Kevin Kelly on What Technology Wants (Podcast)

Photo: Ed Schipul

Is technology alive? To Kevin Kelly, the things we make comprise a seventh kingdom of life, an interlocking network he calls the Technium. Kelly cofounded Wired Magazine (where he currently holds the title of Senior Maverick) and published the Whole Earth Review throughout the 1980s. He talk to TreeHugger Radio about climate change, being "pro-actionary" (instead of precautionary), and his new book, What Technology Wants.

Full text after the jump.
TreeHugger: The big idea is this thing that you call the technium, which you say is like the seventh kingdom of life. What is the technium?

Kevin Kelly: The technium is the system of all the technologies, all the things that we have invented, the sphere of manufactured things that surround us. And I indicate by the word technium that it's more than just, say, the devices in your pocket. It's more than just the stuff that was invented after you were born, or the stuff that doesn't quite work yet. And it's also more than just the physical stuff: the concrete in the world and the automobiles. It includes the intangibles like the calendar or the laws that we make and, of course, software.

But besides all that, which some people might call culture, I'm using the word technium to indicate that all these things are codependent upon each other. That they kind of form a large ecosystem, if you want to think of it that way, a network of artifacts that are necessary for each other. And that this whole thing has a behavior that none of the parts have, and that we should be aware of what that behavior is.

TH: And it's an extension of us? Does that make us a conduit for the technium, or is it bigger than that?

Kelly: The relationship of the technium to us is very complicated because in fact we, to some degree, are part of the technium in the sense that we have invented ourselves, we have made ourselves, we have altered our own genes. Our genes are now evolving a hundred times faster than they were before the technium began 10,000 years ago. And so we have altered our genes in many, many different ways. Like when domesticated animals gave milk, we quickly evolved lactose tolerance, and we changed our jaws and teeth when we invented cooking. We in some ways are technology ourselves already. We are self-created.

And of course we are the major creators or conduits of technology today. But it's important to understand that we are not separate from the technium, we are part of the technium, even though most of the technium, of course, is just things that we have invented with our minds.

TH: You spend a good deal of time making a case for how things have improved over the millennia. How do you do the math on a thing like that?

Kelly: Yes, it's a very important point that we have to recognize. If we take the long-term view, what our inventions have brought us has been basically good. We have to make that calculation with the full knowledge that a lot of the technology we've made has brought us problems, including environmental problems.

And so it turns out that each time we invent something, even as simple as the stone hammer that our ancestors invented tens of thousands of years ago, that with that hammer we could use it for harm as well as for good. We had a choice to use it for harm or for good. We could kill somebody with it or we could build a house.

What's important is to recognize that that choice, that that free will choice to suddenly use it for harm or for good, was a choice we did not have before we invented it. And that additional choice itself, even if we should use it for harm, is itself a good.

And so if it turns out that each new invention creates almost as many problems as it does solutions, which is what seems to be out there, we might think of technology as kind of neutral. Well, it's neutral, we can use it for good or for harm. But it's more than neutral because of the fact that we have this additional choice-at least one choice, often many more- that come with the new opportunities that we get each time we invent something.

So that additional choice that we get with new technology, pushes the calculus slightly in favor of the good. It's very, very slight. It's not very much. But it turns out that we don't really need much over the long term to actually have progress.

And so if we can create only a tenth of a percent or one percent more than we destroy every year, if we make more than we destroy every year, by a little tiny bit, then that differential, that delta, accumulated and compounded over the years and decades and centuries, is what gives us civilization.

And so I think that while we look around, we can identify tons and tons of problems with technology that may in some cases seem to just maybe barely counteract the good parts. At the same time, we're getting additional new choices, and those choices push the balance in favor of the good by a little bit. And over time, that's significant.

So I think that little, tiny delta gives a long-term positive charge to the technium so we can actually say, "Yeah, things are getting better over the long-term."

TH: Let's take perhaps the most ominous looming problem and explain how you see climate change through this lens.

Kelly: So here we have technologies, and there are many of them, which produce harm as well as good. You can pick your choice: take a coal plant generating electricity. OK, electricity is good, we like that. It does good stuff for us. Oh, but it also has a very serious downside, a harm, causing at first pollution, but even that you can dampen some of. But then there's global warming, so that's the harm.

So, what we can do is in this calculation is say, "Yes, it's producing harm, yes, we will need to rectify it." But the fact that we have a choice about whether to have electricity or not, whether to use that electricity for good or for ill, the fact that we even have a choice about how to burn this coal and use this power, even though this power may be causing harm, the fact that we have a new power that we didn't have before, is good. It's a good choice to have. We now have some free will in the world that we didn't have before.

That doesn't absolve us from the responsibility of solving the problem of this additional harm that we have introduced, and the potential for it. But the calculus is: we have a decision, a choice that did not exist before, which is itself good.

And so we have to then go back to the job of fixing the problems caused by this technology, but it is good that we have that choice to do so.

TH: You seem to have a fair amount of faith in our ability to make good choices once we've been presented them by the technium.

Kelly: Well, not necessarily. When children are born, the most amazing thing about children, of course, is that they're free will agents. So, does one have choice that children will generally make good choices rather than bad choices? I think, yeah, I think we tend to think so. And even though there may be certain people who grow up that make more bad choices than good, we believe that the fact that they have the free will to make those choices is in itself good, even if they don't use it for good. That's what I'm saying.

Now, if we're responsible, we say, "Yeah, having that free will is good in itself, but let's try to make good choices." And so that's what I would say about global warming in so far as there has been no technologies we've invented that we have not been able to invent a greener version of.

Maybe someday we'll find some limits, but so far history has shown that we can constantly make and invent a more convivial, greener, less polluting, less harmful version of technology.

I think there's no reason to think that we can't do that here. There's no 100-percent guarantee, but history suggests that we can invent something greener, because we've always been able to invent greener things in the past.

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