology have devasted
the biosphere and are creating the greatest mass extinction in 65 million years.
Technology has been a great boon to the human race (otherwise there would not
be nearly 7 billion of us), but it has been an unmitigated disaster for all other species.
KK devotes a chapter to these problems, but then seems to express equal concern
about the slowing growth of the human population.

He and I completely part company on this one.
Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, is a disaster: internicine warfare, famine, AIDS.
Closing your eyes to Malthus may work in California (and even here, not really)
but not in Africa. Nanotechnology may eventually create a bright future
for massive humanity, but before that there is a multidecade valley of death
due to war, resource depletion, pollution, and disease.
The planet does not need more humans.

OK, technology has been great for humans but not for non-humans.
How about the future? Again I disagree with KK, although here I am less vehement.
(The future is profoundly unknowable: no one can see beyond the singularity,
which is technology's future event horizon.)

I don't share KK's rosy view of technology's fond embrace of humanity,
although I hope it's true. Yes, technology gives us more options,
which we can always renounce (as he himself frequently does.)
However, in the medium-term (by 2050), technology
(artificial intelligence, robotics, cognitive science) will rapidly
leave humanity in its dust. See those marginalized gorillas in Africa,
clinging for their lives. That could well be us.

My great hope is that technology will create a Garden of Eden on Planet Earth
just as WTW envisions. On the other hand, I think that outer space,
will not be explored or settled by us but rather by highly advanced technology
just as it currently is by NASA's space probes.
This bifurcation between humanity and the technium will happen before 2050.
I see no reason why a superior technium will inevitably share our values or value us.
Our hands are stained with the blood of the world's species. Why won't we be next?

Again, this is an important work, and I urge you to read it, my criticisms not withstanding.
(I am a former Stanford AI researcher and physician who covers cognitive neuroscience
and its overlap with AI on my website: bobblum.com )
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2011
Format: Hardcover
A thought provoking book but like another reviewer said, remember to stop and ask yourself "really?" periodically.

Kelly posits a link between biology and technology, implying that the evolution of our evolution is the technium, which is developing its own wants and tendencies and is shaped to some extent by inevitable forms. Although he doesn't come out and imply that the machines will wake up and skynet is going to take over, he definitely uses the word sentience enough to keep you wondering where he's headed with his argument.

Given the same evidence I draw different conclusions or at least phrase them very differently from Kelly. The things we make (technology) change us and our wants change accordingly. This cycle repeats itself endlessly. Now that one billion of us can easily communicate on the internet, we're discovering that we want new things, things we didn't know we wanted 100 years ago. I'm just not convinced that the "technium" wants anything for itself. Maybe this is just semantics and I'm really just agreeing (in part) with Kelly? I don't know.

Conclusion - definitely worth reading, has some great sections (tech has overall positive effect, discussion of Unabomber's manifesto), but Kelly thinks technology is and end, where I think it is a means to an end.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on October 26, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I grew up being one of the Amish Hackers that Kevin describes in his book! When I first read Kevin's writings on our technology-evaluation-practices, I was astounded at the depth of his research and understanding. In fact, his unique perspective taught me a lot about my role in my own community that I had never really realized before.
I am not as integrated in my close-knit horse-and-buggy community as I once was; since my latest and most dramatic, "hack" on life is that I'm currently enrolled as an undergrad at Columbia University. Life in NYC is great, but I still maintain close ties with the sharply-contrasted microcosm I came from. I too, just as Kevin does, understand the invaluable insight one can gain on contemporary culture by examining a given technology in a quite different social environment. I guess in some ways such a contrast can serve as a social scientist's independent variable.
I want to testify that Kevin did not sensationalize his observations on the Amish Hacker and I can speak out of first person experience when I say that Kevin knows our culture and he knows it well!
Incidentally, I think his introspect on technology and civilization is fresh, enlightening and a must-read for anyone planning to live in the coming decade and beyond! In less than a decade, Facebook and Google have inextricably integrated themselves into practically all of our lives. So more than ever, we need visionaries like Kevin to help us make sense of "its" agenda.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on November 7, 2010
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
Kevin Kelly has written a terrifically interesting book that is actually two books in one. The bookends (Parts 1 and 4) are pretty out there. In those portions of the book, Kelly aims to prove that "the technium" - "the greater, global, massively interconnected system of technology vibrating around us" (p. 11) -- is a "force" or even a living "organism" (p. 198) that has a "vital spirit" (p. 41) and which "has its own wants" (p. 15) and "a noticeable measure of autonomy." (p. 13) "The technium is whispering to itself," he says. (p. 14) At times, Kelly even seems to be longing for humanity's assimilation into the machine or The Matrix. "We can think of technology as our extended body," he says. (p. 44) He speaks repeatedly of human-machine "symbiosis." "We are now symbiotic with technology" (p. 37) and, apparently, that symbiotic bonding can get pretty intense as "humans are the reproductive organs of technology." (p. 296) Sounds a little kinky, but what the hell does that even mean? I think those are the weaker sections of the book. He sounds like one of those enviro-extremists who proselytizes about Gaia theories of Earth as a spirit or deity.

But Kelly redeems himself with eight absolutely stunning chapters in the middle two parts of the book. Gone is most of the Gaia-like talk of the technium as a living organism. Kelly instead focuses on explaining to us in plain terms the progression of technology in our lives and how we've come to cope with it. He notes, for example, that "Over the centuries, societies have declared many technologies to be dangerous, economically upsetting, immoral, unwise, or simply too unknown for our good. The remedy to this perceived evil is usually a form of prohibition. The offending innovation may be taxed severely or legislated to narrow purposes or restricted to the outskirts or banned altogether." (p. 240)

But banning technology never works, he argues, largely because humans adapt and embrace new tools and developments. "[H]istory shows that it is very hard for a society as a whole to say no to technology for very long." (p. 241) "Prohibitions are in effect postponements" and "wholesale prohibitions simply do not work to eliminate a technology that is considered subversive or morally wrong. Technologies can be postponed but not stopped." (p. 243)

Importantly, Kelly doesn't turn a blind eye to the downsides of technology. In fact, he is refreshingly candid about the trade-offs we face. He argues that, "If we examine technologies honestly, each one as its faults as well as its virtues. There are no technologies without vices and none that are neutral. The consequences of a technology expand with its disruptive nature. Powerful technologies will be powerful in both directions - for good and bad. There is no powerfully constructive technology that is not also powerfully destructive in another direction, just as there is no great idea that cannot be greatly perverted for great harm... This should be the first law of technological expectation: The greater the promise of a new technology, the greater its potential for harm as well." (p. 246)

Quite right. But then Kelly then goes on to masterfully discuss the dangers of applying the "precautionary principle" to technological advancement. Kelly correctly argues, is that because "every good produces harm somewhere... by the strict logic of an absolute Precautionary Principle no technologies would be permitted." (p. 247-8) Under such a regime, progress becomes impossible because trade-offs are considered unacceptable. This doesn't mean humans shouldn't try to foresee problems associated with new technologies or address them preemptively. But that can be done without resisting new technologies or technological change altogether. "The proper response to a lousy technology is not to stop technology or to produce no technology," Kelly argues. "It is to develop a better, more convivial technology." (p. 263)

Kelly's formulation is remarkable similar to the "bad speech/more speech principle" from the field of First Amendment policy / jurisprudence. That principle states that the best solution to the problem of bad speech (such as hate speech or seditious talk) is more speech to counter it instead of censorship. That's the same principle that Kelly wants us to embrace when it comes to technology: Don't seek to ban or restrict it; find ways to embrace it, soften its blow, or counter it with new and better technology. I think that's a beautiful principle and I applaud Kevin Kelly's formulation and defense of it.

In sum, I loved the middle sections of What Technology Wants, but I could have done without the silly "technology-as-organism" theories found in the opening and closing chapters. Overall, however, Kevin Kelly has written a book that demands our attention. We will be talking about What Technology Wants for many, many years to come.

My complete review of Kelly's book can be found on the Technology Liberation Front blog.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
I think you should read What Technology Wants and decide for yourself if Kelly is saying anything new or interesting.

For me, Kelly's idea of "the technium", the overarching theme of the book, never quite came together. In describing all of technological change (in the broadest sense of the word) within a unified framework, Kelly, to my ears (I listened to the book from Audible), ends up explaining very little. The saying, "all models are wrong, but some are useful" is only half right in describing Kelly's "technium."

If I didn't like the theme of 'What Technology Wants' (or maybe didn't get it) - I really enjoyed many of its parts. The description of Amish technology was fascinating and thought provoking. Kelly's observations on the digital divide (he is not worried), the benefits to society of early adopters (they use expensive and bad tools so everyone else can use cheap and excellent tools), and the benefits of appropriate technology (Kelly does not Tweet, own a TV, or use a laptop or smart phone), are consistently challenging and smart.

I wish that Kelly spent more time talking to more people (say people who work for technology companies, or even toil in post-secondary education) and less time in his own head. Too much is made of the Unabomber manifesto, too little is made of the history of technological change and the shifts in material, economic and social life.

Despite these complaints, I see What Technology Wants as a good companion piece to my other recent books. The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires; The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves; Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed; I Live in the Future & Here's How It Works: Why Your World, Work, and Brain Are Being Creatively Disrupted; and Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation are all better books, but each is made more interesting by thinking about What Technology Wants.

What are you reading?
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2012
Format: Paperback
I think there are two reasons to read a book like this. One is that the overarching philosophical points might actually be convincing and significant enough to change/enhance your view of the world. Two is that, along the way, you might learn some interesting facts about the world and how it works.

I didn't get either from this book.

All of the hazy philosophizing about technology "wanting" things was extremely annoying to read. (E.g., a robot that knows how to plug itself in to recharge *wants* to find an outlet. Does my two line computer program that asks you your name as then prints "Hi, Bob" *want* to know your name? Does it *want* to say hello to you?) He's too hazy on it all to make any strong claims, but he dances around the same "emergent consciousness" stuff that AI philosophers have been dancing around for years, and which, at least to my mind, came to a head and was exposed as foolishness with John Searle's "Mind's Brains and Science" back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's really frustrating to read a book that claims to be about the future and yet feels like it was written 25 years ago.

Consciousness aside, I didn't really find the musings on our everyday relationship to technology very compelling. Yep, technology builds on itself (the fact that he's so focused on the ways that technology feeds on itself didn't do much to make me think it's autonomous from the people who are doing the clicking and typing). Yep, a spear and a computer are fundamentally the same in that they are both technology. Yep, all of culture and the sum of human knowledge can be thought of as "technology". Yep, technology can be a distraction. Yep, technology can be used for both good and evil. Yep, you can make some analogies between how technology changes and how species evolve, and, yep, you can even write computer programs that "evolve" toward correct answers by a trial and error method. I just don't think people are as fundamentally confused about their relationship with technology, about what technology *is*, as he makes it seem. If we can one day upload our minds into a computer and live consciously forever, that would be something to get excited and philosophical about. But again, see Searle.

As for learning stuff about the world, there are some things here and there in the book, but they are spread out between too much philosophizing, and then so many of them are things I already knew about. Contrast this with the books by Malcolm Gladwell. It's not totally clear that Gladwell says much that is fundamentally new or philosophically earth shattering. But it often *feels* that way. Plus, you always feel like you are hearing a bunch of interesting stories and learning interesting things about the world. I didn't get either feeling from this book.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2011
Format: Hardcover
If nothing else, What Technology Wants is ambitious. Kevin Kelly attempts to lock cosmology, evolution, culture and technology under one natural constant - that all is inherently moving towards greater complexity. His argument is quasi religious.

Along with his epic telling of the universe, he also discuses invention and technological dependence vs individual freedom. Unfortunately, I often felt like his discussion was biased, ultimately only supporting his argument, even though there are some obvious un-mitigated objections.

I took the most issue with his case for determinism. While simultaneous invention is the norm, there are many instances of inventions being squashed, only to resurface years later. For example, magnetic storage invented in the 1930s, buried by AT&T, then re-invented almost 60 years later. States and other powerful interests have effectively banned technology, or at very least drastically effected how they're implemented. I don't know enough about evolution to comment, but I'd venture that many (most?) biologists would take issue with his portrayal. Of more importance, Kelly completely ignores how his quasi philosophy affects free will, right and wrong. Why didn't any pre-Columbian cultures invent the wheelbarrow? Why did Europe overtake China? Weren't more of Kelly's necessary technological prerequisites available? Is Africa pre-determined to be stuck in a rut?

I was excited to read this book. It does have some really interesting ideas. His comparison of life to technology is compelling. I wish, though, that What Technology Wants was a hundred pages shorter and narrower in scope.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on November 8, 2010
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
The main idea is far from new. Similarities among different fields have been always used as a way to get new insights. However, this does not always work. There are excellent models like the ones by Stafford Beer and his comparison between biology and organizations and others that are fully trivial. This book has both: Some comparisons or some models are really brilliant and with a good support of data while others are obvious or less interesting.

Technology or "technium" is not seen as similar to natural evolution but as the next phase of a wider evolutionary process. Some parts could remind of "I Robot" by Asimov but the general idea is:

Phase 1: Evolutionary process has its specific features and can be seen everywhere.
Phase 2: "Technium" is starting the same process through man-made artifacts and ideas.
Phase 3: "Technium" is not starting a new process. Instead, it is the continuation of the same process.
Phase 4: What can be said about the future?

Perhaps the main advice for a potential reader should be an unfair one: Keep trying. It is unfair since a bad book does not deserve to be finished and this one could be seen in some parts as a bad book that already made its whole point. Not true. For instance, the chapter devoted to the Amish could be boring for many people (including me) but, after that one, it is possible to find others much more interesting.

Paradoxes like the one shown with electric engines, present everywhere just before dissappearing (because we are not even conscious of how many common devices are powered by electric engines) are very interesting. It is worth to read it.
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