The Technium

What Technology Wants, first talk

The TED conference has spun off branded, but locally organized TEDx programs in other cities of the world. Last week I spoke at the TEDx in Amsterdam. It was an intense 12-hour long one-day explosion of short presentations, the hallmark of TED style gatherings. One of the presentations was mine. I gave my first talk on What Technology Wants. It’s hard to reduce a 150,000 word book to 18 minutes. I’m going to have to rework and refine it. But here is the first version.

TEDxAmsterdam: Kevin Kelly from TEDxAmsterdam on Vimeo.

  • Julien

    Having read a good bunch of the chapters that you have written here, and having watched your video now, I think you spend too much time at the beginning on explaining the origins of the word “Technology” or by bringing up the concepts of entropy & extropy.

    What I find fascinating is the concept of the “Technicum”, the idea of evolution of technology not because we want it but because technology wants it, and you should spend more time on the “Technicum”.

    You passed very quickly over the example of transport, saying that most energy for transport is not used to transport us but to use our stuff, our technology or the resources we need for our technology. Or differently said: Technology needs transportation for its evolution, and through us it found a way to actually get it. I think that is actually a really plastic example – I never really thought about that.

    And I don’t know why, but the most fascinating, the most inspiring slide you showed during your presentation was the penultimate: “Technology wants/needs clean water.” For me, this idea represents best what I think you are trying to explain, that technology has own interests, and that this is comparable to us or any other organism that needs certain resources and energy to survive and to evolve.


    • @Julien: Thanks for you feedback. Hearing what works for you is helpful.

  • jason schultz

    Great first presentation and I’m sure they will only get better from here. Thanks for posting.

  • Alvis Brigis

    It’s about time that someone of popular stature referenced Chaisson’s FERD research in a popular forum!

  • John Smart

    Great Job Kevin!

    I second Alvis’s comments on Chaisson’s Free Energy Rate Density (FERD) as one of the best metrics we presently have for measuring acceleration at the leading edge of universal complexity.

    I’ve been writing about universal acceleration since 1999 at, and about Chaisson’s fascinating work on FERD since 2002 at

    I really look forward to seeing more from you on the mechanisms and meaning of accelerating change. My own take on this curiously neglected topic is summarized at:
    Feedback always appreciated.

    Warm Regards,

    John Smart
    Acceleration Studies Foundation

  • goddinpotty

    Not a single original fact or insight in the first six minutes or so, which is all I watched. If you’ve got something to say, better get it up front. Everyone knows we are a techno species, tell me something new.

    • Good suggestion, goddinpotty. I’ll move up all the amazing news (stuff you did not know) in the last 12 minutes to the front.

  • Berend Schotanus

    It was great watching your speech. What struck me most was your friendliness which I, for some reason, didn’t expect. You talk with true love and consideration about technology, you say technology is our child, you say technology is part of us, not alien. One thing is completely absent in your speech: the desire to use technology for domination. I think your strongest point is this attitude because it is so rare.

    To me the central thesis is: “technology is the seventh kingdom of life.” The idea appeared to me ever since I read Daniel Dennett about Darwin. In my own field of engineering I found a lot of things that didn’t fit somehow. Then, when Dennett explained the difference of evolution (in nature) and intelligent design (in technology, not in nature) I had to think all the time: what you say about evolution applies for engineering as well. This notion, I think, improved my work but made me feel lonely at the same time because anyone around me still has such an “old-fashioned” approach of technology. So now you have your story and I am very glad someone else is having the same thought and actually taking the effort of telling the world.

    When we talk about evolution there is always this big question about the origin of life, was it intended? was there a big plan? or was it just “coincidence” as Dennett says? I tend to agree with Dennett and see life – and for that matter extropy – only present under very specific circumstances like on earth. You say extropy is in the whole universe…
    But in the end it doesn’t really matter, whether you start your story with the Big Bang or with the beginning of life, the message is just as spectacular.

    What I can say is that for the profession of engineering this will make a huge lot of difference. Current engineering is based upon physics and “one-truth” mathematics and has huge difficulty in dealing with complexity. Future engineering will be more about diversity, resilience, trial and error, evolution mechanisms, dealing with complexity…

    I wish you well in preparing your next talks.

  • Ronald Snijder

    As I understand it, your message was: ‘Technology is a fact of life, so we’d better deal with it.’ Personally, I find this quite a useful way to look at this. Much more helpful than ‘Frankenstein fearmongering’.

  • Steven Hales

    Great talk, really enjoyed it. How about technology as a drive to reduce risk. If we are risk averse as a species then technology and its adoption is a logical extension of risk aversion. Rogers in “Diffusion of Innovations” uses a working definition of technology borrowed from Thompson and Eveland “technology is a design for instrumental action that reduces uncertainty in the cause-effect relationships involved in achieving a desired outcome.” He goes on to outline two aspects of technology as having a hardware and software component. Software in this sense is simply the information base of the physical tool or hardware. This software is perhaps instructions to make it useful and it is this information that embodies the reduction of uncertainty in accomplishing a task. Adoption of the technology is also an information process or software aspect of it and this diffusion process not only reduces the risks inherent in adoption, like questions of its consequences, but also the risk reduction of using it directly to accomplish a task. I certainly would use “R” to solve a complex statistical problem though I could do it by hand with pencil and paper and perhaps a calculator but I would run the risk of making an error using “R” reduces my risk or uncertainty of my solution being wrong. I trust the “R” language to have the right algorithms embedded in it but so did users of SPSS until an error was discovered in its algorithms, long since corrected. There is a tendency to be favorably disposed to a technology or anything for that matter that already exists and is widely adopted. We depend on this information or software to form our opinions and make choices. And sometimes we are wrong to do this but this is the risk of technology itself.

    Taking the two definitions, risk aversion (certain death for example) as a motivating factor for technology adoption and reduction of risk or uncertainty in the accomplishment of a task we might have a macro and micro definition of technology. The macro aspect of technology is that it has consequences that are seen over longer timescales like the availability of fresh milk in New York City in the 19th century was dependent on rail transport but it reduced infant and child mortality that wasn’t immediately observable, it just happened. The micro aspect of this is just that there was a current demand for fresh milk and people liked it.

  • Kent Schnake

    There was a great deal that I really enjoyed about the speech. However, here I will stick to constructive criticism.

    1. You slide says “Technology is anything useful invented by a mind”. However, while speaking you said “anything useful invented by a human mind” . What you said was more consistent with your train of thought up to that point (humans with stone axes changing the world, etc.). However, I see no reason to limit invention to the human mind. I believe that God “has a mind”.

    2. You say that we humans “invented ourselves”, which I suppose is an extension of the idea that the universe invented itself by self organizing.
    This seems to be a first principle for non-Deists as follows:

    In the beginning there was nothing (not even a place or time full of nothing). Then there was a singularity and that singularity organized itself into space and time and on into galaxies, planets, bacteria, and people, all of which comprise a massive amount of information.

    I know you that you believe in God. If God is the agent introducing the singularity and a lot of the information, no problem. I see that as profoundly different from implying that a singularity “happened” and went on to self organize.

    If you want to avoid a theological debate, you can define technology as “anything useful created by a HUMAN mind” and leave the origins of humans for another discussion.

  • Rob

    Kevin, this is terrifically provocative. I commend Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” to you …

    “Technology is not equivalent to the essence of technology. When we are seeking the essence of “tree,” we have to become aware that what pervades every tree, as tree, is not itself a tree that can be encountered among all the other trees.

    Likewise, the essence of technology is by no means anything technological. Thus we shall never experience our relationship to the essence of technology so long as we merely represent and pursue the technological, put up with it, or evade it. Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this Conception of it, to which today we particularly like to pay homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.”

  • Martin Owen

    “Technology is nothing more or less than a natural phase of the creative process which engaged man from the moment he forged his first tool and began to transform the world for its humanization” Paolo Friere, Cultural Action for Freedom

    I found this quote – as a young “68 generation” engineer – very inspiring

  • Andreas

    @Kent Schnake

    Only in the mind (human mind, that is) of a religious person would such a minor semantic detail spark a theological debate.

    Also, bringing up the concept of “god” in lack of better scientific understanding of our origins does not contribute to this discussion. It is an off-topic argument that will only lead to a dead end. I recommend Richard Dawkins for more on this subject.

  • Connie Barlow

    Awesome! Everything! Hi Kevin. I finally got around to looking at your “Ordained Becoming 1 and 2″, which uses a convergence list of mine. Especially loved how you boiled it down to: “Evolution is driven toward certain recurring and inevitable forms by two forces of convergence: 1) The negative constraints cast by the laws of geometry and physics, which limit the scope of life’s possibilities. And, 2) The positive constraints produced by the complexity of interlinked genes and metabolic pathways, which generates a few repeating new possibilities.”

    Then I decided to browse up The Technium to see if your book is out yet and landed on this Amsterdam TEDish talk. Everything, everything drops my jaw, resulting eventually in a Thomas Huxleyish “How stupid of me not to have thought of that.” Can’t wait for your book to come out.

    I’m using 2 new technologies now in my evolutionary evangelism: a podcast with husband Michael Dowd called “America’s Evolutionary Evangelists” and a bunch of YouTube video mashes and uploads under my YouTube name “ghostsofevolution”. With podcasts and YouTube videos, well, I can’t imagine ever writing another book. Would love to get your new book ultimately in full video format, with your voice and illustrations, just like a TED talk. In the meantime, get it into immediately when it comes out, as I can’t wait to listen.