The Italian newspaper la Repubblica asked if I could summarize my book, What Technology Wants, in no more than 1,500 words. I can’t compress to that extent, but I can present one thesis: that technology has a moral dimension. In this short piece I argue as briefly as I can that there is a positive charge to technology’s path. (The essay appears here in Italian.) In the past few months, this is the talk that I’ve given when asked to introduce the book.
Before Charles Darwin the study of natural history was just an endless collection of specimens displayed in glass cases. There was no organizing framework to put life into. Biology was just “one thing after another.” Darwin brought a logic to this endless parade of organisms with the theory of evolution.
Today, we are in a similar situation with technology. While we are surrounded by millions of varieties of inventions, we don’t have a good theory to understand them. We tend to view our technological world as an endless collection of new stuff on view. For most of us, technology is simply “one thing after another.”
I want to suggest a theory for technology, a framework that might provide a logic and context for this parade of new things in our lives. But I have to start with the fact that we have a warped idea of what technology is. A lot of us tend to think that technology is “anything that was invented after you were born.” Or technology is: “anything that doesn’t work yet.” As if only the new is what we are talking about.
But of course technology includes old inventions, like clocks and levers, and ancient materials that work very well, like concrete and bricks. The bulk of technology in our lives was invented long before we were born. Ordinary technology also contains intangible “stuff” that we usually don’t see such as calendars, bookkeeping principles, law, and software. It includes large complex things like social organizations and cities. Technology is all this, the old, the invisible, the large and the new — the accumulated usefulness that our minds invent.
More importantly the sum of all these technologies form an interacting whole much like a technological ecosystem. I call this super system of codependent inventions the technium. Like life itself, this whole system exhibits behavior that its parts do not. Just as we cannot detect any “hiveness” in an individual honeybee (only in the total system of the hive), we cannot see the behavior of the technium in a lone iPhone, knife, or refrigerator. The true influence of technology is felt in its whole system.
Much to our surprise the technium follows many of the same patterns that Darwin figured out life as a whole followed: a pattern he called evolution. The patterns of our inventions are not random. They are not just one thing after another.
The patterns by which living organisms mutate and diversify in evolution so resembles the way technological varieties transform over time, that we can think of the technium as the “seventh kingdom of life.” Technology is an extension and acceleration of the same forces of evolution that crafted the other six kingdoms of life.
Just as we observe increasing complexity, diversity, and specialization over the course of life’s evolution, we see these same long-term trends in technology. On average technology will be more complex, more diverse and more specialized in the future.
This view of technology offers us a somber insight: life itself is no utopia, and neither is the technium. Every new invention births almost as many problems as solutions. In fact most of the problems in the world today have been created by previous technologies. I would suggest that most of the problems in the world tomorrow will be caused by technologies that we are still inventing today.
Since new technologies produce as many problems as solutions, that might suggest that the technium is neutral, a 50/50 balance. That balance is a good place to start but not the full story. When we invented a new tool, say the first stone hammer so long ago, at that same moment we also created at least one new choice: whether to use it for destruction or for creation, to kill someone or to make a house. That decision was an option, an opportunity, a possibility that we didn’t have until we made the invention.
This extra bit of free will choice, which did not exist before the tool was invented, is itself good, even if the tool causes harm. Having the choice itself is a positive good. That extra positive good tilts the 50/50 balance slightly in favor of the good, but only by a little tiny bit. But it turns out, a little bit is all we need. Because if we use technology to create only one percent more than we destroy a year, that one percent difference (or even one tenth of a percent difference), compounded year by year over centuries will make civilization.
Each new invention also creates more than one new moral choice for us, and this accumulation of free will over time supplies a positive charge to the technium. Over the long term technology gives us greater differences, diversity, options, choices, opportunities, possibilities, freedoms. This is the definition of progress.
We should remember this progress while we work and shop. Most of us are directly or indirectly involved in creating and making stuff. All of us are involved in buying things. We may be seized with doubt about whether all this technological creation is worthwhile. At times we may feel that we are at the mercy of a capitalistic machine that feeds consumerism, that we make disposable products only for money, and that we buy other ephemeral things only to compensate for this lack of meaning. Or maybe we keep making and buying new things because we are addicted to novelty.
All this may be true, but when we make new technology, we are also increasing the possibilities and choices and differences in the world. That is good is because most of us need some kind of tool to help us find and express our genius. Mozart needed the technologies of the piano and the harpsichord to discover and develop his musical genius. But imagine if Mozart had been born 2,000 years before the invention of the piano or the symphony. What a loss to us and to him that would have been. Or imagine if Van Gogh had been born 2,000 years before we had invented the technologies of oil paints and canvas. What a loss to the world, and to him, that lack of technology would have been! Or, what if we collectively had not invented the technologies of cinema before George Lucas had been born? What a hole in our culture that would have been.
That means that today, somewhere in the world, there is a boy or girl already born, a Shakespeare of their generation, who is waiting for us to invent their technology. Until we create their tool they cannot discover and share their genius. So we have an obligation to increase the amount of technologies in the world. We benefit from people in the past who bestowed on us the possibilities inherent in the alphabet, in printing, the book and newspapers, so we too should be inventing as much technology as we can in the hope that in the future more people will have the option, the possibility of using their fullest talents for us all.
We are involved in much more than just inventing novelty. When we create and use technology we’re actually involved in something that’s bigger than ourselves. We are extending the same forces that make life, accelerating evolution into the future, and we’re increasing the possibilities, both for us, our children, and for the world at large. That is what technology wants.