The Technium

Tending the Garden of Technology

Many months ago science writer Andrew Lawler made the long trek to Pacifica and conducted an interview about my book in progress. An edited version of that conversation has just appeared in the magazine Orion. Lawler gets to the heart of the book very quickly. 

Picture 65

KELLY: At a deep level, the act of discover and the act of creation are identical. The steps that you would take to find something are exactly the same steps you’d take to make something. So you can say that Edison discovered the lightbulb and Newton invented gravity.


LAWLER: Wendell Berry might say that is all well and good, but technology doesn’t change the essential nature of humanity. It doesn’t make us better people.


KELLY: I disagree with Wendell. We have created our humanity. And I think our humanity has been created by technology. Our humanity is defined by things we have invented. Like the alphabet. Our culture is one thing we’ve created. But I also think there has been an evolution of morality. Culture and cultural inventions are part of the Technium — they are technologies. 

There’s more at the digital version of Tending the Garden of Technology in Orion.

  • Hal O’Brien

    Quoting: “We have created our humanity. And I think our humanity has been created by technology. Our humanity is defined by things we have invented.”

    This may well be literal fact. Take a look at Richard Wrangham’s “Catching Fire,” for example.

    From the New York Times’ review ( 2009-May-27 ):


    Apes began to morph into humans, and the species Homo erectus emerged some two million years ago, Mr. Wrangham argues, for one fundamental reason: We learned to tame fire and heat our food.

    “Cooked food does many familiar things,” he observes. “It makes our food safer, creates rich and delicious tastes and reduces spoilage. Heating can allow us to open, cut or mash tough foods. But none of these advantages is as important as a little-appreciated aspect: cooking increases the amount of energy our bodies obtain from food.”


    (I searched your site for Wrangham and didn’t find him, so I’m hopeful this is new to you.)

    • @Hal: I have heard similar arguments but have not read Wrangham yet. Guess I should.

  • vanderleun

    “KELLY: At a deep level, the act of discover and the act of creation are identical. The steps that you would take to find something are exactly the same steps you’d take to make something.”

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think it is at all self-evident that this statement is true. Not sold at all that the steps to find are exactly the steps to make. Sounds good, but deep down it does not convince.

  • SmilingAhab

    Culture and cultural inventions are part of the Technium — they are technologies.



  • Jamie Dunbaugh

    the link doesn’t work for me, but i found it on google.

    I have to say I’ve had that sense since I was a child. Of course one could articulate certain differences between creation and discovery, but THAT is the superficial part. When someone creates something, it is always a discovery.
    It’s a bit trickier to argue the other way around though, like Newton inventing gravity. I can see the skeptics leaping out of their seats to cut that one down. You could say that Newton created the language of understanding gravity, but to say that he actually created gravity is to grant him the powers of God, and that’s a delicate statement.

    I check this blog on a weekly basis or more. You’re an extraordinary man, Kevin Kelly, whose influence I cherish and wish I could get more of. You’ve not only helped open my mind, but you’ve also made me more secure with my intuitions that I cannot yet find the language for. Bless you.

    Looking forward to the book!

  • Vasiliy

    At a deep level, all acts are identical. The steps that you would take to do something are:
    1) Start from the beginning
    2) Proceed toward your goal
    3) Stop at the destination

  • apperception

    Your assertion that discovery and creation are the same basic type of act is one I agree with and have encountered before in my study of German philosophy. Specifically, Holderlin, Hegel, and Schelling make this same point, however obliquely, in their 1796 “Oldest Programme for a System of German Idealism”. They assume (along with Kant) that freedom must be the starting point of any philosophy. They disagree when Kant makes much of the dichotomy between freedom and causality (freedom and determinism in contemporary philosophical language). They think the fundamental dichotomy is between creation and discovery. Human action cannot fully occupy either end of the spectrum, so every act is somewhere in between, different in degree, but identical in kind. The light bulb was more an invention than it was a discovery, the law of gravity more a discovery than an invention, but both lie on the same continuum of human freedom.

    I only just discovered (created??) you in the last year. My background is in philosophy, not technology, but what you say gives me a lot of food for thought. I wrote my MA thesis on the concept of life in Aristotle and Kant, especially as it bears on how they think about human technology and artifacts. I find your idea that technology should be thought of as the 7th kingdom of life very inspiring. I’ve been using it as a guide to further research, both in philosophy and sociology. I look forward to reading more…

  • Cesa

    Tom Crowl is right i gues

  • Tyler Strause

    “The steps that you would take to find something are exactly the same steps you’d take to make something.”

    I was wondering if you would elucidate these steps for your lay readers. Your proposition has a certain esoteric truth to it, though without knowing your ‘steps’ I can’t be sure of it’s rational.

  • Tom Russell

    Newton’s model of gravity had, for the time, extraordinary predictive power. Turned out to be wrong though. Hard to day therefore that he discovered as opposed to invented something?

  • Tom Crowl

    “Culture and cultural inventions are part of the Technium — they are technologies.”

    This is so true.

    If we look at a civilization (or any social organism) as a product of decisions (ideas+actions) operating within the physical world we then see the result as an expression of social energy

    Unlike the other forms of energy we’re familiar with social energy requires agreement on a whole collection of underlying values and assumptions to operate efficiently for the benefit of the organism as a whole.

    (A crude expression of this idea is the difference if quality between the work of an independent craftsman and a slave laborer. Or between a soldier fighting for his family and another drafted for a purpose he doesn’t support.)

    Compressing this story considerably…

    Technology in this sense is a product of decisions (ideas + actions) and physical conditions intended to enhance the survivability of the decision-maker or makers by producing some new physical condition not previously in existence: a tool! This is true whether that new condition be a wrench, a computer, a law, a corporation or fractional reserve banking.

    Money was developed originally as a technology for the allocation of excess social energy where complexity (and loss of various forms of proximity) required conventions beyond the less formalized methods of a hunter-gatherer group.

    It’s an amazing invention. But it’s not a simple one and inherent problems in its current mechanisms are having serious repercussions.

    For instance, I have a friend in India working on systems for Asset Based Community Development (ABCD)… sustainable technologies built around locally available renewable energy and resources to the extent possible.

    This is a good idea. The hangup is a problem with a particular invention’s current limitations: money and finance.

    The global monetary system is an incredible invention and has produced many wonders…

    And the move from a commodity-based to a credit-based system can be understood as a recognition that innovation and growth may require (or at least be facilitated by) an expectation of a return of future social energy greater than the credit required to produce it.

    I believe the following is of fundamental importance:
    No monetary system has ever, nor can ever represent all or even a major portion of available social energy.

    I’m not a believer in conspiracy theories, or evil cabals (groups don’t do secrets well… especially over time)… so I really want to avoid being put in that box. I don’t think fractional reserve banking was an invention of devils.

    However, in order to better unlock vast reserves of wasted, lost and/or mis-used social energy…

    Credit creation must be allowed for other networks along lines best suited to their own conditions and purposes.

    What is needed is a system facilitating user-created exchange mechanisms to function alongside traditional currencies so as to permit local economic ecologies to gain a foothold.

    This isn’t about destroying a world system of finance. It’s about technologies allowing the possessors of that energy more creativity in its allocation so as to better benefit their own conditions rather than those of the credit creators.

    (My friend in India has been spurred by the suicides of thousands of farmers who are being locked into large-scale monoculture and a system of permanent indebtedness by a lack of any source of credit other than that provided, directly or indirectly, by central banks… this is unnecessary IF they could tap into their own LOCAL potentials.)

    Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I am trying to be pragmatic. More than talk is urgently needed.

    I believe the Individually-controlled / Commons-dedicated Account is the most viable path to the development of a globalized network which can accomodate BOTH the traditional monetary system while simultaneously facilitating NEW mechanisms WITHOUT the need for force or compusion.

    While what I don’t know is vast… I know this… there’ll be neither a Socialism II nor a Progressive Adam Smith without seriously addressing the technologies of money and finance.

    On Social Energy, Enterprise & Expanding the Technology of Money

    The Individually-controlled / Commons-dedicated Account & Neighborhood Banks

    How would hunter-gatherers rule the world? (Pssst… They DO!)