17 December 2011

What Technology Wants

I found ‘WhatTechnology Wants’ from ex-Wired editor Kevin Kelly an inspiring book.  It doesn't focus on a particular technology or a specific period in time, but it takes a wide philosophical sweep across the ‘technium’, the term coined by Kelly to describe everything useful that has been produced by a mind, including texts, laws and lines of code.  It's an ecology of different artefacts that are interdependent and interlinked. It's like a coexisting species with its own inherent biases and tendencies, a superorganism.  Kelly argues that technological evolution is an accelerated continuation of biological evolution.

Biological and Technological evolution
Biologicalevolution is determined by a triad of structural (inevitable), functional(adaptive) and historical (contingent) factors.  The structural relates to the inherent tendency towards certain forms, such as eyes or venomous spines.  The adaptive refers to the process of natural selection. The contingent refers to the accidental, but also to the limiting effect of past choices.  In technology there is also inevitability in the sequence of technologies.  Technologies open up possibilities for new combinations or applications leading in turn to new technologies.  Many inventions are developed simultaneously by several people.  The adaptive refers to the relentless engine of optimisation and creative innovation, resulting from the collective choices of free-willed individuals.  The contingent refers to the influence of past technologies exert on new ones, through standards or consumer habits.  23 people came up with the light bulb, butthe particulars on whether they were carbon or round were not inevitable. But the electric producing of incandescent lighting was.
Certain technologies are inevitable. No matter what happens, we were going to get cars, electricity, rocket propulsion and the Internet. And we're going to get human cloning, gene therapy, nuclear fusion power, daily gene sequencing, brain implants anyway. But whereas certain technologies are inevitable, what we make of those technologies is not. The internet is inevitable, but is it going to be open sourced, run by the government, non-profit, commercialized, flexible, rigid or transparent?

The Amish
An important question in the book is how to deal with the increasing pervasiveness of technology in our lives.  The Amish have an elaborate and surprisingly scientific way to deal with new technologies.  They’re often portrayed as Luddites, but in reality they’re active technology hackers and tinkerers.   They adopt technology but:
  • They are selective
  • They evaluate technology use wit criteria. These include whether technologies enhance family and community values. Technologies can be rejected again after evaluation.
  • Their choices are communal.

For example, they have horse and buggies because horse and buggies have a 15-mile limit. It allows them to stay in their community, shop in their community, visit the sick and their friends. It's not that they don't use cars, they just don't own them. They're allowed to use the Internet at libraries. They just don't want it in their house because people will face outward instead of facing the family.

Conviviality of technologies
Kelly introduces the concept of ‘conviviality’to evaluate manifestations of technology. Manifestations with a high conviviality are more sustainable, because they align with the fundamental evolution of the technium.
  • Cooperation (It promotes collaboration between people and institutions)
  • Transparency (Its origins and ownership are clear. Its workings are intelligible to non-experts. There is noasymmetrical 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 freelychoose to use it or give it up.)
  • Redundancy (It is not the only solution, not a monopoly, but one of several options.)
  • Efficiency (It minimizes impact on ecosystems. It has high efficiency for energy and materials and it is easy to reuse).
Despite the strong evolutionary forces that direct technology evolution the predictability of technologies is low.  Initially new technologies are often used to do the old job better, like the first generation of e-books are little more than scanned paper versions. Innovative uses of technology in learning don’t try to recreate, but question the traditional classroom and educational structures. 

Technology empowers
By taking this broad view on human and technological evolution Kelly let me realise how intertwined technology is in our lives.  Switching off technologies is no longer an option.  Symbiosis really is the appropriate term to use, as technology still requires human ingenuity, but humans are utterly dependent on technology for their survival.  Kelly doesn’t share the pessimism that technologies make humans less happy.  Technology allows people to excel, to encounter new ideas, a chance to be different from their parents and to create something. Technology empowers and create choices.  Technology provides the tools to allow each person to develop his/ her unique combination of latent abilities, handy skills, nascent insights, and potential experiences that no one else shares,like the technology of vibrating strings opened up the potential for a virtuoso violin player.

If the best cathedral builder who ever lived was born now, instead of 1,000 years ago, he would still find a few cathedrals being built to spotlight his glory.Sonnets are still being written and manuscripts still being illuminated. But can you imagine how poor our world would be if Bach had been born 1,000 years before the Flemish invented the technology of the harpsichord? Or if Mozart had preceded the technologies of piano and symphony? How vacant our collective imaginations would be if Vincent van Gogh had arrived 5,000 years before we invented cheap oil paint? What kind of modern world would we have if Edison,Greene and Dickson had not developed cinematic technology before Hitchcock or Charlie Chaplin grew up? (pp. 349-350)

How many geniuses at the level of Bach and Van Gogh died before the needed technologies were available for their talents to take root? How many people will die without ever having encountered the technological possibilities that they would have excelled in? I have three children, and though we shower them with opportunities, their ultimate potential may be thwarted because the ideal technology for their talents has yet to be invented. There is a genius alive today, some Shakespeare of our time, whose masterworks society will never own because she was born before the technology (holodeck, wormhole, telepathy,magic pen) of her greatness was invented. Without these manufactured possibilities, she is diminished, and by extension all of us are diminished.(p. 350)

I agree with many of the points Kelly makes in his book, and the idea of thoughtfully selecting the technologies we use based on their potential to serve convivial ends in our lives as well as enhance our autonomy and choices are right on target. Too often I think people consider “technology” as a monolithic concept, and want to embrace or reject it as a whole rather than take a more discriminating and thoughtful approach.  It’s good to have criteria for your technology use and reflect how certain technologies affect your time and life.  Similarly, in education, it’s good to reflect on how certain technologies affect how students learn, relations within schools and relations between the school and the wider community.  Criteria such as Kelly’s conviviality characteristics or the practices of the Amish can help us with that.
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