Sunday, October 12, 2014

Kevin Kelly "What Technology Wants"

Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants advocates the idea that technology is an adjunct to evolution, and an extension of it, so much so that you can consider it a kingdom of life, in the sense that biologists use the term. Mr. Kelly draws fascinating parallels between convergent evolution and multiple discovery, and brings a ton of very interesting background material to support his argument. However, I don't believe he understands all the background material, and I almost feel as if he's persuading me despite his argument, rather than persuading me by making his argument.

So I recommend this book, but with a hefty stack of caveats. Mr. Kelly veers back and forth between revolutionary truths and "not even wrong" status so rapidly and constantly that you might as well consider him to be a kind of oscillator, producing some sort of waveform defined by his trajectory between these two extremes. The tone of this oscillator is messianic, prophetic, frequently delusional, but also frequently right. The insights are brilliant but the logic is often terrible. It's a combination which can make your head spin.

The author seems to either consider substantiating his arguments beneath him, or perhaps is simply not familiar with the idea of substantiating an argument in the first place. There are plenty of places where the entire argument hinges on things like "somebody says XYZ, and it might be true." No investigation of what it might mean instead if the person in question were mistaken. This is a book which will show you a graph with a line which wobbles so much it looks like a sine wave, and literally refer to that wobbling line as an "unwavering" trend.

He also refers to "the optimism of our age," in a book written in 2010, two years after the start of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The big weakness in my oscillator metaphor, earlier, is that it is an enormous understatement to call the author tone-deaf.



Then again, perhaps he means the last fifty years, or the last hundred, or the last five hundred. He doesn't really clarify which age he's referring to, or in what sense it's optimistic. Or maybe when he says "our age," the implied "us" is not "humanity" or "Americans," but "Californians who work in technology." Mr. Kelly's very much part of the California tech world. He founded Wired, and I actually pitched him on writing a brief bit of commentary in 1995, which Wired published, and that was easily the coolest thing that happened to me in 1995.

Maybe because of that, I'm enjoying this book despite its flaws. It makes a terrific backdrop to Charles Stross's Accelerando. It's full of amazing stuff which is arguably true, very important if true, and certainly worth thinking about, either way. I loved Out Of Control, a book Mr. Kelly wrote twenty years ago about a similar topic, although of course I'm now wondering whether I was less discerning in those days, or if Mr. Kelly's writing went downhill. Take it with a grain of salt, but What Technology Wants is still worth reading.

Returning again to the oscillator metaphor, if a person's writing about big ideas, but they oscillate between revolutionary truths and "not even wrong" status whenever they get down to the nitty-gritty details, then the big ideas they describe probably overlap the truth about half the time. The question is which half of this book ultimately turns out to be correct, and it's a very interesting question.