What Technology Wants
By Kevin Kelly
In this show you will learn everything about
“Technium” : a coined word to designate the
greater, global, massively interconnected
system of technology.
Online networks connect people with ideas,
options, and other people they could not
possibly have met otherwise.
Online networks unleashed passions,
compounded creativity, amplified generosity.
The Art of Technology
For centuries, scholars called the making of things
"craft", and the expression of inventiveness "art".
However you define life, its essence does not reside
in material forms like DNA, tissue, or flesh, but in
the intangible organization of the energy and
information contained in those material forms.
If a thousand lines of letters in UNIX qualifies as a
technology, then a thousand lines of letters in
English must qualify as well. Both can change our
behavior, alter the course of events, or enable
A new idea can be spread quickly if someone can explain it and
communicate it to others before they have to discover it themselves.
But the chief advantage of language is not communication but auto-
generation. Language is a trick that allows the mind to question itself;
a magic mirror that reveals to the mind what the mind thinks; a handle
that turns a mind into a tool.
With a grip on the slippery, aimless activity of self-awareness and self-
reference, language can harness a mind into a fountain of new ideas.
Without the cerebral structure of language, we couldn’t access our
own mental activity. We certainly couldn’t think the way we do. If our
minds can’t tell stories, we can’t consciously create; we can only create
by accident. Until we tame the mind with an organization tool capable
of communicating to itself, we have stray thoughts without a narrative.
We have a feral mind. We have smartness without a tool.
The Evolution of Tech
In many contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes, being
unencumbered with things is considered a virtue, even a
virtue of character. You carry nothing; instead, you
cleverly make or procure whatever you
need when you need it.
The more nomadic a tribe was, the more peaceful it
would be, since it could simply flee from conflict.
We have become deeply dependent on technology. If all
technology - every last knife and spear - were to be
removed from this planet, our species would not last
more than a few months. We are now
symbiotic with technology.
The major transitions in the technium are:
→ Language Oral lore
→ Writing/mathematical notation Scripts
→ Printing Book knowledge
→ Scientific method Artisan production
→ Mass production Industrial culture
→ Ubiquitous global communication
If You Put It That Way…
The hydrogen atoms in a human body completely refresh
every seven years. As we age we are really a river of
cosmically old atoms. The carbons in our bodies were
produced in the dust of a star. The bulk of matter in our
hands, skin, eyes, and hearts was made near the beginning of
time, billions of years ago.
The computer chip conducts more energy per second per
gram through its tiny corridors than animals, volcanoes, or the
sun. This bit of high technology is the most energetically
active thing in the known universe.
In one year 1 eagle eats 100 trout, which eat 10,000
grasshoppers, which eat 1 million blades of grass. Thus it
takes, indirectly, 1 million blades of grass to support 1 eagle.
For four billion years evolution has been accumulating
knowledge in its library of genes. You can learn a lot in four
billion years. Every one of the 30 million or so unique species
alive on the planet today is an unbroken informational thread
that traces back to the very first cell. That thread (DNA) learns
something new each generation and adds that hard-won
knowledge to its code.
Data from nearly all parts of the world show us that
consumers tend to spend relatively less on goods and more on
services as their incomes rise. Once people have met their
basic needs, they tend to want medical care, transportation
communication, information, recreation, entertainment, finan
cial and legal advice, and the like.
Good or Bad
In ancient times when a bearded prophet forecast
what was to come, the news was generally bad. The
idea that the future brought improvement was
never very popular until recently.
The steady destruction of good things and people
seems relentless. And it is. But the steady stream of
good things is relentless as well.
There is more good than evil in the world - but
not by much.
Over time our laws, mores, and ethics have slowly expanded the
sphere of human empathy. Generally, humans originally identified
themselves primarily via their families. The family clan was “us.” This
declaration cast anyone outside of that intimacy as “other.” We had -
and still have - different rules of behavior for those inside the circle of
“us” and for those outside. Gradually the circle of “us” enlarged from
inside the family clan to inside the tribe, and then from tribe to nation.
We are currently in an unfinished expansion beyond nation and maybe
even race and may soon be crossing the species boundary. Other
primates are, more and more, deemed worthy of humanlike rights.
If the golden rule of morality and ethics is to “do unto others as you
would have others do unto you,” then we are constantly expanding our
notion of “others.” This is evidence for moral progress.
How Technology Starts
Every beautiful city begins as a slum. When a town
prospers it acquires a center - civic or religious - and
the edges of the city continue to expand in
unplanned, ungovernable messiness.
Babylon, London, and New York all had teeming
ghettos of unwanted settlers erecting shoddy
shelters with inadequate hygiene and engaging in
dodgy dealings. Even by the 1780s, when Paris was
at its peak, nearly 20 percent of its residents did not
have a “fixed abode” - that is, they lived in shacks.
This is how all technology works. A gadget begins as
a junky prototype and then progresses to
something that barely works. The ad hoc shelters in
slums are upgraded over time, infrastructure is
extended, and eventually makeshift services
become official. What was once the home of poor
hustlers becomes, over the span of generations, the
home of rich hustlers. Propagating slums is what
cities do, and living in slums is how cities grow. The
majority of neighborhoods in almost every modern
city are merely successful former slums. The
squatter cities of today will become the blue-blood
neighborhoods of tomorrow. This is already
happening in Rio and Mumbai today.
The Rise of Science
By systematically recording the evidence for beliefs and investigating the
reasons why things worked and then carefully distributing proven
innovations, science quickly became the greatest tool for making new things
the world had ever seen. Science was in fact a superior method
for a culture to learn.
Science is costly for an individual. Sharing results is of marginal benefit if you
are chiefly seeking a better tool for today. Therefore, the benefits of science
are neither apparent nor immediate for individuals. Science requires a certain
density of leisured population willing to share and support failures to thrive.
That leisure is generated by pre-science inventions. Techniques that permit a
steady surplus of food for large numbers of people. In other words,
science needs prosperity and populations.
It is the increase in the number of humans that ultimately drives
science, and then prosperity.
Hundreds of scholarly papers record substantial improvements across the
board in matters we care about. The trajectories of these measurements
generally point in the same direction: up. Their accumulated weight elicited
this famous prediction by Julian Simon a decade ago:
These are my most important long-run predictions, contingent on there being
no global war or political upheaval:
(1) People will live longer lives than now; fewer will die young.
(2) Families all over the world will have higher incomes and better standards
of living than now.
(3) The costs of natural resources will be lower than at present.
(4) Agricultural land will continue to become less and less important as an
economic asset, relative to the total value of all other economic assets.
These four predictions are quite certain because the very same predictions,
made at all earlier times in history, would have turned out to be right. His
reason is worth repeating: He is betting on a historical force that has
maintained its trajectory for many centuries.
Singularity of Life
There is a tilt to evolution’s seemingly chaotic churning
that rediscovers the same forms and keeps arriving at the
same solutions. It is almost as if life has an imperative. It
“wants” to materialize certain patterns.
The incredible complexity of life disguises its singularity.
There is only one life. All life today is descended along an
unbroken line of duplication from one ancient molecule
that worked inside one primeval cell that worked. Despite
life’s magnificent diversity, it is chiefly repeating, billions
of billions of times, solutions that worked before.
Alfred Russel Wallace came up with the same theory of evolution as
Darwin, at approximately the same time, 150 years ago. Weirdly, both
Wallace and Darwin found the theory of natural selection after reading
the same book on population growth by Thomas Malthus. Darwin did
not publish his revelation until provoked by Wallace’s parallel
Alexander Bell and Elisha Gray both applied to patent the telephone on
the same day, February 14, 1876. Improbable simultaneity (Gray
applied three hours before Bell).
Sunspots were first discovered not by two but by four separate
observers, including Galileo, in the same year, 1611. We know of six
different inventors of the thermometer, and three of the hypodermic
The whole history of inventions is one endless chain of parallel instances.
No matter what they rationally think about inevitability, in my experience all
inventors and creators act as if their own invention and discovery is
imminently simultaneous. Every creator, inventor, and discoverer that I have
known is rushing their ideas into distribution before someone else does, or
they are in a mad hurry to patent before their competition does, or they are
dashing to finish their masterpiece before something similar shows up.
Nathan Myhrvold is a polymath and serial inventor who used to direct fast-
paced research at Microsoft but wanted to accelerate the pace of innovation
in other areas outside the digital realm - such as surgery, metallurgy, or
archaeology - where innovation was often a second thought. Myhrvold came
up with an idea factory called Intellectual Ventures. Myhrvold employs an
interdisciplinary team of very bright innovators to sit around and dream up
patentable ideas. These eclectic one- or two-day gatherings will generate
1,000 patents per year.
From the Inventors…
“There might be tens of thousands of people who conceive
the possibility of the same invention at the same time.
But less than one in ten of them imagines how
it might be done.
Of these who see how to do it, only one in ten will actually
think through the practical details and specific solutions.
Of these only one in ten will actually get the design
to work for very long.
And finally, usually only one of all those many thousands with
the idea will get the invention to stick in the culture.
At our lab we engage in all these levels of discovery, in
the expected proportions.”
Discoveries become virtually inevitable when
prerequisite kinds of knowledge and
In addition to instruments and tools, a discovery
needs the proper beliefs, expectations,
vocabulary, explanation, know-how, resources,
funds, and appreciation to appear.
The Choice of Technology
These days all technology follows computer technology.
Moore’s Law is really about people’s belief system, it’s
not a law of physics, it’s about human belief, and when
people believe in something, they’ll put energy behind it
to make it come to pass.
This freely chosen aspect of ourselves is what other
people remember about us. How we handle life’s cascade
of real choices within the larger cages of our birth and
background is what makes us who we are. It is what
people talk about when we are gone. Not the given, but
the choices we made.
Technology is shaped by a triad of forces.
The primary driver is preordained development -
what technology wants.
The second driver is the influence of
technological history, the gravity of the past, as
in the way the size of a horse’s yoke determines
the size of a space rocket.
The third force is society’s collective free will in
shaping the technium, or our choices.
Problem or Solution?
Each new technology creates more problems than it
solves. Problems are the answers to solutions.
Most of the new problems in the world are
problems created by previous technology. These
technogenic problems are nearly invisible to us.
Every year 1.2 million people die in automobile
accidents. The dominant technological
transportation system kills more
people than cancer.
We often confuse a clear view of the future with a short distance.
When a new item of technology is introduced as an option that an
individual can accept or not as he chooses, it does not necessarily
REMAIN optional. In many cases the new technology changes society
in such a way that people eventually find themselves FORCED to use it.
We willingly choose technology, with its great defects and obvious
detriments, because we unconsciously calculate its virtues. In an
entirely wordless calculus, we note the addictions in others, the
degradations in the environment, the distractions in our own lives, the
confusion about character that various technologies generate, and
then we sum these up against the benefits.
The FULL Costs
The way to reveal the full costs of technology
and deflate its hype is with better information
tools and processes. We require technologies
such as real-time self-monitoring of our use,
transparent sharing of problems, deep analysis
of testing results, relentless retesting, accurate
recording of the chain of sources in
manufacturing, and honest accounting of
negative externalities such as pollution.
Are You Fulfilled?
As the technium explodes with new self-made
options, we find it harder to find fulfillment. How can we
be fulfilled when we don’t know what is being filled?
I believe these two different routes for technological
lifestyle - either optimizing contentment or optimizing
choices - come down to very different ideas of what
humans are to be. It is only possible to optimize human
satisfaction if you believe human nature is fixed. Needs
cannot be maximally satisfied if they are in flux. Minimal
technologists maintain that human nature is unchanging.
Human nature itself is a malleable crop. Our nature has
never been static.
Genetically our bodies are changing faster now than at any time in the
past million years. Our minds are being rewired by our culture.
The more advanced the technology, on the whole, the more possible it
is for a considerable number of human beings to
imagine being somebody else.
Our mission as humans is not only to discover our fullest selves in the
technium, and to find full contentment, but to expand the possibilities
for others. Greater technology will selfishly unleash our talents, but it
will also unselfishly unleash others: our children, and
all children to come.
To maximize our own contentment, we seek the
minimum amount of technology in our lives. Yet
to maximize the contentment of others, we
must maximize the amount of technology in the
world. Indeed, we can only find our own
minimal tools if others have created a sufficient
maximum pool of options we can choose from.
The dilemma remains in how we can personally
minimize stuff close to us while trying to
expand it globally.
Our immediate tendency is to imagine the new
thing doing an old job better. That’s why the first
cars were called “horseless carriages.” The first
movies were simply straightforward documentary
films of theatrical plays. It took a while to realize
the full dimensions of cinema photography as its
own new medium.
We may obsess about the risks of pesticides but not
the risks of organic foods.
The surest remedy for uncertainty is faster,
better scientific studies.
More science, done openly by skeptics and
enthusiasts, will enable us to sooner say: “This is
okay to use” or “This is not okay to use.”
Once a consensus forms, we can regulate
reasonably - as we have with lead in gasoline,
tobacco, seat belts, and many other mandated
improvements in society. But in the meantime we
should count on uncertainty.
The Choice, as Humans
We have the choice of how we treat our creations, where
we place them, and how we train them with our values.
The most helpful metaphor for understanding technology
may be to consider humans as the parents of our
We can only shape technology’s expression by engaging
with it, by riding it with both arms around its neck. To do
that means to embrace those technologies now. To create
them, turn them on, try them.
Convivial Manifestation of Tech Offers…
• Cooperation. It promotes collaboration between people and
• Transparency. Its origins and ownership are clear. Its workings are
intelligible to nonexperts. There is no asymmetrical advantage of
knowledge to some of its users.
• Decentralization. Its ownership, production, and control are
distributed. It is not monopolized by a professional elite.
• Flexibility. It is easy for users to modify, adapt, improve, or inspect
its core. Individuals may freely choose to use it or give it up.
• Redundancy. It is not the only solution, not a monopoly, but one of
• Efficiency. It minimizes impact on ecosystems. It has a high efficiency
for energy and materials and is easy to reuse.
Better than “No Choice”
Too many choices may induce regret, but “no choice” is a far worse
option. Civilization is a steady migration away from “no choice.” As
always, the solution to the problems that technology brings, such as an
overwhelming diversity of choices, is better technologies. The solution
to ultradiversity will be choice-assist technologies. These better tools
will aid humans in making choices among
Where do wealthy people travel to? Places that retain differences.
What eateries attract customers? The ones with distinctive
What products sell in a global market? Ones that think different.
8 Universal Tendencies
1. COMPLEXITY - The broad rise of complexity
across all epochs of evolutionary time.
2. DIVERSITY - The diversity of the universe has
been increasing since the beginning of time.
3. SPECIALIZATION-Evolution moves from the
general to the specific.
This sequence from general to specific holds true
for most technologies.
Today there are hundreds of specialty cameras, including
those for use deep underwater, those designed for the
vacuum of space, and those able to capture the
infrared or the ultraviolet.
At the moment, computers seem to be headed in the
opposite direction, toward becoming ever more general-
purpose machines, as they swallow more and more functions.
But that will change…
Gamers want minimal latency; readers want maximum
legibility; hikers want waterproofing;
kids want indestructibility.
The consequence of self-reproduction in life, as well as in the
technium, is an inherent drive toward ever-presence.
The list of near-ubiquitous technologies includes cotton
cloth, iron blades, plastic bottles, paper, and radio signals.
These five technological species are within reach of nearly
every human alive today. Ubiquity changes everything.
I would say the same today about DNA sequencing, GPS
location tracking, dirt-cheap solar panels, electric cars, or
even nutrition. Don’t worry about those who don’t own a
personal fiber-optic cable to their school; worry what happens
when everyone does. We were so focused on those who don’t
have plenty to eat that we missed what happens when
everyone does have plenty.
8 Universal Tendencies
5. FREEDOM - As evolution rises, “choicefulness” increases.
6. MUTUALISM - As life evolves, it becomes increasingly
dependent on other life. Every organism that creates a
successful niche for itself also creates potential niches for
Most trucks, trains, and planes are not moving people but
freight. Most heating and cooling is not conditioning humans
but other stuff.
The technium spends only one quarter of its energy on human
comfort, food, and travel needs; the rest of the energy is
made by technology for technology.
8 Universal Tendencies
7. BEAUTY - Most evolved things are beautiful, and the most
beautiful are the most highly evolved.
The places most renowned for their beauty (Venice, Kyoto,
Esfahan) are those that reveal intersecting deep layers of
8. SENTIENCE - The honeyguide bird in Kenya lures humans to
wild bee nests so that the birds can feast on the remaining
bee brood after the humans remove the honey; sometimes,
according to ornithologists, the honeyguide will “deceive” the
hunters about the actual distance to a deep forest nest if it is
more than two kilometers away, so as not to discourage them.
Science and Technology
Science is designed to increase the order and organization
of knowledge we generate about the world. Science
creates “tools” - techniques and methods - that
manipulate information such that it can be tested,
compared, recorded, recalled in an orderly fashion, and
related to other knowledge. “Truth” is really only a
measure of how well specific facts can be built upon,
extended, and interconnected.
A typical scientific discovery today will rely on facts and a
falsifiable hypothesis; be tested in repeatable, controlled
experiments, perhaps with placebos and double-blind
controls; and be reported in a peer-reviewed journal and
indexed in a library of related reports.
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